Wojciech Bońkowski
Wine & tea writing

In Sicily: Etna trek

Sicily vineyard tour day 1: Etna trek, clashing with lava, and enjoying a good Grenache.

Flowery wine

Sicily’s rising star Arianna Occhipinti makes controversial wines. After lukewarm impressions from the 2007 vintage I have a look at the 2009 Il Frappato and man, this wine rocks!

Frappato: unique

Sicily’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria is an unexpected wine: light, airy, perfumed and Burgundian though it comes from Europe’s southernmost corner.

The Talking Cricket

Forget flabby, low-acid, jammy, oxidative wine from Sicily. Here’s something really fresh and elegant. Plus a nice 19th-century drawing.

Etna: two fine reds

During my stay on the Etna last summer (read here) I picked up a few bottles to taste at home and get a more complete picture of this very exciting vineyard zone in Sicily. Its superbly mineral red wines provided some welcome refreshment in the scorching summer heat we’re experiencing here in Poland this year. 

The estate of Emanuele Scammacca del Murgo is arguably Etna’s most historical one, going back to the mid-19th century when baron Murgo was one of the renowned bottlers of Etna wine. Consisting now of three independent vine allotments in various zones of the volcano, the Murgo winery has taken a slightly different approach than most of its neighbours, and focuses on the production of inexpensive everyday wines; there’s no prestige cuvée and the most expensive red here, the one I’m drinking, is only 11€. (There is also a trio of very interesting méthode champenoise sparkling wines made of the red Nerello Mascalese grape).

So how’s the Murgo Etna Rosso 2007? It’s a very typical Etna red in colour – which is fairly light –, aroma and flavour. Fresh and zesty with bitter cherry fruit, dried Mediterranean herbs and that unmistakeable sweet Oriental spice signature of Nerello. It’s a red with a real sense of minerality, unoaked, transparent, cool and stoney. With firm tannins and high acidity on the finish, it’s a little challenging at this stage without food, but is well-balanced with a sense of drinkability. Fairly low alcohol. A fairly simple wine, and for a while I regretted the good people from Murgo make no more ‘ambitious’ bottling, but after all it’s a welcome choice: inexpensive, supremely drinkable and with a sense of place, it’s unfair to ask more of this wine.

Speaking of ‘ambition’, it’s surely what characterises my second wine: Passopisciaro 2006. Founded by the notorious Andrea Franchetti whose Tuscan wines from the Tenuta di Trinoro have gathered massive critical attention, it’s a sky-is-the-limit interpretation of Etna red wine. 80- to 100-year-old bush vines on remote terraces on Etna’s northern, mountain-cool, arid slope, minimal yields and state-of-the-art vinification yield a wine of stunning intensity and personality. 

(There are two versions of this label, some saying ‘Passopisciaro’ below the vintage, but I’m told by the estate the wine is exactly the same).

The colour is almost shockingly light and the nose is meaty, spicy, only faintly fruit with plenty of mineral depth. The first sip on palate is just outstanding. Quite round and ripe (it’s 14.5% alc. in this warm vintage, but well-balanced), it is typical of red Etna in being moderate in acidity but beguilingly refreshing and very digest. Balsamic texture and impressive length add to the picture. In that silkiness and puréed fruit richness, this vaguely resembles a Grenache-based wine from the Rhône or Languedoc, and is similarly elegant to a traditional-style Châteauneuf, but has more poise and those crystalline tannins of the Etna.

This wine costs 30€ (it can be picked up e.g. at the Catania airport). While a bit expensive by Sicilian standards, it is definitely worth it; a Burgundy or Châteauneuf of similar stature would set you twice that. Delicious and supremely drinkable, but layered with a real sense of dimension, this is just great wine.
Source of wines: own purchases.

On the Etna (3)

Salvo Foti.

