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.
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Emerging from ‘chiusura‘ here in Italia, I reflect on that February visit to Lombardia’s stunning Valtellina region, north-east of Milano. Outside of the Langhe & Roero, I think it would be fair to say that Valtellina joins Alto Piemonte as a source of fine Nebbiolo-based wines, or should I say Chiavennasca…
And just as with Alto Piemonte, & indeed Etna, so the risorgimento of Valtellina also seems to date back to the early 2000s, when a new generation of vignaioli (vignerons) appeared, prompted by a drop in the market (price) & hence the possibility to rent decent vineyards & buy fruit affordably. This situation was triggered by the then largest bottler, Nino Negri, apparently changing their grape supply policy; while in 2010 the cantina sociale, ‘Enologica Valtellina’, went bust. These events encouraged small producers such as Dirupi, Mozzi, Barbacàn, Boffalora, Mattia Franzina & others to enter the market & begin making artisan wines from terraces of old masale selection vines, embroidered by wild fichi d’india – all uncanny similarities to Etna. And as with Etna & Alto Piemonte, so Valtellina was once ‘carpeted’ with 6,000 hectares of vines during the 19th century, before rapidly contracting post WWII to today’s coverage of circa 850ha, so the equivalent of Barbaresco.
The valley of Valtellina runs in a west-east line that begins almost on the banks of the Lago di Como – itself an influence. The valley topography recalls more the Côte d’Or than for example the cross-like shape of Alto Piemonte, or the volcanic apron effect around Etna, or indeed compared to the twisting, curving complexity of the Langhe & Roero. This regional symmetry makes it simpler to understand & to navigate. For just as the RN74 runs along Burgundy’s 50km ‘Golden Slope’, with only the village order to remember, so in Valtellina it’s the SS38 – running alongside the river Adda – that delivers you from one end of the valley to the other, from the villages of Ardenno in the west to Tirano further east, a distance of 45km.
Given the steep gradient, most of the key vineyards are terraced & largely face South West, South or South East, ensuring a certain consistency of ripeness. The river Adda tempers the valley mesoclimate, especially during winter as the Valtellina region lies on the 46 latitude. In summer, the terraces are air-conditioned, west to east, by breezes originating from the Lago di Como; the river Adda carrying lively air currents back & forth. The vines are also protected by the presence of two mountain ranges: in front facing the vines, the Alpi Orbie protects from any torrid southerlies or indeed from burning sun (so the slopes warm up gradually!); while lying on Valtellina’s back are the Alpi Retiche, keeping the cold from the North at bay.
These mountain ranges also affect rainfall, reducing it to an average of 900mm/during the growing season compared to more than 2000mm outside the valley. Aspect & altitude of the vineyards seem more important than the actual composition of the soils, which are quite similar the length of the valley: a mix of schist, granite/sand, mica, gneiss, & morainic. And as per the likes of the Carema region, so in the past alluvial soil from the Adda was carried up to infill the terraces. Assessing site, there appear to be three bands of terraced vineyards: up to 250m asl, between 250 -450m, & above 450metres. The pancia (250-450m) lies in the heart of the slope & is the place to be. Consequently there’s good diurnal shift in temperature, preserving acidities & perfumes.
Nebbiolo (Chiavennasca) is key, but other local varieties such as Rossola, Pignola & Merlina also add nuance & can make up 10% of the final wine (along with any non-indigenous varieties). The four levels of Valtellina wines are: DOC Rosso di Valtellina, DOCG Valtellina Superiore (215ha), Valtellina Superiore ‘Sottozona/MGA/Cru’ (25ha Maroggia, 114ha Sassella, 78ha Grumello, 55ha Inferno, & 137ha Valgella), Valtellina Superiore Riserva, plus ‘Sforzato di Valtellina’, a passito version popular with the locals. Permited yields are similar to the Langhe: Rosso at 65hl/ha (100 quintals), & Valtellina Superiore at 52hl/ha (80 q.); but in hectolitres of wine, Valtellina Superiore can yield more per hectare (60hl) than Barolo at 56hl. Ageing of Valtellina Superiore & VS Sottozone/Cru is 24mths, of which 12 mths must be in wood barrels; for Riserva, 36 mths. Valtellina Superiore was awarded DOC in 1968, & DOCG in 1998.
As for the wines, & agreeing with the conclusions of Alessandro Masnaghetti Editore/ENOGEA (2015 2nd edition), the general characteristics of the key Sottozone/MGA/Crus appear to be: gentle contoured Maroggia (2 producers in 2015) at the western, open end of the valley, offers suave delicacy; steep Sassella (21 producers) at the heart of the Valtellina Superiore zone is more vertical & taut (even if aspect swings from SE to SW); pure south, deep soils of Grumello (13 producers) give more volume & flesh; alongside, rich in clay, Inferno (14 producers) offers power & structure; while at the eastern end, the Valgella (15 producers) zone is well extended, but generally is high & cool, giving nervy wines.
