Erik Neilson on January 17, 2017 0 Comments Considering the vast array of different grapes that make up the wine world, there are some which have stood the test of time for centuries and have never been at risk of falling out of popularity. Merlot comes to mind, as does Pinot Noir and other, similar noble grapes. On the other side of the spectrum, there are grapes that have fallen out of prominence, sometimes reaching the point of nearing extinction. The Sicilian white grape Grillo finds itself squarely in the latter category, and fortunately, it has been making a comeback over the course of the past decade or so. Grillo is a white wine grape that is thought to be native to Sicily, though there are various theories pointing to the grape having been brought to the island from Puglia. It’s generally thought that the Grillo grape is the offspring of Muscat of Alexandria and Catarratto — a Sicilian grape that has largely become used as the primary driving force in Marsala wine. Interestingly enough, Marsala is where Grillo got its start, and also where it nearly met its end. Grillo and Marsala Wine In the 17th and 18th centuries, fortified wines grew to what would today be considered the height of their popularity. There are plenty of people who still collect and enjoy a fine Port or Sherry, but these high-alcohol dessert wines are no longer sought-after in the ways they once were. Once an Englishman with Sherry-making experience brought the technique and methodology with him to Sicily, Marsala wine was born, and the Grillo grape played a major part in its production. Marsala enjoyed a great deal of popularity during the age of fortified wines. More recently, on the other hand, it has fallen out of the spotlight — even more so than Port, Sherry and other fortified styles. Because the Grillo grape doesn’t have a particularly high yield, it has been largely phased out as part of the Marsala blend, replaced with its parent grape, Catarratto. The Marsala wine of today tends to be very low in quality and is typically utilized only for cooking. There are still some Sicilian producers who are releasing small-batch Marsala, though it’s becoming more and more difficult to find. A Resurgence Because Grillo was mostly taken out of Marsala blends and wasn’t typically bottled as a single varietal, plantings fell dramatically during the 1990s. At one point, it was uncertain as to whether or not Grillo would survive as a grape, though the new wave of Sicilian winemakers put a stop to this concern around 2004. No longer is Grillo looked at as only being a blending grape, and producers have been doing everything possible to change the public perception of what is actually a very hearty, versatile grape. Many grapes that are brought to Sicily don’t fare particularly well in the hot, arid climate. White grapes in particular can end up getting “cooked” by the sun, thus taking on jammy characteristics that are generally considered to be less than ideal for vinification. Grillo stands as unique in that it does extremely well in the heat of the Sicilian sun, and when left to overripen on the vine, it’s capable of producing absurd amounts of sugar. This is one of the major reasons why the grape has often been used to produce sweet wines of up to 18% alcohol by volume. When treated differently, Grillo is just as capable as grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc of producing dry, refreshing, thirst-quenching wine. Grillo table wine tends to be medium in body, with a medium-high acidity. It showcases flavors of peach and wildflowers, as well as mild notes of melon and honey. Oak aging can bring out “creamy” characteristics that are not too dissimilar to what one might find in a well-aged Chardonnay. In some cases, Grillo can also show flavors similar to Sauvignon Blanc, such as guava, pear and grapefruit. When grown close to the shore, the Mediterranean sea spray that makes contact with the grape can add a noticeable degree of salinity to the wine. Bottles to Try There has never been a better time in modern history to enjoy the Grillo grape, thanks in large part to the work put in by Sicilian producers not content to allow Grillo to disappear from the island’s landscape. Fortunately, Grillo tends to be a relatively inexpensive wine, and in the vast majority of cases, it’s meant to be consumed fresh. Looking for a good starting point? Try one of the following bottles, all of which represent excellent value. Donnafugata Sur Sur Grillo is considered by many to be a relatively savory white wine grape, and you’ll have a hard time finding a better example of why than with a bottle of Donnafugata Sur Sur. This vibrant wine showcases beautiful characteristics of peach, citrus and fresh cut flowers. Flavors of pineapple pervade the wine, balanced with a nice salinity that carries through the finish. At around $20, it’s an excellent value that should not be overlooked. Stemmari Grillo Stemmari has done a great deal of good in terms of bringing Sicilian wine into the spotlight. While Stemmari Grillo may not be the pinnacle of what the grape is capable of, it is representative of Grillo and can typically be purchased for under $10. Fresh, relatively green and framed by a sturdy minerality, this is a citrus-driven wine that would be perfect for pairing with shellfish of any kind. This is an excellent wine for entertaining, and bottles shouldn’t be particularly difficult to find. Tasca d’Almerita Cavallo delle Fate For just about $20, Tasca d’Almerita Cavallo delle Fate represents another great value in Grillo. Lemon zest and pear give way to herbaceousness and notes of nectarine. As with many other Grillos, the saline notes provide a beautiful finish. So don’t just assume that Grillo is a blending grape and nothing more. Once you experience just how well it can pair with light food and serve as a quaffable beverage on a hot summer day, you may decide you’ve got a new favorite table wine.