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, www.agricolaocchipinti.it), via dei Mille 55, Vittoria.
Marabino (+39 0932 955 696, www.marabino.it), contrada Bimmisca Algiastro, Ispica.
Gelati Divini (+39 0932 228 989, www.gelatidivini.it), piazza del Duomo 20, Ragusa Ibla.
Duomo (+39 0932 651 265, www.ristoranteduomo.it), via Capitano Bocchieri 31, Ragusa Ibla.
Locanda Don Serafino (+39 0932 220 065, www.locandadonserafino.it), via XI Febbraio 15, Ragusa Ibla.
La Gazza Ladra (+39 0932 755 655, www.ristorantelagazzaladra.it), via Blandini 11, Modica.