My last day on the Etna was a vineyard tour guided by Salvo Foti, a leading local viticulturalist and winemaker. Foti is consulting for some large wineries such as Benanti but is today dedicating himself chiefly to the I Vigneri project. Named after a ‘vintners’ guild’ founded in 1435, it’s an association of small estates from the Etna and some other zones in Sicily that are all cultivating bush vine (alberello) vineyards under the guidance of Foti.
We had a look at some of these vineyards in two of Etna’s distinctive vine-growing district: the eastern and northern slope. The former has a mild, maritime, fairly humid climate (precipitation is 1500–2000 mm annually, which is quite a bit), resulting in red wines that are a little lighter and fruitier; this is also the source for most of Etna’s distinctive, mineral, salt-scented white wine (mostly based on the local Carricante grape). We saw a vineyard of Mick Hucknall’s Il Cantante estate. Bush vines are planted very densely (10K vines / ha), trained on a single pole; most are terraced (few vineyards on the Etna are planted directly on slopes). Eastern Etna is a very green landscape, and if ‘biodiversity’ sounds nice to you, you’ll find plenty here: vines alternate with olive, citrus, peach, fig, hazelnut and almond trees, and lots of chestnuts (we saw a 1700-year-old example).
Palmento: step in to foot-tread the grapes here.
Il Cantante also have a nicely restored palmento, the typical winemaking structure of the 19th century when Etna was producing no less than 100m liters of wine (most of that period’s Barolo and Brunello was in fact blended with wines from the South, Etna included). Palmento is a ground floor vinification building with stone basins for foot treading, similar to the lagares of Portugal. By gravity, foot-trodden musts would pour into fermentation basins on the lower floor. Palmenti often have no cellar: the wine being shipped in the spring season following the harvest, there was never need to keep any in cask or bottle.
La Fruttiera vineyard in northern Etna, surrounded by lava outcrops.
It’s roughly a 45-minute drive on a scenic road, perched at 800m of altitude, to reach to northern slope of the Etna, where most vineyards are now concentrated in the towns of Castiglione, Linguaglossa and Randazzo. It’s quite a dramatic change in climate. Sheltered from Mediterranean influences by the Nebrodi mountain range to the north, these vineyards only see some 600mm of rain per year, and the temperature differences between day and night can reach 30C. The grape maturation period is extended, and with vineyards at 800–1100m above sea level, the harvest often takes place in late November – the latest of any Mediterranean region. Here, red wines reign supreme, with the Nerello Mascalese grape reaching qualitative heights. The wines have high acidity and fierce tannins and are apt for long ageing. Vineyards are also much older: we saw a 1-hectare parcel of 130-year-old vines, partly ungrafted: phylloxera cannot survive on the very active volcanic ash sand.
The landscape of northern Etna is very different from the flamboyant vegetation of the east. There are huge lavic outcrops everywhere, and most of the land is covered by scrub and cacti. We saw a spectacular vineyard east of Randazzo named La Fruttiera (belonging to the Tenute Romeo del Castello on which I reported yesterday) which was menaced by an Etna eruption in 1981. In the end, the lava deviated just meters from the vines, and can now be seen in the shape of a 3-meter-high wall of black stone. Scary.
The wines of Salvo Foti all share a distinctive style. They are fairly punchy with abrasive, somewhat overextracted tannins, which I felt were not supported by sufficient fruit. The yields of some bush vines we saw were surely looking excessive (typically a dozen bunches per vine, totalling an estimate of 3–3.5kg of grapes) but Foti said the vines are sturdy and can manage that. On the positive side, the wines show little or no oak and have the obvious mineral personality you expect from an Etna red. We tasted a red called Aitna from the Edomè estate: the 2005 is suffering from a bit of brett but is showing opulent fruit too; the 2006 is better, more floral on the nose, tannic and a little simple but characterful. Salvo Foti’s own label is called I Vigneri: the Etna Rosso 2005 is tonic, juicy and driven with not masses of body, the 2006 again a bit more convincing but the tannins are fiercely drying; this will need 3 or 4 years in the bottle. Then there are two special bottlings: Vinudilice 2008 is a curious rosé made from co-pressed red and white grapes from the 130-year-old vineyard at 1300m above sea level. Unsulphured with high malic acid and some 10g residual sugar, it’s wild stuff, with a touch of vegetal, foxy character to the nose and a rustic, mineral palate that I found a little raw – but many of my journo colleagues seemed to like it quite a bit. Vinupetra is Foti’s top label in red. Clearly the best wine we tasted on the day, the 2005 is floral and cherryish with some fruit sweetness on the nose, coupled with Etna’s distinctive spice. Lots of presence on the palate, still a little overtannic and rigid as per the Foti style but shows good natural concentration and expression of fruit. The 2006 is similar with perhaps a bit more harmony. Vinupetra is a good example of a mineral, unoaky Etna red with lots of potential.

