Sicily: Ancient history

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

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In startling contrast to the present day, Sicily was famed throughout classical antiquity for its agricultural produce, not least its wines. The settlement of colonies of Greeks around the island in the 8th century bc was an undoubted spur to the development of viticulture. Flourishing vineyards are testified for the 5th century at the later Greek settlement Akragas (Agrigento). Sicily may have played a key role in the development of viticulture on the Italian peninsula (see italy, ancient history). Vines from Morgantina and Tauromenium were transplanted to pompeii around Vesuvius, the Colli albani, and southern Etruria, where they were well established by the 2nd century bc (Pliny, Natural History 14. 25, 35, and 38). The most notable characteristic of Sicilian wines was their sweetness. The most famous were Mamertine, a sweet, light wine from the north east of the island around Messina, and a very similar wine from Tauromenium (Taormina); but there is evidence for wine production right down the east coast. Much of the rest of the island had its own wines. Inland there was the Murgentina vine from Morgantina (Serra Orlando). Inscriptions on amphorae testify to a so-called ‘Mesopotamian’ wine from the south coast near Gela. Sicilian wines were certainly exported (references to Tauromenian, for example, appear on amphorae), but the scale of the trade is difficult to judge, since the identification of Sicilian amphora types remains a tantalizing problem.