The godfather of Italian wine

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As the church bell struck 10pm in the Sicilian village near Catania, the last few customers in the restaurant spilled out on to the street.

As the church bell struck 10pm in the Sicilian village near Catania, the last few customers in the restaurant spilled out on to the street. But we had arrived late and still had noses to glass when in came two Armani-suited young men on mobile phones. They were deferring all the while to an older figure who sat at the end of the table, flanked by two immaculate women. Our guide, the head of the local wine consorzio, turned a whiter shade of pale. When later asked who the animated group were, he muttered: "They're something in the life assurance business." You learn to expect the unexpected in Sicily.

Despite having enough history to fill an amphitheatre full of amphorae, Sicilian wine had not until recently lived up to its heritage and expectations. With a vineyard area as vast as that of all Australia, most of its wine is anonymous, yet the best can be excellent. In recognition of the value of Sicilian wine to the nation, it's an open secret that vast quantities miraculously find their way into bottles on mainland Italy. But the average grower owns less than a hectare and Sicily's DOC, its quality wine with a guarantee of origin, amounts to only 3 per cent of the island's wine. The coinage of Marsala, Sicily's one proud claim to a noble wine heritage, has been so devalued that its image is of a cooking wine.

It's not for want of natural resources that Sicily has lagged behind, but rather bad old-fashioned mezzogiorno-style inertia. The biggest island in the Mediterranean is, after all, blessed with a cornucopia of grape varieties, a dry climate and extensive locations for grape growing. What's changing is attitude and belief. After centuries in the doldrums of plonko rosso, Sicily is becoming one of Italy's more progressive wine regions, borrowing techniques long used by the warm-climate wine countries of the New World: lower yields, machine harvesting, picking by night, cooling the fruit before fermentation and blending local and international grapes.

In the nero d'avola grape, Sicily's most widely planted black grape, it has the hidden resource of a grape variety with potential to be as valuable to the island as shiraz is to Australia. As in the Villa Tonino's 2003 Baglia Curatolo Nero d'Avola, a vibrant, dark cherry and blackberry fruit red, around £6.99, The Flying Corkscrew (01442 412311), Noel Young Wines (01223 844744), Villeneuve Wines (01721 722500); the compact, spicy, dark cherryish 2002 Birgi Nero d'Avola, around £6.99, Define Food and Wine, Sandiway (01606 882101), Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh (0131-556 6066); or the modern, concentrated, liquorice-infused 2002 Cusumano Noa Nero d'Avola, £14.99, Oddbins.

Nero d'avola also works well as a blending variety, as can be seen from the opulently plummy and richly fruited 2003 Cusumano Benuara Nero d'Avola Syrah, £8.49, Oddbins, and the more traditional style of the well-crafted, spicily seasoned, damson-rich 2001 Tasca d'Almerita Rosso del Conte, around £18.99, Wimbledon Wine Cellar (020-8540 9979), Just In Wines (020-79246924), Berkmann Wine Cellars (020-7609 4711). With a string of dynamic producers, including Planeta, Morgante, Spadafora and Firriato, Sicily is finally carving a modern brand image for its wines. The challenge is to maintain this modernising momentum if it is to take its place as one of the few Italian regions capable of producing a mix of the affordable and high quality.

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