On the Etna (2)

My second day on the Etna was at Vinimilo, a wine tasting event that’s been organised in Milo, a somewhat seedy town on the eastern slope of the volcano, for no less than 26 years. This edition is dedicated to the alberello – the bush vine that is the classic vineyard cultivation method around the Mediterranean. It doesn’t sound earth-shakingly interesting to the wine novice but some of the wines on show were very exciting. Bush vine cultivation requires a lot of manual work and so is usually embraced by high-end producers that often have an organic approach.

No wonder many wines were very individual. Some excessively so (the unsulphured Sardinians from the Pane Vino estate failed to thrill me), and some controversial (the Primitivos from La Morella have more than 15.5% alcohol and despite their expressive fruit, are inevitably very heady). But there were gems, too, such as the sweet Passito 2005 from the tiny island of Pantelleria made by Salvatore Ferrandes, bursting with candied orange and mineral freshness at the same time, or the serious, nocturnal, powerful Olevano Romano Cesanese Cirsium 2005 from micro-producer Damiano Ciolli south of Rome. I also liked the unsophisticated but distinctive and delicious duo of Rossese wines from Maixei, a mini-coop in Dolceacqua in western Liguria, near the French border. Rossese is an ancient grape that only grows on some 100 ha, all on high-perched terraces with bush vines. The viticulture here is so labour-intensive that Rossese as a whole is an endangered species; I just wish it can survive as its profile is really distinctive.
There were also some brilliant non-Mediterranean wines, such as the bush vine-trained Sangioveses from Fattoria Zerbina in Romagna (the 2006 Pietramora is a monster that will live at least two decades) and the amazingly mineral (and surprisingly unalcoholic) Vitovskas from eastern Friuli’s Vodopivec, including a clay amphora-macerated 2005 that is a masterpiece of balance.
In the end I tried to concentrate on Sicilian wines and especially those from Etna. (This included a tasting of local bottlings for the wider public that took place the following day). It’s not so obvious to find really good wine on the volcano. While the reds generally have the crisp, crunchingly tannic signature of the local grape –  Nerello Mascalese –  and terroir, there’s a lot of excessive yields and poor winemaking around, resulting in unbalanced, over-tannic wines that lack fruit. Stuff from Michele & Mario Grasso and Terre Grasso Salina is simply disastrous while Don Saro, Cantine del Regno, Maria Di Bella, Barone di Villagrande are generally uninspiring.
Good Etna wines come in a variety of styles: the red from Il Cantante (an estate belonging to the Simply Red frontman, Mick Hucknall) sees a lot of wood and a long ageing in bottle; the 2002 is rich, brooding, evolved but with plenty of power left, and an interesting wine. Fierce tannins are also the hallmark of Tenute Romeo del Castello whose Etna Rosso In Attesa d’Artista 2007 is overextracted but shows good minerality. Agostino Sangiorgi makes a few thousand bottles of a single wine, Granaccio, on the southern outskirts of the appellation; it’s a very pale wine (there are some white grapes in the blend) that is really elegant but also fiercely acidic, and will need time in the bottle too. I liked the unexaggerated fruit and distinctive spice of the Etna Rosso Valcerasa 2005 from Alice Bonaccorsi, though it’s hardly very complex. The red Etna DOC from Aítala is a bit heavy-handed but the IGT Nerello Mascalese 2007 is one of the more succulent interpretations of the Etna grape.
With top estates such as Tenuta delle Terre Nere and Passopisciaro missing, the memorable wines came from Ciro Biondi (as much the ambitious single-vineyard MI 2007 as the cheaper Outis 2006, a stylish wine with a sense of digestness and classicism that I would gladly drink anytime) and the ubiquitous Benanti, Etna’s major player, whose top bottlings both in white (Pietramarina 2005: very shy, deep, half-mineral, saline) and red (Serra della Contessa 2004: serious concentration, good minerality, calm, a little soft perhaps) I have enjoyed more in other circumstances but even here they showed obvious substance and dimension that put them above the bunch.
We tasted more Etna wines from a group of estates originated by Salvo Foti, a viticulturalist that is one of Etna’s major characters – more on these tomorrow.

On the Etna (1)

I’m on Etna in Sicily to participate in the Vinimilo event, where 26 producers from Italy, France and Spain will present wines made from bush vines (alberello). There are some great names on the roll of honour, and it promises to be an interesting tasting.
Yesterday I visited Frank Cornelissen, who is producing some of the most remarkable ‘natural’ wines anywhere. A Belgian who decided to find a terroir suitable for his ideas of making wine with no chemicals whatsoever (not only herbicides, yeast or enzymes as in organic viticulture, but also without any copper or sulphur, which is very unusual and really rather bold), Frank settled on Etna in late 2000. Since its first vintages, his flagship wine, called Magma, has attracted a lot of attention. Frank now works on 10 hectares of land in several plots on the northern slopes of Etna (where the very dry, disease-free climate makes it viable to grow vines without chemical interventions) and only produces around 15,000 bottles.

