Italy, Sicily: extraordinary land of fire and wine

This feature is in two parts. There is a link to part II at the bottom of the page.

EtnaThe brooding presence of Etna, a massive volcano that rises to over 3,000 metres and is very much alive and kicking, should be a source of fear and nervous trepidation to those living on and under its lava-strewn slopes. And yet it is pretty obvious that in the psyche of Etna’s inhabitants there is affection for the mountain, and a sense that they co-exist in some sort of harmony. “We just don’t think about the next big eruption,” says Giuseppe Russo of the Girolamo Russo winery, “otherwise we’d all go crazy.”

The spectacular photograph above (© Turi Caggegi) shows the most recent major eruption in 2013.

In fact, it is Etna that makes the wines of this region so special and so intriguing. It has an enormous influence, with a circumference of 140 kilometres it dominates wherever you travel in the region. On my May visit the ginestra – the yellow flowered ‘broom’ – and wild poppies were everywhere, carpeting the ground in vivid burst of Day-Glo colour. The volcanic soils are rich and fertile, with a top layer of decomposed lava and volcanic sand. The best vineyards are sited at 600 to 1100 metres on its slopes – in those places not piled high with huge mounds of lava from a recent very major eruption in 1981 (though Etna is almost constantly erupting: as recently as July 2011 the main centre for Etna tours was only saved from destruction by emergency action to divert a huge new lava flow).

These sandy volcanic soils also mean that Phylloxera, the devastating louse that destroyed so much of Europe’s vineyards, had little or no impact on Etna. There are many vineyards of ancient vines, over 100 years old, and all planted on their own roots without the need to graft onto Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. Today there are around 70 producers on Etna, but as Michele Faro of the Pietradolce estate told me, “some are so small that really, they only bottle for family consumption.”

History, geography, climate & soils

Though vines have been grown on the island for centuries, it is only since 1968 that Sicily has had any DOC wines, with DOC Etna being its first, followed soon after by DOC Marsala from the west of the island. Historically, many producers will tell you that the rich red wines of Etna that were not drunk locally journeyed hundreds of miles north, to add some oomph to the weedier wines of old-style Bordeaux and other regions of northern Europe.

mapEtna lies in the northeast of the island, the nearest large city being Catania, which has a broad range of international direct flights. Vineyards are sited on the eastern slopes of the Volcano generally, to the northeast and southeast, though the vast majority of wineries are clustered in the northern zone around the town of Passopisciaro. The climate is hot, Sicily’s long, hot and dry summers are famous, though the altitude of the vineyards does provide very good diurnal (day time to night time) shifts, with Michele Faro telling me that “even on 35ºC summer days the temperature still falls to 10ºC overnight.” The vast majority of vines are old, unirrigated bush vines known locally as alberello, or ‘little trees’. The dry, fresh conditions also mean that organic viticulture is possible, and many estates I visited say they farm entirely organically, though few were certified.

Guiseppe Russo commented that “One of the big challenges for wine growers is to really understand the nature of our volcanic soils.” It seems the very best terroirs are consistently found on really ancient lava, hundreds of thousands of years old, not on the lava from more recent eruptions. He also tells me that there is work going involving geologists, other scientists and agronomists to better understand these unusual soils.

Grapes and wine styles

nerelloThe great grape of Etna is Nerello Mascalese, superior in everyone’s opinion to its cousin Nerello Cappuccio, though the two are often blended in simple Etna Rosso. Mascalese produces wines that, depending on the winemaking, can have a lovely Pinot Noir-like delicacy and freshness. For white wines, the Carricante variety is the pride of the region, a high acid grape that reflects the mineral terroir well, though the most widely planted bianco variety in Sicily, Catarratto, features too. Normally less distinguished than Carricante, it is generally used as a blending component on Etna. There are other minor grape varieties, but these are the big four at the heart of the Etna DOC. Left: ancient Nerello Mascalese vines growing at Tenuta di Fessina.

