The ancient island of Sicily was covered in grapevines long before the Greeks got there. Many of the grapes considered to be native to the area were actually brought in by the Phoenicians. According to Greek legend, however, it was Dionysus who brought the vine to Sicily. While embarking on an arduous journey across the seas, the god of wine brought with him a vine and carefully looked after it along the way. When he finally got to Sicily he planted the first vineyard at Naxos.
The Greeks weren't the first to make wine in Sicily. In fact, archeologists have found evidence that the island's inhabitants were drinking wine as far back as the 17th century B.C. However, when the Greeks arrived in the eighth century B.C. they introduced viniculture techniques, pruning styles and a new take on varietal selection. The result was better quality and larger quantities of wine.
When the Romans took control of Sicily, they spread wine from the region around the empire. It didn't take long for the wines to gain recognition throughout the ancient world. One Sicilian wine in particular, Mamertino, garnered a following among nobles and is said to have been Julius Caesar's favorite [source: Di Wine Taste]. As was the case when Byzantines conquered the area, the church did a great deal to facilitate growth in wine production. Wine was essential for celebrating mass, and religious leaders became experts in viniculture.
From A.D. 872 to 1061, wine production in Sicily declined, but developments directly following that period rejuvenated the island's export business. This, in turn, helped stabilize the economy. The next important step in the history of Sicilian wine would come many years later. In 1773 an English merchant by the name of John Woodhouse would help bring Marsala to the world. Riding on the success of Marsala, Sicilians made huge developments in wine production, and wine soon became an important pillar of the island's economic structure. During the years to follow, some of Sicily's most famous wineries were founded.
In 1881, Phylloxera invaded Sicily and entire vineyards were destroyed. In the same decade, exports to France stopped after a commercial agreement with Sicily was broken. Wine production on the island didn't recover for more than half a century, and when it did, the market had changed completely, and Sicilian winemakers had to adapt. Fortunately, their ability to adjust, as well as a new attention to quality, helped wine producers in Sicily regain their place as some of the best in the world.