I was intrigued when we were asked if we’d like to sample wines from a Sicilian cooperative winery. The history of Sicily’s wine industry — and the role of cooperatives within it — is a roller-coaster tale and such sagas in wine do not always have happy endings. I was thirsty to learn more about the situation today.
I learned about the history of Sicily’s wine sector from The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savio (see the Wine Economist review here). Wine in Sicily has been buffeted by a combination of shifts in the external markets and changing domestic incentives. It is no wonder that cooperatives arose to help growers navigate the ups and downs and gain a measure of control over their own destinies. Cooperatives spring up in times of crisis, but it is their ability to adapt when conditions change that is most important.
Sometimes the economic incentives the cooperatives and other wine actors faced favored quality, but all too often quantity was the dominant strategy. This was particularly true during the years when EU wine policy unintentionally encouraged over-production of low-quality wines with no obvious market potential. These unsalable wines, the source of the famous EU “wine lake,” were bought up and distilled into industrial alcohol, a process that was not sustainable in economic, political, or environmental terms.
The wine lake days are gone — EU incentives now favor market-driven wine production — and the wines have changed faster than their reputations in many cases. Not all wineries have raised their game, however, and that inconsistency is a headwind.
The wines we sampled were from the Cantine Ermes cooperative, which was founded in 1998 in the Belice Valley in northwest Sicily. The cooperative is very large with 2373 members farming more than 12,000 hectares and operating 11 winemaking facilities. In total Cantine Ermes produces 11.5 million bottles annually, which are sold in 29 countries around the world. Does this surprise you? Cooperatives are important in Italian wine, more important than most people realize.
Beyond Low-Hanging Fruit
One criticism I have heard of many Italian cooperatives is that they cut their own throats by focusing too much on bulk wine and private label products — they take this low-hanging fruit and fail to build the brands that might yield higher margins that would improve their economic sustainability.
Some of the deep dark red wine made in Sicily, for example, is sold off to be blended with lighter Italian reds to give the result more body, color, and alcohol — a practice that has been going on for a long time. Cantine Ermes gives attention to several brands, however, including the Vento di Mare wines that we sampled.
Vento di Mare means sea winds and so it was inevitable that we would ask our friends R and M to sample the wines with us. Their visit to Sicily was punctuated by gale force sea winds that nearly blew them off the island and caused sea foam to pile up on the shoreline like drifts of snow.
The three wines we tasted were screwcap-topped bottles of Grillo DOC, Nerello Mascalese IGT, and Moscato Frizzante that retail for about $12 here in the US — right about the center of the retail wine wall in today’s market. The Grillo had nice varietal flavor and good balance. It seemed very versatile and would pair with many dishes as well as on its own. It was probably our favorite wine.
The red Nerello Mascalese was more intense and called out for a bold food pairing. Nerello Mascalese is the most-planted red winegrape in Sicilty according to my sources, and it was easy to see how it could be the foundation of a number of interesting blends as well as a single-variety wine.
The Moscato was fizzy and slightly sweet. Just 10.5% abv, the wine has a secondary fermentation for two months in an autoclave and then ages another two months on its lees. Aromatic (think orange blossoms) and nicely balanced. Like the Grillo it would work in a number of situations. Very pleasant indeed.
Sicilian Wine Ambassadors
We were impressed with the Vento di Mare wines and a bit surprised at the affordable entry-level price point. Other Cantine Ermes brands probe the higher reaches of the wine wall. I hope the attractive packaging and price point encourage consumers to give these wines a try (and that some restaurants see the potential for wine-by-the-glass sales). These wines are good ambassadors for Sicily and its cooperative wineries.
Since we aren’t able to travel to explore the wine world these days as we did in pre-pandemic times, we find it useful to focus on invitations like the one we received from Cantina Ermes. Clearly we have just scratched the surface of the wines of Sicily and the progress of Sicilian cooperatives, but we are encouraged, nonetheless. These are good wines that chart a path out of Sicily’s quantity-driven past towards a more sustainable future.