When you open the book after admiring the beautiful hard cover, you realize it would be a tedious task to go through the book with a serious look. In the absence of pictures and maps (there are a few minor exceptions) it seems to be ideal to keep away for a vacation or long travel. But if you don’t make that mistake and start digging into it, it becomes like an adventure with so much information about the history, culture and winemaking that it is difficult to put it down till the end.
Bill Nesto’s wife, Fran Di Savino looks at the cultural and historical side of Sicily and its wines whereas Bill Nesto uses his immense domain knowledge being a Master of Wine, in handling the subject from the eighteenth century to the present. Both the authors have a pure South Italian ancestry that comes through in their writing. Fran digs into historical details that may not be known even to many Sicilians, starting from the early settlements of the Phoenicians on the west coast and Greeks on the east coast from 8th century BC.
Bill takes us through an enological journey using his expertise as an MW. It is interesting to read that when France was hit with phylloxera in 1866, French merchants increasingly came to Sicily looking for inexpensive wines of deeper colour to be mixed with lighter French wines. The vineyards' surface went on increasing to a record of 322,000 hA in 1880 when Sicilian wines were winning several awards and it was known as a quality wine region of Italy. The authors rely heavily on the British Consul William Stigand’s account of 1889 for several of their observations.
A very detailed account of the rise of the co-operative movement in Sicily, their exploiting the government and European Union and their subsequent decline due to inherent weaknesses is an eye-opener account for an outsider. The Settesoli exception also highlights that quality conscious wineries could also have a place in modern Sicily.
The role of Giacomo Tachis, the creator of icons like Sassicaia and Tignanello, in developing a red wine like Nero d’Avola as a consultant to IRVOS and the push to modernization from Diego Planeta who Nesto describes as a Sicilian Meteor, have been lucidly described as the defining moments for the quantum jump in the quality of Sicilian wine producers to a quality producing region. Roles of several other external consultants as well as the internal ones have been mentioned at appropriate places.
Besides history, the geography of the land is as important. 15% of Sicilian land is flat, 60% hilly and 25% mountainous with an average height at 500 m above sea level, but there is 30% viticulture in plains and only 5% in the mountains. ‘The Geography of Sicily’ covers the geographical details of the whole region in detail with a special emphasis on the active volcanic area of Etna, explaining the factors that go into the uniqueness of these wines.
The Chapter on Vine Varieties is the flesh of the book where one can not only learn about the various grapes grown throughout but also lists the recommended producers that make these wines. The Viticulture chapter talks about the practice in the land from the pre-phylloxera period with a detailed account of the canopy management and the evolution with emphasis on the modern period divided into 1950-1980 and then beyond.
Similarly, Chapter 8 takes you through the Enology and the role of various consultants; with a bit of repetition that refreshes memory and helps recapitulate some accounts in the previous chapters. As if to illustrate his points, he takes you on a journey through one of the important wineries, Feudo Montoni, as he vividly describes the visit in detail, making you feel the passion of a renowned producer.
For detailing wine production, the book divides Sicily into the three valleys-Val di Mazara (West & East), Val di Noto and Val Demone. Very lucidly, the author gives detailed descriptions of the climate, Terroir and several wineries by their geographic location. Marsala may seem to be given lot more attention than most readers, especially in India where there has been no market, might care for. But it does have historical significance and thus makes for interesting reading, nevertheless. Most readers would find Chapter 10-13 the meaty part of the book, most relevant to learn about important producers.
If there is one part of Sicily that may be described as extra-special, holding a unique and mesmerizing charm, it is Mount Etna, also known as Mongibello. Like many of their predecessors who visited Sicily, including the Benedictine Monk Giuseppe Recupero whom legend describes as having walked around Etna 12 times to discover and chronicle the mountain (p266), the authors are fascinated by it enough to give it the extra special treatment. The fertility of the land and the capacity to produce different fruits, the world of micro-climates from the base of Etna to the upper realms, offers such an interesting mix of Terroir that everyone is bound to be enthused, especially after reading the account in ‘The Garden Vineyard’.
Interesting details like Linguaglossa being a free town since 1634, owing allegiance only to the King of Spain, are only some of the hundreds of accounts about Etna and Sicily that keep you hooked and glued to the book. It is in passing reference that one also learns about the Sicilian language and how the various poets have expressed themselves in the past using the local language; now it is considered only a dialect. There seems to be a parallel with India where some of the Southern states have a rich history and culture that may be completely foreign to the North Indians, language being only one aspect about the diversity. Truly fascinating, that!
The book is very well-researched; The 5-page Bibliography, 8-page Notes detailing his sources and the minute details of the history of Sicily, grapes, winemaking, producers, IRVOS and other subjects some of which go outside Sicily to Italy and the European Union, are good testimonials. The only omission seems to be the Mafia, an integral part of Sicily after it was annexed by Italy in 1860. After watching the ‘Godfather’ Trilogy, one would be curious about their role and control in wine making. Moreover, in the nineteen nineties, several tracts of land from Mafiosi were confiscated by the government and leased out for making wine which has already earned good reviews. Authors merely wonder how much the grip of Mafia might have stifled the development of free commerce.
Sicily is a fascinating island in the Mediterranean with all its beauty and diversity captured by Fran and Bill in all its kaleidoscopic colours and in minutest details, using fables, stories and legends to illustrate. If I were stuck on a tiny deserted island waiting to be rescued, I hope there would be fruit trees as described in the chapter ‘The Garden Vineyard’ and I would have the book ‘The World of Sicilian Wine’ in one hand. Of course, I would keep a map of Sicily and another book depicting the pictorial side of Sicily in the other hand. It’s a great resource book not only for reference but frequent reading.
Published by the University of California Press it is available on their website for $34.95 both in the hard cover and Kindle edition. It is available
also at Amazon.com for $28.65; the Kindle edition is even cheaper at $23.17. Indian readers may order directly from Junglee.com at Rs.1648. Surprisingly Flipkart sells it at the undiscounted price of Rs. 2163. To get glimpses of the book, Google HERE
The book is highly recommendable as a reference book for libraries. Novices as well as wine experts and serious students of Sicilian wine culture and history will cherish the book for a long time. It is indispensable even for the young Sicilians who may not be fully aware of their own culture and wine history. The only caution is against its falling into the hands of a novice who has not been to Sicily but wants to know more and who may erroneously be tempted to keep it aside to read another day - that may never come.
Tags: The World of Sicilian Wines, Sicilian Wines, Fran Di Savino, Bill Nesto, Mongibello, IRVOS