Wineries from Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, located at the toe of Italy’s boot, have gained a reputation for producing high-quality, dry wines thanks to the efforts of producers such as Planeta, Donnafugatta and Tasca d’Almerita. Perhaps the most interesting and exciting wines from the entire island, however, are coming from vineyards wrapped in a crescent around the tallest volcano in Europe and the most active of its kind in the world. According to UNESCO, which declared Mount Etna a World Heritage Site in 2013, the volcano’s earliest activity can be traced back 500,000 years, but it continues to rumble away, and was active as recently as May of this year.
Wines of Etna may have arrived a bit late to the modern Sicily wine party, but they have come attired in such exotic guises as the red variety Nerello Mascalese and white Carricante. Other grape varieties grown in about 7500 acres of Etna vines include Nerello Cappuccio, Minnella and Grenache. The advantage of being a late arrival to the international wine market is that Etna growers and vintners missed the Sicilian infatuation with non-indigenous grape varieties. The star red grape, Nerello Mascalese, which is considered indigenous to Sicily, may have come from further reaches since DNA testing suggests a parentage of Sangiovese and a light skinned Calabrian grape called Mantonico Bianco. Of course, we cannot know in which direction varieties were migrating in the ancient past, so Sicily could conceivably have been the source of Tuscany’s Sangiovese.) Whatever Nerello Mascalese’s origins, it shines on Etna’s slopes. It has been compared to Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir in its capacity for expressing a sense of place.
Several peculiarities on the volcanic mountain contribute uniqueness to it as a winegrowing region. Etna’s flare ups have created soils with various types of volcanic rocks, ash and gravel that are well-drained and fertile, suited for growing wine grapes. Since these eruptions can and do occur at any time, the landscape and soil composition is ever changing. The vineyards are grown as high as 3900 feet in elevation. At the highest elevations, the climate is very different from that at the foot of the mountain. Sicily is, after all, a Mediterranean island with hot summer temperatures and plenty of sunshine. Going up the mountain the temperatures are ever cooler and the difference between day and night time temperatures is greater. These diurnal swings between daytime and nighttime temperatures are believed to allow grapes to maintain their freshness and acidity. Most of the old vines are head pruned, a style that is called alberello here. Because of the sandiness of the soil in many areas, it is not unusual to find vines in excess of 100 years old on their own roots.
Some attribute the increased interest in Etna wines to an influx of outsiders moving into the area, but several of the best wines I tasted during a recent visit were made by the Benanti family, whose ancestor began making Etna wines in the late 1800s. Guiseppe Benanti established the current winery in 1988. He hired Rocco di Stefano, an enologist from Asti, and researched soils, grape varieties and winemaking techniques--all in a quest to make the best Etna wines. He experimented with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and finally decided these were not the right varieties for his winery. “It was a worthwhile experiment, because it became clear we should concentrate on indigenous varieties,” said Guiseppe’s son Antonio, who with his twin brother Savino is very involved in the winery’s operations. “Etna is unique in the world because of its diversity of soils and indigenous grape varieties. It’s the oldest DOC in Sicily with a high-end reputation that we want to keep,” said Antonio. “These are mountain wines. Etna has nothing to do with Sicily. We are proud to be Sicilian, but even more proud to be Etnian.”
Antonio summed up the Benanti definition of Etna wines as “great wines, but slow wines with surprising longevity” then offered proof from the bottle. The Pietramarina, Etna Bianco Superiore 2009, a current release, is made from the Carricanti grapes from 80 to 90 year-old-vines grown at 2950 feet. At three and a half years, it was quite fresh with citrusy, lemon drop flavors, round on the palate with a very long finish. He also poured three vintages of the single vineyard Serra dell Contessa Etna Rosso to show how the wine can age. The vineyard is behind the winery buildings in Viagrande, planted on the slope of an extinct volcanic cone called Monte Serra. The 110-year-old vines are on their own roots, since the gritty soil is not a preferred habitat for phylloxera. The 2006 was elegant with flavors of red cherry integrated with floral notes, vibrant acidity and ripe tannins. The 2003 vintage was not as integrated as the 2006 with fruit compote flavors, round in the mouth with vivid acidity and chewy tannins. The 2000 vintage showed savory, meaty flavors layered with ripe berry compote fruit and peppery notes; a seamless balance of fruit, acidity and sleek tannins. These were stunning, unique wines. If this is what aging does to Nerello Mascalese, I’m all for it. Antonio’s final message was “We want to be sure our wines have Etna written all over them.”