Comparing Valtellina wines to those of Alto Piemonte & Basso Piemonte (Roero & Langhe), one might assume that the wines of Alto Piemonte & Valtellina would be similar, given their pre-Alp locations & (essentially) acidic soils, & yet they’re very different. Looking at approximate analysis of alcohol, total acidity, & pH. Valtellina alcohols are c.14%, total acidity at a softer 4.50/5g/litro, & their pH at a malleable c.3.60/70.
Meanwhile, a bit further south on the 45th parallel, Alto Piemonte is more exposed & cooler, its gentler slopes (not terraces) often surrounded by woods, lower in altitude, its vyd. aspects more varied, & it endures a higher average rainfall (c.1000mm). Therefore Alto Piemonte wines tend to be fresh (acidity 5.50/6.00), with modest alcohol (13.5/14%), a sinewy body (pH3.64), & a crunchier structure than those of Valtellina. The use of other grapes in Alto Piemonte wines, such as the lighter Vespolina, only re-inforce their pretty, perfumed character.
In contrast, on the 44th parallel, among the sandy hills of the Roero alcohols generally arrive at (14.5/15%), bright acidities of 5/5.30, & minerally pHs of c.3.60; the (fruit) tannins tend to be gentler too, due to younger soils. Meanwhile the Barolos of the Langhe have significant alcohol (c.14.5+%) from a warmer drier climate further south, but balanced by a sapid calcareous minerality of pH3.50, good acidity (5.50) & a prominent tannic structure due to the cool, damp marne bedrock; Langhe wines benefit from more time in bottle.
The Superiore wines of Valtellina would therefore seem to display the presence/volume of the Langhe without the richness (alc%), nor (tannic) structure or (sedimentary) sapidity. This may be due to terroir, & to the above analysis, or because ageing is for a shorter period in less oak (2 yrs vs 3yrs for Barolo); a factor maybe also the 10% presence of other varieties permitted in the final wine. This translates into a medium/full bodied, distinctly fleshy but fresh Nebbiolo wine that’s more approachable younger.
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2017 Langhe vintage: after a relatively mild winter, I recall a warm sunny March, & atypical 23 degree days accelerating the vegetative growth, followed by spring rain, & then on April 14th frost that damaged Barolo’s lower vyds & localised hail in Barbaresco (San Cristoforo). But it was the constant 30 degree days & drought caused by the N. African anticyclone ‘Caronte’ from mid-May until 1st Sept without a break that left its mark. Producers are tending to leave on more leaves to protect from the sun, plus some use Caolina, a natural sun-block made from crushed rock, & nets too alas (vs hail, sun & weather extremes!). Important rain showers in the Barolo zone on 29th July & 1st Sept refreshed the canopy & vines (& folk!), helping to revive & kickstart the Nebbiolo vines. 1st Sept also brought significantly cooler nights, almost October-esque; it was like waking up to crisp, dewy mornings. Generally, the villages of Verduno, La Morra & Barolo (lower, warmer, more precocious) started to pick Nebbiolo the week of 18th Sept, three weeks earlier than normal, while the higher, cooler, poorer, more backward calc soils of Castiglione Falletto, Monforte & Serralunga d’Alba (& even cool Novello?) could afford to hang on until week of 25th Sept & beyond. One positive created by the hot dry conditions: little disease pressure & weak vegetative growth meant cleaner fruit, due to fewer (chemical) treatments & less mechanical work in the vyd! Warmer, drier Barbaresco appears to have suffered more, hit by a triple whammy of hail, frost & drought so skins are thick & yields are down. But the vintage is no 2003, being fresher, especially the nights, with intermittent rain, & hence no real sign of desiccated fruit or wilting vines. It is of course thanks to the Langhe & (to a lesser extent) Roero’s water-retentive marne soils the vines are able to see out dry hot summers such as 2017. Due to the siccità, it would appear that ‘salificazione’ took place; under stress the vine drew up only essential minerals with which to survive, so increasing the ‘sapidità’, & lowering the pH. Barolo Cannubi vyd started being picked on 18th Sept, three/four wks ahead of norm! Barbaresco perhaps suffered most, missing out on key rain showers during the middle of the year. It was year that called for an early harvest to ensure good acidities, shorter pumping-over macerations to extract less rather than more, & judicious use of oak to avoid compromising the delicate fruit profile. Similar perhaps to a 2005 or 2001?
(foto: racking 2017 Nebbiolo da Barolo, Cantina Bartolo Mascarello on 23 Sept. 2017!)
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