Wine: Sicilian connection

In the heart of Sicily, the island landscape is filled with contrasts: bright colours, dark shadows, poor soils, rich earth, tiny villages set against rolling hills and mountainous outcrops

Sicily's bright and dark sides are similarly reflected in its wines and the contrast between their age-old notoriety and new-found fame. Its shameful legacy is based on the vast quantities of plonk it has consistently churned out. But now, thanks to the efforts of a handful of pioneers, Sicily is gaining a reputation for its high-quality and value-for-money wines.

And why not? Italy's largest island is blessed with the natural advantages of a dry, sunny climate, cooling Mediterranean breezes and vineyards well-suited to wine grapes. It took action-men such as Diego Planeta and Count Giuseppe Tasca d'Almerita to overcome a legacy of inertia to match first native, then international, grape varieties to the true potential of the land. Regaleali's innovative Giuseppe Tasca created Rosso del Conte with the native grape nero d'avola. Diego Planeta's vision helped turn the giant co-operative Settesoli into a thriving modern business. He also introduced premium French varieties "to show the world we could compete on the international stage and to stop local people saying 'my grillo [the Marsala grape] is the best in the world'".

Twenty thousand people in three western-Sicilian towns are involved in Settesoli. Sicily's largest company, with 6,000 hectares under vine, this massive co-op covers 5 per cent of the island's vineyards, an area that matches that of Chile's wine-producing regions.

The upshot is that this go-ahead co-operative today produces an astonishing array of drinkable reds and whites, not least the refreshing dry white, Tesco's Finest 2006 Fiano, £4,99, a plum and blackberryish 2005 Tesco's Finest Nero d'Avola, £5.99, and the bright, cherryish 2006 Casa Mia Sangiovese, £4.99, Sainsbury's.

From just two names after the war – Regaleali and Corvo – Sicily now numbers 400 producers, among them Diego Planeta's own estate planted as part of the same process of modernisation. Planeta today produces an excellent-value 2006 La Segreta Bianco, around £7.99, Philglas & Swiggot (020-7924 4494), Swig (020-8995 7060), Roberson (020-7371 2121) – a peachy, dry white blend based on grecanico, and a refreshing, strawberryish blend of nero d'avola and frappato, the 2006 Cerasuolo di Vittoria, DOCG, around £11.99, Carluccio's, Noel Young Wines (01223 844744), selected Waitrose stores. Count Tasca's Regaleali, too, makes a fine range of wines, among them the juicy, mineral dry 2005 Nozze d'Oro, around £12.29, Hailsham Cellars (01323 441212), Whole Foods Market, Kensington.

Blends of merlot and cabernet sauvignon have brought extra character and depth to Sicily's native nero d'avola, which is by far Sicily's most widely planted red grape variety. With its slight Italianate, bitter twist of freshness, the quality of the cassis and black cherry-rich 2004 Abbazia Santa Anastasia Montenero, £15.95, Lea & Sandeman, testifies to a superior Sicilian new-wave blend, as does Regaleali's minty, stylish 2004 Cygnus, around £12.29, Flagship Wines (01727 841968), Whole Foods Market. The latter's flagship 2004 Rosso del Conte, around £21.99, Harrods, Hailsham Cellars (01323 441212), Whole Foods Market, is the standard bearer for nero d'avola, showing how a small addition of the Bordeaux grapes can bring extra depth and finesse.

If Sicily has a struggle on its hands to convince a sceptical outside world that it can transcend its infamous past, it's wines like these that will do the trick.