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Cool Is 'Hot' for Sicilian Wines
By Ed McCarthy
Aug 17, 2010
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The Mount Etna area in northeast Sicily, the island’s coolest wine region, has suddenly become one of Italy’s most acclaimed wine locations for both red and white wines.  Wine connoisseurs are becoming familiar with grape varieties that they never heard of a mere few years ago, such as the red Nerello Mascalese and the white Carricante.

I am delighted that the spotlight is suddenly shining on Mt. Etna, because I’m a cool-climate wine guy.  I love the crispness, leanness, and bracing acidity of Champagne, Chablis, dry Riesling, and northern Italian reds from Piedmont, such as Barbera, or whites from northeastern Italy’s Alto Adige.  I must confess to having had just a lukewarm tolerance for southern Italian wines up until recently, but wines from Mt. Etna and nearby Faro in Sicily are making me rethink my earlier opinions.

Admittedly, Sicily has made great strides in winemaking during the past twenty years.  Once primarily known as a source for bulk wines for the rest of Italy, Sicily has emerged as a key player for its table wines.  Its Nero d’Avola red wines, in particular, and its lighter-bodied Frappato reds are now appearing on the U.S. market.  I do enjoy these wines, but they don’t excite me the way that Mt. Etna and Faro wines do.

It is no secret that volcanic soil has an amazingly positive effect on wine grapes.  And Mt. Etna, at 11,000 feet, happens to be Europe’s highest active volcano.  Along with its volcanic soil, Mt. Etna’s slopes contain a high percentage of sand.  For this reason, many of its vineyards have never had to fight off the phylloxera louse that ravaged Europe’s vineyards 100+ years ago (the louse cannot travel through sand).  A number of Mt. Etna’s vines, some of the continent’s oldest, are still on their original rootstock.  Vines that are 80 to over 100 years old can be found on these slopes--some growing up to 2,300 feet in elevation.  High on Mt. Etna’s slopes, the climate is ideal for grape growing, with brilliant sunlight in daytime along with very cool temperatures at night during the growing season.

Vines have been growing in Mt. Etna ever since the Greeks arrived in the 6th century BC.  But fine winemaking has come late to the area.  Sicily has suffered more than most other regions in Italy through two World Wars, a lack of industry, and extreme poverty.  And growing vines on the extremely steep slopes of Mt. Etna is not only laborious but also dangerous.  For these reasons, winemaking practically disappeared in Mt. Etna during the last century, until a recent revival.  Even now on Mt. Etna, although the number of wineries has more than doubled during the last decade, future growth will always be limited, as only about 5,000 acres of viable vineyard land exist on the Etna slopes.

The nearby Faro region, on the northeast tip of Sicily, which suffered greatly from the phylloxera scourge (its vines practically disappeared in the last century) is also experiencing a minor revival, but the region is really miniscule, even compared to Mt. Etna.

The seminal moment for the Mt. Etna wine revival occurred in 1988.  Dr. Giuseppe Benanti, who owns a pharmaceutical company with its headquarters in nearby Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city, had inherited from his father a farm and some vineyards in the Mt.Etna region, where he grew up.  On a visit to the region, Benanti, by then a world traveler, was upset by the mediocre wines being served in a local restaurant.  He believed that the Mt. Etna region was capable of producing much better wines, and hired the most renowned enologist in the region, Salvo Foti, to make wines under the Benanti label.  Foti convinced Benanti to focus on local varieties and to train the vines in the traditional albarello manner—as bush vines requiring no irrigation. 

The turnaround in the quality of Mt. Etna’s wines has been amazing since that time.  I first visited the Mt. Etna region in the late 1990s, and I had a eureka moment.  “Why haven’t I known about these wines?” was my initial reaction, until Dr. Benanti told me his story at a restaurant he owns in Catania.

A number of fine wineries now exist in the Mt. Etna region, and more are coming, as just about every major Sicilian winery has been buying up vineyards and land in the area.  Local wine varieties are indeed the stars of Mt. Etna, and two shine the brightest--Nerello Mascalese (and its close cousin, Nerello Cappuccio) for its red wines and rosés, and Carricante for Mt. Etna’s white wines.

