Wine touring in Sicily’s deep south

by Lee.Marshall

Around the towns of Ragusa and Modica, there are boutique wineries to rival Sicily’s familiar labels. Add stylish hotels and gourmet restaurants, and Italy’s new Wine Country is ripe for a road trip

Sicilian wine is big news. Once considered good merely for boosting the alcohol content of paler but more refined northern wines, the island’s robust reds and peppy whites have come on apace in the past 15 years or so.

Large wineries of long standing, such as Donnafugata or Duca di Salaparuta, still dominate but new players such as Cusumano and Planeta are now equally active. Ten years ago, only the most diligent Italian wine buffs had heard of Nero d’Avola or Inzolia; today, they are among the most fashionable single varietals to order in Roman or Milanese restaurants.

But in Sicily, as in the rest of Italy, you inevitably miss out on some of the most rewarding wines if you are not there on the ground. The small producers who make them lack the resources to export on a large scale, but they are cult names to aficionados. Some cluster around the skirts of Etna, perhaps the hottest territory (in more ways than one) for Sicilian wine right now.

The problem is, Etna doesn’t yet have a critical mass of fine restaurants and hotels to back up a winery tour – but another, less well-known Sicilian wine region does. A couple of historic towns in the deep south of the island – Ragusa and Modica – make an excellent base for a road trip combining wine tastings and cellar visits with cultural tourism and some very fine restaurants.

One day, Ragusa will be recognised as the Siena of Sicily – so come now, before too many people find out. Like all the towns in this southern quadrant, it was devastated by the 1693 earthquake and rebuilt on a new site in the prevailing Baroque style by the island’s Spanish overlords. The difference here was that Ibla, the old town – which clings to a spur of rock between two gorges – was not abandoned but slowly repaired and restored, so that the city now consists of a grid-plan high town, and a lower town of winding lanes and sandstone palazzi – and the two are connected by a long flight of steps.

Down in Ibla, satisfy both the wine buffs and the gelato fiends by stopping off at Gelati Divini (closed Mon), part gourmet ice cream parlour, part bottle shop: it’s not a wine bar in the classic sense, but you can sit down and drink if you buy a whole bottle. The mix even carries through into the gelato, which features three wine flavours – including a knockout Passito di Pantelleria. One local producer stocked here is Occhipinti, a small but dynamic winery from Vittoria, west of Ragusa, committed to organic, pesticide-free cultivation. For a tasting in the estate’s 18th-century cellar, telephone Arianna Occhipinti (details below). She makes just two wines, both red and both excellent.

Ragusa has become an obligatory stop on the gourmet tour of Sicily, largely thanks to Ciccio Sultano and his remarkable Duomo restaurant in Ibla. Think Heston Blumenthal in Sicily; think elaborate but finely controlled dishes such as spaghetti with sea urchins, oysters and cream of asparagus; think a vast, 1,200-label wine list (€95 a head without wine; closed Sun eve, Mon).

In the shadow of this culinary rockface, but still a very fine restaurant, is Locanda Don Serafino (€65 a head without wine, closed Tues) – occupying the cellar-like stables of an aristocratic palazzo. Young chef Vincenzo Candiano does wonders with recherché local ingredients (Bronte pistacchios, cardoncelli wild mushrooms) and the wine list is only one small notch below the Duomo’s. The Locanda also comprises a charmant 10-room hotel, two minutes’ walk from the restaurant. There is hardly room to swing a bunch of grapes in the bedrooms (doubles from €120), with their bare stone walls and low ceilings, but warmth and laidback appeal make up for the lack of space.

A spectacular gorge-side drive leads, in less than half an hour, to Modica – another of southern Sicily’s great Baroque towns, which spills down into a steep-sided valley from its hilltop centre. Here Palazzo Failla offers another alluring sleep-and-eat combo. The hotel is based in an ancient nobleman’s residence, and with its antique furniture, painted ceilings and framed sepia photographs it still feels that way, though mod cons such as wi-fi and satellite TV remind us we are in the 21st century. Doubles from €110.

Though only three doors down and under the same ownership, La Gazza Ladra (€55 a head without wine; closed Sun) is not your average hotel restaurant. Modica’s top culinary address offers cutting-edge nuovo-Siciliano dishes such as citrus-scented duck with fennel purée and celeriac. The wine list is strong on small local producers such as Marabino – whose Pompeii-red winery in nearby Ispica (famous for its Cava d’Ispica gorge, pocked with rock-hewn Byzantine chapels) can be visited by appointment (details below). Wines to look out for are Eloro Archimede, a 100 per cent Nero d’Avola barrique-aged for six months, and Moscato della Torre, a delicious passito dessert wine made from Moscato di Noto grapes – a variety that Marabino and a handful of other producers (such as Planeta) have saved from near extinction.

Two other hotels worth making a note of are Casa Talìa in Modica and Hotel Novecento in Scicli, six miles south of Modica. Designed by its Milanese architect owners, rustic-bohemian Casa Talìa (doubles from €130) sits just across the gorge from downtown Modica; its terrace gardens and breakfast-room-in-a-cave make this an atmospheric and unique stopover. Hotel Novecento (doubles from €120), opened in 2008, is a lovely old townhouse mixing original details – such as elaborately frescoed ceilings – with elegant contemporary décor. It is also friendly and good value. Not only the wi-fi, but even voice calls made to Italian landlines, are free of charge.


Occhpinti (+39 339 738 3580,, via dei Mille 55, Vittoria.
Marabino (+39 0932 955 696,, contrada Bimmisca Algiastro, Ispica.


Gelati Divini (+39 0932 228 989,, piazza del Duomo 20, Ragusa Ibla.
Duomo (+39 0932 651 265,, via Capitano Bocchieri 31, Ragusa Ibla.
Locanda Don Serafino (+39 0932 220 065,, via XI Febbraio 15, Ragusa Ibla.
La Gazza Ladra (+39 0932 755 655,, via Blandini 11, Modica.




I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (, due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?