PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2008, 12:00am

For some, Sicily invokes images of James Gandolfini-like figures conducting mafiosi affairs worthy of a Soprano's episode. If Sicily has developed a reputation for survivalist business techniques, it's no wonder. Living on one of the Mediterranean's largest islands - and certainly one of its most central - the Sicilians have contended with marauding invaders for centuries. Situated off the tip of Italy's boot, like a just-kicked football, Sicily's southern shoreline extends south of Tunisia's northern tip. The Byzantines, Arabs, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Catalans have all had their way in the strategically positioned island.

Sicily is Italy's largest wine region, comprising 25,900 sq km, which exceeds Tuscany by a whopping 2,590 sq km. Throughout the European Union, irrigation is much reviled - viewed as the domain of upstart new world producers - but in Sicily irrigation is de rigueur.

Sicilian days can be exceedingly hot, especially on the western side, where unfaltering hot winds from North Africa evaporate the earth's moisture like a hair-dryer would. Surprisingly, the inland landscape, an extension of Italy's Appenines range, can be green, hilly and moist, with the northeast mountains snowcapped for many months of the year.

With such diversity of climate, a wide range of indigenous grape varieties thrives on the island but most are destined for the lower shelves in EU supermarkets. Bog-standard wines are not economical to ship to Asia, so the few Sicilian choices in Hong Kong are generally high quality.

Nero d'Avola is the Sicilian red grape currently captivating the wine trade. This dense, mulberry-scented variety is also known as the Calabrese, which is not surprising given its proximity to Italy's southern Calabrian region. Expect full-flavoured wines with a robust structure that is distinctly Italian in character - not what the vehemently independent Sicilians would be pleased to hear.

Though Sicily's red wines receive the lion's share of attention, the island also has significant plantings of white varieties, the finest of which are Grecanico and Inzolia. It is tempting to assume Grecanico is a migrant variety from nearby Greece but recent DNA evidence suggests otherwise.

While most of Italy's finest wines sport a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita classification and an official pink collar around their bottle necks, don't expect the Sicilians to conform. Even the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) ranking was slow to be accepted in Sicily, though the number of DOC wines has increased from nine to more than 17 during the past decade.

Sicily's most exciting wines are simply classed as Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) or even at the lower, Vino da Tavola (table wine) level. The bulk of the DOC designation in Sicily is reserved for its dessert speciality, Marsala, a wine style that is all but extinct these days.

Sicily's finest vineyards are primarily in the western Trapani, Palermo and Agrigento provinces. Not surprisingly, some of the island's best wine is from places in mountainous central Sicily, such as Contea di Sclafani, which is home to the Regaleali winery - owned by the prestigious Tasca d'Almerita family and for many years the only credible modern producer in Sicily. The late Count Giuseppe Tasca d'Almerita set out to prove that Sicily was worthy of the world stage when it comes to producing top-class wines. And he did.

Sicily's ultra-modern Duca di Salaparuta - one of Italy's largest wineries and more readily known under the brand name Corvo - produces what is possibly Sicily's finest red wine, the powerful, concentrated Duca Enrico (Valdivia, tel: 2555 7431). Also keep an eye open for Abbazia Santa Anastasia, Planeta and Cusumano, to name a few.