Both Nerello varieties are thought to have originated in Catania province, near Mt. Etna, although it is possible that, like many other southern Italian varieties, they might have come from Greece.  Nerello is a late-ripening variety (like Nebbiolo), often not harvested until mid-October or even early November.  It is also thin-skinned, like Pinot Noir.  In fact, Nerello has been compared to both Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir.  Like Nebbiolo, it’s very aromatic, and has lots of acidity--but it is not so tannic.  Also, wines made from Nerello are certainly not as powerful as Barolo or Barbaresco wines.  Nerello resembles Pinot Noir in its perfumed, delicate aromas, color and structure; and like Pinot Noir, it is medium-bodied and versatile enough to accompany seafood dishes. 

For me, wines made from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio (the varieties are frequently blended together) do have comparable qualities of both Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, but with their own unique identity.  Nerello-based wines are floral, minerally, and spicy, with aromas and flavors of red berries, and with bracing acidity.

Nerello Mascalese is apparently easier to grow than Nerello Cappuccio and is usually the dominant variety in Nerello-based wines.  Nerello-based wines also age quite well (at least 10 to 20 years), based on my own limited experience with them.

The basic Mt. Etna red wine, made by most local producers, is Etna Rosso DOC. It is made from a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese, with up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio (or up to 10% other local varieties, red or white, allowed).  Most producers also make a more upscale Nerello wine. Azienda Vinicola Benanti, for example, makes Rosso Il Monovitigno, which is 100 percent Nerello Mascalese (about $34 retail).

Besides Benanti, other leading producers of Mt. Etna red wines include the following:

Tenuta delle Terre Nere (owned by American importer Marc de Grazia)
Biondi (Salvo Foti, enological consultant)
Gulfi (Salvo Foti, enological consultant)
Passopisciaro (mainly on U.S. West Coast)
Frank Cornelissen ( NYC area)
Pietro Caciorgna (on the West Coast)
Azienda Agricola Graci (NYC area)

Most of Mt. Etna’s great white wines are based on the indigenous Carricante variety.  Carricante is in many ways the white-wine equivalent of Nerello.  It grows high on the Mt. Etna slopes (on the highest, eastern slopes in fact, where Nerello is difficult to ripen); it’s grown on old, ungrafted phylloxera-resistant vines; it has lots of bracing acidity (with high malic acid); it is very minerally and aromatic, and it ages extremely well. 

The basic Mt. Etna white is Etna Bianco DOC, made from a minimum of 60% Carricante, with a maximum of 40% Catarratto (a ubiquitous Sicilian white variety) and up to 15% Trebbiano and/or other local varieties.  The superior Etna Bianco Superiore DOC must be made from a minimum of 80% Carricante. 

The best Mt. Etna white wine that I’ve tasted is in fact Benanti’s Etna Bianco Superiore, “Pietramarina.”  An astounding, minerally wine with superb concentration and a long finish, it is well worth the $45 U.S. retail price for the currently available 2005.  It needs time to mature, and will last for well over 10 years.

Most of the producers I list above for Mt. Etna red wines make Carricante-based whites as well.  As you might imagine, it is still a challenge to find many of these wines right now in the U.S.; they require a bit of searching.  But I promise that these wines will become more readily available here in the near future.  One of Sicily’s most important wineries, Planeta, is soon to release its first Carricante and its first Riesling from its new Mt. Etna winery.  Tasca d’Almerita (aka Regaleali), Duca di Salaparuta (of Corvo fame), Firriato, and consultants Riccardo Cotarella and Carlo Ferrini, plus others, are all planning to make wines in the Mt. Etna region.

My other wine passion in northeast Sicily is for the little-known wines of Faro, one of Italy’s smallest wine regions, near the port city of Messina.  Small amounts of Faro red wine, based mainly on Nerello Mascalese with small amounts of Nerello Cappuccio and other local varieties, are made principally by one winery, Palari.  More elegant and velvety than most Etna Rosso wines, Palari Faro is very smooth on the palate, with soft tannins and great balance.  The 2004 and 2005 Palari Faro vintages are available in the U.S., and retail in the $65 to $70 range.  Yes, a bit expensive, but I believe it is one of Italy’s great red wines.  

If you enjoy cool-climate white and red wines with bracing acidity that are excellent companions to food, I suggest that you seek out the wines of the Mt. Etna and Faro regions of northeast Sicily.