Red wine dominates, and more than one producer told me that Etna is often referred to locally as “Sicily’s Côte d’Or.” The character of Nerello Mascalese can give beautifully perfumed, rose, tar and truffle-scented wines, light in colour and body, and the echo of red Burgundy is obvious. Others are more reminiscent of Nebbiolo perhaps, and yet other, made with more extraction and body, can be darker, deeper and more chewy.

The estates


xI met up with producer Michele Faro (right) and his winemaker Giuseppe Parlavecchio in their beautifully terraced vineyard close to Passopisciaro in the north of Etna. With lovingly built retaining walls of lava stone, this is their youngest vineyard planted 10 years ago, all with Nerello Mascalese. “This is the best territory on Etna for Nerello,” says Michele. “To the east of Etna further south is much better for white varieties.”Although the estate was only established 10 years ago too, Michele’s grandfather was a small producer and grape grower on Etna, and although the family moved into other areas of agriculture, there was a strong desire to “get back to their roots,” with a small, very high quality estate making wine from pre-Phylloxera vines. Even the new vineyard is planted on its own roots, as bush vines, but most of the vines on the farm are between 80 and 120 years old. The vineyards run from 800 to 900 metres, on sandy soils with lots of lava stones and high volcanic minerality. “The luck of being on Etna is the micro climate of each area, the minerality of the soil and the huge diurnal shift in temperature,” says Michele. Indeed the name of the estate – meaning ‘sweet stones’ refers to the lava rocks that are so important. Pietradolce makes five wines, with a total production of just 30,000 bottles. They farm organically (but are not certified), and the old vines giving a yield of just 25 hl/ha – the younger vines are green harvested to reduce the yield to around 35-40. Below, the oldest vineyard at 900 metres.

vineyard“We need only two or three organic treatments per year,” says Giuseppe, “the winds and altitude mean there is no humidity.” I ask if the recent surge in investment in Etna vineyards is showing any sign of slowing. “Land on Etna is still not expensive,” says Michele. “Today it costs around 6 or 7 Euros per square metre which is much less than other top terroirs in Italy, but then it was only one euro 50 years ago.”

x for tasting notes on 6 wines from Pietradolce


russoGiuseppe Russo (right) is in charge of this estate today, firmly family-run and focused, his mum still lives above the winery which has a fascinating location. Perched almost on top of the railway tracks, at one time trains used to stop within the winery’s cellars, collect barrels of wine, and run them directly to the Port. At that time the cellar was owned by a group of local growers and operated as a collective, negociant cellar.

Guissepe was working happily as a professional musician when his dad died in 2004. He says he had no great interest in the family farm before then, but having taken over he moved very quickly into bottling wine rather than just growing grapes. His first vintage made in his own cellar was in 2007. A large glass section of the winery floor looks down on huge cement tanks once used for wine storage, which he plans to convert into a wine library in time. Now, stainless steel tanks occupy the cellar, as well as French oak barriques for maturation, though he says “Gradually I am moving to much bigger tonneaux.”

The farm consists of 15 hectares of vineyards in total, but spread over different areas, the wines bottled as ‘crus’ reflecting their area of production. He has 8ha of old vines planted between 650 and 750 metres, and from the beginning has always micro vinified each vineyard, and in some cases parcels within vineyards, separately. He produces 50,000 thousand bottles, but says “Each harvest is a long process as I want to get to know each parcel, and I pick each at least twice, leaving the best grapes on the vine for longer.” His white wines are made from white varieties scattered in old mixed plantings amongst the reds – he has no dedicated white wine vineyards. This is one of few estates I visited that is certified as organic, and Guissepe relies on wild yeasts for fermentation.

All of the old vines are Nerello Mascalese, but in some newer vineyards which he has planted he is disarmingly frank: “I also planted Nerello Cappuccio, though of course it is inferior. When I started I really didn’t know what I was doing, and as everyone had some Cappuccio in their historical vineyards, I thought I’d better plant some too.” The Cappuccio does not go into the three single vineyard wines. His 2000 bottles of white are made mostly from Carricante, but there are smatterings of other indigenous grapes. “As in all ancient vineyards,” he says, “When you walk through them you discover some very peculiar plants. But that is what gives the complexity.’