Another family winery is Cottanera with almost 135 acres located at on the northern side of the mountain at 2300 feet elevation. In 1990, the late Guglielmo Cambria and his brother Enzo decided to reconstruct the company their father, Francesco, established in 1960. They replanted hazelnut groves with vineyards in the 1990s. Their first vintage was 2000. The second generation of Cambrias, Mariangela, Francesco and Emanuele, are now involved with the winery operation.
They originally planted international varieties, because they were popular in Sicily at the time. They later added Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Carricante. They also have a bit of Monduse. Enzo explained that in 1999 they placed an order for Syrah and Merlot from a nursery in the Savoie, but the nursery was not able to deliver all the ordered Syrah so they sent Monduse.
Nearly all the work in their vineyards, as well as the harvest, is done by a group of 25 women, which the Cambrias say is an ancient Etna tradition they wanted to honor.
The Barbazzale Enta Rosso 2012 with 80 percent Nerello Mascalese and 20 percent Nerello Cappuccio showed fresh berry, cherry fruit with hints of coffee in a light body with lively acidity and ripe tannins. Enzo explained that their approach for this wine is to keep it fresh and easy to drink, but always a good wine, round and fruity with not a lot of tannins. They also showed a vertical of Etna Rossos with 90 percent Nerello Mascalese and 10 percent Nerello Cappuccio starting with the first vintage of 2005 then 2007, 2009 and 2010. The wines consistently display the winery’s style of ripe, supple fruit with crisp acidity and supple tannins.
Tenuta di Fessina
Silvia Maestrelli, vintner of Villa Petriolo and husband, Roberto Silva, hail from Tuscany while Federico Curtaz, a renowned enologist comes from the Piedmont--but they all recognize in Etna a place to make unique, serious wines. They acquired an estate with buildings that house an old palmento, the traditional, large covered fermenting vat made of lava stone, overlooking a 100-year-old vineyard, some 17 acres of Nerello Mascalese vines. They named the Tenuta di Fessina winery in honor of the former owner. In a familiar story, they experimented with Chardonnay at one point, but no longer grow it here. Instead, they are concentrating on Etna grapes. The vineyard behind the winery is nestled in a hollow between two lava flows. The vines are sitting on old stone terraces. They also have a close to four acres of Carricante in the small village of Milo at 3,280 feet.
The Etna Rosso Erse 2010, which sees no oak, showed round, spicy, cherry fruit balanced with zesty acidity and ripe tannins in a light, elegant body. Winemaker Federico Curtaz intends this wine to be simple and elegant. The Etna Rosso Il Musceci is their cru wine from 90 to 100 year old vines of Nerello Mascalese and Nerrello Cappuccio. It was lean in profile, yet with plentiful cherry fruit and notes of dried thyme and blood orange. Their Etna Bianco Puddara 2011 was served after the reds. Made from barrel fermented Carricante from 40 year-old vines, it was quite delicious with aromas of lemon zest, gardenia and wet stones. It was a harmonious blend of fresh citrusy fruit and rich, creamy lemon curd.
Mount Etna is proving to be a special place where wines that give a sense of that place can be created. They are elegant, delicate, supple--and are showing the capability to age slowly and with grace. With the dedication of vintners like the Benantis, Cambrias, Maestrelli, Curtaz and many others, they can only get better.