A guide to one of Italy’s most overlooked wine regions

September 26, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is one of Italy’s top tourist destinations. But while many visitors probably come here for the beach, food tours, and ancient ruins, they have been possibly overlooking one of the best wine regions in the country—until recently.

Formed less than a decade ago, the Consorzio di Tutela Vini DOC Sicilia—as recognized by Italy’s Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry Policies—is the consortium overseeing and upholding the standards of winemaking on the island. The Sicilia DOC designation includes lower maximum yields per hectare compared to former regulations. This way, the winegrowers’ aim is quality improvement of their wines in spite of production yields. The Consorzio’s task is also to convey the Sicilia DOC system as a producer of excellence of contemporary wines with a favorable quality to price ratio.

While overlooked compared to regions farther north such as Tuscany or Emilia-Romagna, for example, the Sicilia DOC is making strides to strengthen the identity of Sicilian wines, while improving quality, image, and market positions.

The coast of Cefalu on the Mediterranean Sea.
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Getting there

The simplest way is to fly, but picking an airline is about to become more complicated as Italy’s current national airline, Alitalia, is going out of business. Italia Trasporto Aereo (ITA), a new state-owned airline, recently announced that it plans to launch operations on October 15 and will serve as the successor to Alitalia. But there are dozens of other airlines that fly into Palermo’s airport, about a 30 minute drive from the center of town. Many of the budget airlines, like Ryanair and Easyjet, fly to Palermo regularly, but major international carriers such as Air France and Swiss Air only run seasonal routes.

Visitors can also take a car ferry (even if you don’t have a car) to and from Sicily for the mainland as well as Sardinia via GNV (Grandi Navi Veloci).

Also, before making your way out to the wineries, be sure to plan ahead: make reservations and call to reconfirm. Open hours very widely, and may not be the same as posted on websites, not to mention ever-changing situations regarding COVID.

Vineyards near the Temple of Hera at sunrise. Selinunte, Sicily, Italy.
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Where to stay

Grand Hotel et Des Palmes: This five-star hotel is centrally-located—you can walk to all of Palermo’s major shopping and dining districts within a few minutes. The Grand Hotel lives up to its name as it offers all the comforts and amenities you would want from a grand hotel, starting from the opulent lobby to the modern furnishings and fixtures in the guest rooms, including fast complimentary Wi-Fi, an HDTV with dozens of international channels, and perhaps most critically if you’re visiting Sicily in the summer, extra-strong air conditioning. There’s also a rooftop restaurant and bar, serving sublime versions of local specialties and where you want to be on warm nights.

Il Vigneto Resort: If you’re planning to spend a few days in Sicily’s wine country, you should opt to stay in a hotel within the region—otherwise you’re driving upwards of two hours from Palermo each day. Il Vigneto is popular with local Sicilians as well as Italian and international tourists given its prime location. The vibe is much more rustic, and the amenities are basic. There is also a pool and outdoor bar onsite, a continental breakfast each morning, free Wi-Fi, an HDTV with cable service in each room, and the beach is only a five minute drive from the hotel.

NH Hotels: Based in Madrid, NH Hotel Group operates over 350 hotels in more than 30 countries, and it’s ideal for business travelers looking for basic but comfortable accommodations for night or two. NH runs several hotels in Italy, including one in Palermo near the waterfront, not far from the city center as well as the ferry and bus terminals. All of the rooms have been renovated to modern standards with free Wi-Fi and HDTVs offering multiple English-language channels, and there is a pool in the center of the hotel as well as a bar and restaurant off the lobby.

An elevated view over Piazza Pretoria in Palermo, Italy.
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Where to go

Palermo City Center: When visiting Sicily, you should dedicated at least a couple days to exploring Palermo. The city center is extremely pedestrian, and there are several major streets blocked off entirely for foot traffic only. It would be a good idea to consult with your hotel concierge and sign up for a walking tour with a local guide.

