21 July 2021
Twenty years on from those initial tremors, when a group of trail-blazing producers – Messrs. Cornelissen, Franchetti, Graci, de Grazia, Foti/Benanti – recolonised the abandoned lava terraces & started making a (new) case for vini dell’Etna, it was time to return with my colleague Chloe, plus four DBGitalia amici produttori (Manuel Marinacci, Martina Fiorino of Bruna Grimaldi, Marco Sara & Enrico Esu) to find out how they were getting on!
In the late 19th century, the Etna region boasted c.50k hectares of vines (to make vino del taglio/wine for bulk export..). Today the region extends across 1,100 hectares (Etna Bianco, Rosato & Rosso), mentions 133 Contrade (MGAs) & is produced by 120 estates; so quality over quantity. Over the course of three days we visited two key zones, starting on Day 1 with the Versante Est, followed by Day 2 & 3 on the Versante Nord. Had we had an extra day, we should have visited the (hotter) Versante Sud, around Biancavilla. We visited twelve producers: Versante Est – Santa Maria della Nave, Biondi, I Vigneri di Salvo Foti; Versante Nord – Graci, Buscemi, Girolamo Russo, SRC Vini, Frank Cornelissen, Pietradolce, I Custodi delle Vigne dell’Etna, Tenuta di Terre Nere, Planeta Etna.
Versante Est, where the distance between monte & mare is shortest & steepest, the terraces at their highest, is clearly a zone vocato for the growing of white grapes, & in particular Carricante (& Minella) in the Etna Bianco Superiore zone of Caselle, where pH levels are circa 2.90! It’s also the zone where the lava soils, rich in self-cleansing Zeolite & lapillo/ash, are oldest (i.e. less vigorous) & the rainfall is highest (c. 2000 mm/anno), especially during the harvest period; so perfect for the harvesting of minerally whites! The vineyards of the Versante Est are centred on & around the villages of Trecastagni, Milo, Zafferana & Viagrande. The quality of the Maconnais/Chablis-esque, lemon-pith & racy whites were clearly demonstrated in the wines of Biondi’s ‘Pianta’ & I Vigneri di Salvo Foti‘s ‘VignadiMilo’. The reds from the Versante Est tend to be on the lighter, more restrained side – which to many (incl. me!) is a plus! Standout reds were: Biondi’s ‘Cisterna Fuori’ & ‘San Nicolo’, & I Vigneri’s ‘Vinupetra’; Salvo Foti very kindly pulled a bottle of the 2006 ‘Vinupetra’ that was gorgeous, still primary, plump & pure. The wines of Santa Maria della Nave are newcomers, being currently made at Benanti (by Salvo Foti?), & show potential.
Versante Nord, notably from Linguaglossa to Randazzo, & in particular around the ‘zona rossa’ villages of Rovitello, Solicchiata, Passopisciaro, Montelaguardia, is famous for Nerello & is home to the majority of producers. Here the lava soils are younger, from more recent flows (most recently in 1981?) the soil more vigorous (see phenolic ripening issues). Producers here refer to a phenomenon – ‘un aria speciale‘ – whereby the prevailing humid weather arriving from the south-east stops/rains on the Versante Est, & at Linguaglossa, after which the warm air current continue their journey down onto the NW facing communes thereby creating a very benign weather system during the key Sept/Oct period. Weather-wise, the growing season on the Versante Nord is longer, allowing a gradual (phenolic) maturation, bathed in light. That said, the seed tannins of Nerello, when compared to cugino Nebbiolo, are clearly difficult to ripen, especially in time before the autumn rains arrive. High density old alberello plantings appear to help in this regard, although most producers have mechanised spalliera/VSP rows too.
Of the Versante Nord producers we visited, all of whom were most generous in their disponabilità, here a few of my impressions (in order of visit):
Graci – Alberto Aiello continues his upward trajectory from circa 25ha of vines in & around the villages of Passopisciaro & Solicchiata. Alberto’s invested in the Feudo di Mezzo/Porcaria, Barbabecchi & Arcuria vineyards, & is now building a bottle store. Traditional vinification in wood tini, cement & stainless steel, Alberto’s wines show a sense of place & also great elegance, not unlike those of the Langhe. Standout were: 2017 Etna Rosso (very fine & pure) & 2015 Arcuria ‘Sopra Il Pozzo’.
Buscemi – Alberto’s wife, Mirella Buscemi is making wine (at the Graci winery) from an ancient vyd, part of the Tartaraci Contrada, in the village of Bronte, once the property of Admiral Nelson no-less. Being so old, & high at 980m asl, (hence lying outside the Etna DOC) the vineyard is ‘co-planted’ with white, red, French, Spanish & Sicilian varieties, making for a fascinating field-blend; the white is mostly made of lime-skin Grecanico, while the red is Nerello plus Granaccia/Grenache. Highlight was the 2017 Tartaraci rosso, of which she made only 4,070 bts, with cement tanks a key factor in this 45 degree hot vintage!