The old vineyards are all alberello trained, and everything pre-1960 is on its own roots. He has trained his newer vineyards on wires, in a cordon spur system, and says “Anyone who plants alberello today is crazy. It’s so expensive to maintainand does not guarantee better quality’

x for tasting notes on 6 wines from Girolamo Russo


GraciFor those obsessed with thrill rides and rollercoasters, may I recommend accompanying Umberto Graci (right) as he wrangles his ancient Landrover up dirt road paths to his highest vineyard at over 1000 metres on the northeast slope of Etna? Battered, bruised, shaken and stirred, you will emerge into a small vision of paradise.

This is a land of ancient vines, that struggle to survive on lava soils, baking in summer with scarcely a drop of moisture, and near freezing in winter. “Up here exposition is vital,” Umberto tells me, “otherwise your grapes will never ripen. Plants up here grow more slowly and grapes are much smaller. One of our biggest tasks is keeping the grass under control, as it is such a fire risk in summer, the ground is so dry and hot.” In fact Graci is one of only three estates that currently farm above 1000 metres (along with Franchetti and Frank Cornelisson for his ‘Magma’ wine).

This is tough and expensive work, have no doubt of that. Umberto says that it takes six of these pre-Phylloxera vines to produce just one bottle of his ‘Barbabecchi’ cuvée which he picks in November to make 1000 bottles. There are many gaps in the vineyard where the old, gnarled, 10-inch thick vines have given up the struggle. Umberto is gradually replanting with a massal selection of vines from his own vineyard, not grafted onto rootstock. “It does not make economic sense to farm this vineyard,” he says, “but it gives quality to everything I do. We have much bigger labels that are our bedrock, but this is so important.”

Around 80% of Etna’s wineries are based here, within a few kilometres of Passopisciaro, though like many others, Graci takes some fruit from the east and southwest too. Their beautiful and historic 1856 cellars were some of the most impressively equipped that I saw, with obviously modern ideas – the latest cement tanks and Bucher basket presses, a range of modern botti and bigger sizes of barrels. Umberto ferments with natural yeasts for the Nerello Mascalese, which always starts fermentation immediately, though he says the white varieties sometimes needs to be started with a selected yeast.

x for tasting notes on 7 wines from Graci


SilviaOwner Silvia Maestrelli is as relaxed and welcoming a host as you could hope to meet, taking me on an uplifting evening passeggiata through her vineyards as the shadows lengthened and bathed this beautiful amphitheatre of vines in a flood of umber and gold. Silvia came from here native Tuscany to set up Fessina in 2007. She farms seven hectares, mostly of Nerello Mascalese, with vines that are 70 to 100 years old, though she does have some newer plantings of her own too.

The elevation here is 650 metres, and Silvia pieced the property together, buying adjacent parcels from 10 different local growers, the smallest parcel being just 200 square metres, the largest one hectare. But Silvia insist it is her soils and micro-climate that make this place special: “The particularity of our soils is that they have a fine, thin volcanic sand layer that gives elegance,” she says. “The site is surrounded by lava flows, making for a slightly milder climate too,” she continues, warming to her theme. “In areas with more rock you have stronger wines and higher alcohol. That is why I have planted my younger vineyard on soils with less fine powder and much more lava rock. It is useful for adding a little oomph in less good vintages.”

Silvia’s winemaker and partner in the business, Federico Curtaz, came from working for Gaia in Piedmont, and she laughs when she considers their position as ‘incomers’ to Sicily: “We define ourselves as cautious students, ” she says. “My father was a winemaker in Tuscany, but we are still learning about Etna.”