Among the must-see destinations: the Capo Market (an outdoor farmers market with everything from local produce, seafood, and other Sicilian specialties); and the Palatine Chapel, the royal chapel of the Norman Palace (also the seat of Sicilian Parliament, the oldest Parliament in Europe). Reflecting Sicily’s diverse history, the building is a mixture of Byzantine, Norman, and Fatimid architectural styles. (Also note that you need to bring your CDC vaccination card or the European Union’s Green Pass as well as a medical-grade face mask—not a fabric one—upon entry.)

Also save some time for general meandering and sampling whatever your heart (or stomach) desires, from almond granita to cannoli.

Tourists visiting the ruins of the archaeological park of Selinunte. Castelvetrano, Sicily, Italy.
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Selinunte Archaeological Park: On the southwest coast of Sicily, this is the largest archaeological park in Europe, an area of 270 hectares (667 acres). Dating back to approximately 650-628 B.C., the ancient city of Selinunte eventually fell in the third century B.C. and was never rebuilt. The site hosts seven temples, each constructed in Doric order, the oldest Greek architectural style. Depending on how much time or interest you have, there are four different routes you can take through the park, ranging from roughly an hour to as long as four hours. Tickets are cheap at €6 ($7) for adults, but admission is free for Entrance is free for journalists as well as architecture students and faculty.

Cantine Florio: One the oldest wineries in Sicily (established in 1833), Cantine Florio is most famous for its Marsala wine. The winery also produces a number of other styles, including sweet sparkling wines, fortified wines, and Passito wines, a particularly Italian style made from raisins. This is a winery where you want to make the time for the barrel cellar tour, approximately 30 to 45 minutes. For some wine enthusiasts, sure, cellars tend to look alike after awhile. But the cellar at Cantine Florio is massive, encompassing chambers and running 165 meters (541 feet) long. And returning to modern times above ground, the second story open-air terrace (on top of a modern art gallery) is the perfect spot for a glass of wine at sunset.

Cantina Funaro: Among one of the newer wineries within the DOC, this family-owned producer specializes in organic wines, especially Grillo white wines and Nero d’Avola reds as well. Cantina Funaro also produces a spectacular Brut, made in the traditional method of Champagne. With the vines planted on the hillside upwards of 450 meters (1,476 feet), the winery also offers stunning views from its terrace and tasting room.

Di Giovanna Winery: While most of Sicily’s vineyards sit not far from the sea, Di Giovanna stands out as its vines are planted in the mountains at 850 meters (2,800 feet) above sea level—roughly at the same elevation as the vineyards on Sicily’s infamous volcano Mt. Etna. Photographers (professional and amateur) should definitely make the trek up here (it is a very long, windy road, but you’ll find the journey is worth it in the end). Try to plan a visit that would end close to sunset. And if you’re working on timing, perhaps wait until next spring when the winery opens its brand new tasting room, which will offer some of the most breathtaking landscapes in all of Sicily.

As for the wine itself, organic-certified from planting to bottling (all done on location from start to finish), Di Giovanna’s white varietals are produced from native Sicilian grapes like Grillo, Catarratto, and Zibibbo, as well as French varietals Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. Red varietals include Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Syrah, and Merlot. Many of Di Giovanna’s wines are distributed widely around the world; in the U.S., the winery’s American distributors ship to dozens of states, and several wines are sold at Eataly in New York City.

Tenute Orestiadi Vineyards: This is the perfect winery to satisfy groups with multiple interests, from local history to modern art and architecture (and of course, wine). Make time for multiple stops as not only should you visit the proper winery building (the barrel cellar is also the Barriques Museum, a permanent contemporary art museum, with dozens of barrels painted by in modern styles by local artists) but also the Fondazione Orestiadi, which is a few minutes away by car. Established in 1996, the foundation’s Museo delle Trame Mediterranee curates its collections of paintings, tapestries, jewels, and installations that are inspired by the cultural anthropology of the different cultures that have inhabited Sicily over thousands of years.

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