Girolamo Russo – just down the road, past The Blue Moon bar (!), Giuseppe Russo is making classic Etna wines from c. 20ha, using sub-terrain cement tanks (!) & rather too many old barriques for my liking. His Feudo & San Lorenzo appear to be their strongest wines. Giuseppe, a classical pianist by nature, is currently restoring the beautiful premises at their Feudo vineyard.
SRC Vini – new on the scene since 2013, Rosario Parasiliti, his wife Cinzia & daughter Sandra (SRC) were hands-on garage winemakers until 2016 when Rori built themselves an ‘all-singing’ winery in the heart of their Castiglione di Sicilia vineyards. Complete with local winemaker Fabio & assistant Rossella, this happy team are producing pure Etna wines from the much-fancied Calderara, Pirao, Rivaggi & Barbabecchi contrade; lots of cement vats here, & oak only for the ‘Rivaggi’. The vintage 2018s tasted were juicy & delicious, despite the pressures of the wet 2018 August. The whites & Rosato frizzante also shone.
Frank Cornelissen – has definitely moved on from those full-on Magma days! He’s grown in size, both hectares & winery, & I sense that his 2018s are more ‘trad’, more linear, & less-provocative than when he was a garagiste! But apparently the prices have remained the same! A most generous host, he’s quite a draw & apparently welcomes 2000 visits a year, mostly from Korea?!
Pietradolce – owned by the local Farro family, famed for their nursery business, the c.22ha property was bought in 2005 & lies in Contrade Rampante. In 2019 they completed their state-of-the-art winery, that backs onto Monte Dolce (& nextdoor to the Giovanni Rosso vineyard). Carlo Ferrini makes the wine, & it shows. For me their best wine was the 2018 Bianco Archineri from Milo, versante Est fruit!
I Custodi delle Vigne dell’Etna – an engineer, disciple of Salvo Foti, & one-time business partner of Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall, whose vines formed the foundation of Mario’s ‘I Custodi’ estate, the Roman Mario Paoluzi is a charming, irrepressible host & producer, selling a lot of wine in the USA! The recipe is kept simple: fine vineyards in Mascali (Bianco), Calderara & Muganazzi tended by the I Vigneri team, vinified gently in stainless steel (by Salvo Foti) & aged in fresh barrique/tonneaux were necessary. As with I Vigneri, Cornelissen, SRC, total sulphur tends to be at c. 30mg level for the reds. Volatile acidity levels are apparently integral, giving the reds lift (!) Indeed, the standouts were the 2017 Bianco & 2018 Rosato!
Tenuta delle Terre Nere – one of the pioneers, the Italo-Americano Marc de Grazia now devotes (most of) his time to this famous estate, having left his distribution company in the hands of his brother. The estate apparently measures 50ha, producing 15 labels & 500,000 bottles! The impressive Catanese winemaker Calogero Statella has his hands full, as space is clearly short. They rely on (vertical) rotofermentors to push things through. De Grazia obviously has a penchant for Burgundy, as the packaging & indeed wines seem to resemble those of the Cote d’Or: very slick, well-made, a bit samey & not particularly expressive of place. Calogero is also making his own, crunchier wine, ‘Statella’, from contrade Rampante vines.
Planeta Etna – we finished on a high, kindly hosted by Alessio Planeta at their new Sciara Nuova property perched above Passopisciaro. Alessio clearly respects the previous day’s decision by the Etna Consorzio to keep the upper level of the DOC at 800m asl (?), as opposed to extending up to 1000m asl (where they & the likes of Graci, SRC, Cornelissen) have vines; he said, if that’s what the majority wish then so be it! Finely tuned wines by the talented Patricia Tóth, perhaps the 2018 Etna Bianco was slightly compromised by tonneaux, invece the Etna Rosso was divine with raspberry highlights & fluidity (& btw, they make a delicious Nocera from Capo Milazzo, & Nero d’Avola from Pacchino!)
Insomma – Le Contrade are much hyped, but without the substance behind them, yet. It would seem that the Contrade names at this stage are more pertinent from a marketing perspective, to create more market opportunities (e.g. Terre Nere) than to aid consumers differentiate fundamental geological differences (but maybe one will naturally lead to another). There’s clearly a difference between the effect of old & young lava soils, between Versante Est & Nord (& Sud), & from a mesoclimate perspective between the various Versante Nord villages. But otherwise, at present the region is in the hands of some very competent, big personalities, now with twenty years of experience, who are making some very good wines; if slightly split at this stage between those who are more or less natural in their approach! But as per the Langhe in the 1990s, at this stage it’s the brand that’s being touted, rather than objective differences in terroir.