The vineyard has some white grape varieties scattered throughout that at one time would have been picked and bottled together with the Nerello, but is now bottled separately, though Silvia also has a vineyard near Milo on the east of the mountain, where they source Carricante, as well as some Nero d’Avola from vineyards near Noto, south of Syracuse.

x for tasting notes on 10 wines from Fessina


cottaneraFounded by Guglielmo Cambria and his brother Enzo in the mid-1990s, Cottanera’s impressive operation on the north of Etna has been tinged with tragedy with the early death of Guglielmo. Today, the company is run by Enzo and three of Guglielmo’s children. Pictured right, is Enzo with his nephew Francesco.

The family already farmed the land where the vineyards are planted. It was historically vineyard land, but had been replanted to hazelnuts as a strategic business decision at a time when Etna produced only cheap, bulk wines. The family changed it back to vineyard, but initially Enzo says it was “high yielding vines, producing large quantities for the market of medium to low quality. In the 1990s we began to rethink the possibilities for bottling quality wine, which led to wholesale changes.” This was largely led by Italian consumer demand for quality wine, which Enzo says grew considerably during the 1990s, as the price for bulk wine fell. Hence it was another business decision to change their focus.

The vineyards were replanted in 1997, with the first vintage of Cottanera in 1999. They planted indigenous varieties, but also Bordeaux varieties and – astonishingly enough – Mondeuse, a rarely seen grape of Savoie in Eastern France, sent by mistake from the nursery, but which they decided to keep (and which was actually very good – see tasting notes below). They also bought two vineyards of Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, which now supply fruit from 35-year-old vines.

They now farm 68 hectares of vineyard at around 700 metres elevation, producing 300,000 bottles which makes them one of Etna’s larger estates. Around 40 hectares are indigenous varieties. One fascinating fact that emerged only after my visit on reading Cottanera’s literature is that their entire vineyard team of 25 is female. Had I known, I would have asked why but that is a mystery to be explained another time. The vineyards are not alberello, but cordon spur trained, with dense planting at 5,700 plants per hectare. All wines are made in stainless steel, and reds are aged in both large ‘botti’ and French oak barriques.

x for tasting notes on 9 wines from Cottanera


wiegnerThe first few minutes of my visit to Wiegner’s estate on one of the warmest parts of Etna’s northern slopes was, to say the least, confusing. Peter Wiegner is a mildly eccentric but enormously likeable character, Swiss-born, and now running this small estate with his wife Laura Puccetti and their son Marco, who is the winemaker. Peter set off immediately into the vineyards, switching unpredictably from English to Italian, and refusing to take a breath for even a moment to allow translation. Eventually things settled down and I enjoyed a very enjoyable walking tour of the estate, before returning to the winery for a home-cooked dinner cooked by Laura.

Peter made his money in leather trading, and has lived in Italy for 40 years. It is a family business, producing 15,000 bottles from Nerello Mascalese, Fiano, Aglianico and Cabernet Franc. “The reason they all work is because they all like volcanic soils,” says Peter, before adding, “well, not Cabernet Franc – I planted that just because we like it.”

Sited at 750 metres altitude, almost all of the vines were planted in 2002. They practice strictly organic viticulture in this very well ventilated site, but like many others have chosen not to be certified as organic. Peter is very keen on biodiversity, taking huge pride in his little estate. The yellow flowering ginestra was in full bloom throughout (“It helps pollinate the vines,” says peter), and on slopes he describes as “The Côte d’Or of Etna,” he says they produce “Incredible fruit, right now the apricots are beautiful.”

Marco tells me the wines are made from a very careful vineyard selection of fruit, with a full three weeks of gentle maceration for reds and 15 to 18 months in wood, only the Cabernet Franc in French oak barriques, the rest in big French oak casks. All fermentation is with natural yeasts and wines are kept for a minimum of two years in bottle before release. “We are very proud of being artisans,” says Peter. “We really do hand make our wines.”

x for tasting notes on 8 wines from Wiegner

Go to part II – Sicilia en Primeur – wines from across Sicily