The viticulture and vinification are unusual (wines are fermented in clay amphorae on their skins, including the white Magma which stays on skins for three months!) but how the wines taste is even more remarkable. Very often, ‘natural’ wines are challenging, showing some rustic, at times unclean aromas and flavours which are often considered the price to pay for increased mineral expression and grape-generated ‘naturality’. With Cornelissen’s wines, we have none of that. After several vintages with bacterial deviations and high volatile acidity, the range of wines I tasted from 2007 and 2008 is incredibly clean and pure. The Munjebel Bianco 4 (all the wines are bottled as table wines which until this year, were not allowed to show the vintage on the label; this is from 2007) was one of the very best skin-contact whites I’ve ever tried. Partly because it shows no notes of skin contact! An amazingly expressive wine with intense notes of citrusy, tangeriney fruit, it has a powerful saline minerality but stays very clean: no lifted notes, no macerative aromas.

Frank’s inexpensive bottling Contadino 6 [2008] blends Etna’s leading grape variety Nerello Mascalese with some other grapes; it has a spicey, pomegrenatey nose typical of ‘natural’ reds with wonderful purity and natural freshness. The Munjebel Rosso 5 (a blend of 2007 and 2008) is even more engaging. It’s a 100% Nerello with a light colour and one of the most hauntingly pure fruity noses I’ve encountered: like biting into a freshly picked strawberry. Clean, mineral, refreshingly tannic (those crisp tannins reminded me of the Terre Nere 2007 I blogged on yesterday); the directness of fruit is really unique. The main wine here, Magma 6, is a 2007 single vineyard bottling from ~100-year-old vines. Much different in style, it introduces evolved, spicy, meaty notes into the bouquet, and is less direct than the other reds here. Lots of anise and coriander spice in this one, it is a complex wine that really needs some time in the glass to develop.

Cornelissen’s work is ground-breaking and shows nothing is impossible in the world of wine. The flavour of his wines is really unique. Though the production is small, the estate’s fame has started to spread, and the wines are available e.g. in the UK through Les Caves de Pyrène, and Denmark through Atomwine. If you’re interested in ‘natural’ wines you owe it to yourself to try these.

Stay tuned for more Etna reports tomorrow.

Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna 2007

I’m off to Etna in a few minutes. I love volcanic wines, and the prospect of exploring the vineyards on Europe’s highest volcano is exciting. I’ll also be meeting with Frank Cornelissen, one of this planet’s craziest winemakers, which is even more exciting.

As per my habit of gauging my palate to the forthcoming bunch of wines I opened the Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2007. Terre Nere is the Etna venture of Marc De Grazia, an influential importer of Italian wines into the US that has been one of the architects of Italian wine’s success on the American market. Interestingly, while much of De Grazia’s original catalogue represented some of the most modern trends in Italian wine (including some new French oak-aged Barolos and Barbarescos), the wines of Terre Nere show quite some respect for tradition. It’s evident by the light bricky colour of this red and also its bouquet: showing lots of finesse and a subdued minerality, it isn’t overly fruity or upfront. The red wines of Etna are often compared to burgundies (and the local grape, Nerello, is yet another ‘Pinot Noir of the Mediterranean’), and while it’s often an abused comparison, here it’s really right. The ripe, fleshy, gently spicy, hauntingly flowery aroma of this 2007 could well be that of a warm-vintage Volnay or Chambolle.

The flavour of this wine is really interesting. The balance is quite unique. Acidity is not very high but there is a mineral coolness and restraint at the core; the fruity notes echo the nose with fleshy cherries and ripe currants, and there is a perfumed flowery undertone. Surprisingly for a wine with such light body and flowery finesse, the tannins on the finish are quite sturdy. Finesse, minerality and tannins: these elements do not often go together in a red wine. This 2007, Terre Nere’s basic cuvée (they also make several single-vineyard bottlings), is really overdelivering for the price, developing very well in the glass. It’s boding well for my Etna excursion – read more about it soon on this blog.

Fondo Antico Grillo Parlante 2007

Long underdeveloped, Sicilian wines are gathering momentum. But few of the whites are exciting. Here’s the best of them all, made from the local Grillo grape.