Sicily’s ‘explosive’ wines from volcanic soil

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sicilyvineyard.jpgOne of the most exciting areas for wines today is the area around the slopes of Mount Etna, the active volcano in Sicily. Although Etna DOC is the oldest/first demarcated wine region in Italy (1968), it is only in the last 15 years or so that top quality wine has been produced here, writes Harshal Shah, who was in Sicily recently reporting for Sommelier India


The soils in this region are largely volcanic: dark grey in colour and quite sandy. It is for this reason that while Phylloxera (the vine louse that destroyed most vineyards in Europe in the late 1800’s) decimated the vineyards of mainland Italy, it could not settle and reproduce in Etna. As a result, some of the vines in Etna are very very old and are still growing on their original roots.
Elsewhere, vine growers had to graft their vines on to Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. The old vines produce less grapes than younger, grafted vines, resulting in wines with generally more concentration of flavours and intensity. The vineyards are often high in altitude, have very hot daytime temperatures while quite cool at night. The area gets a lot of rainfall and the volcanic soils all combine to provide fine growing conditions.
There are some grape varieties planted here that are not really found anywhere else in Italy, let alone the world. These include Carricante and Catarratto, both rather citrusy, medium-bodied white grapes (Catarratto can also sometimes be a tad bitter), and Nerello Mascalese, a red grape producing light-coloured yet powerful, fragrant and textured wines, a bit like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. Of course Nero d’Avola (red) and Grillo (white) are also planted but somehow don’t seem to fare quite so well on the eastern side of Sicily where Etna is located. Interestingly, India produces one Nero d’Avola and one Grillo.
So popular are the Nerello reds from this area that the last decade or so has seen some pretty famous wine names from elsewhere in Italy establish vineyards. Andrea Franchetti is one of these. His Tenuta di Trinoro Super-Tuscan is one of the most expensive and collectible of its kind today. His wines from Etna, under the Passopisciaro label are far more cerebral and complex. They are also a fraction of the cost of Trinoro, which can retail for as much as US$220 a bottle.
Esoteric ‘natural’ winemaker Frank Cornelissen also makes wines in this region. These wines are not for everybody: natural wines are all about zero intervention including no filtration or adjustments for colour nor addition of sulphur dioxide, so a lot of Cornelissen’s wines are cloudy and browning as they oxidise quicker. Some of his wines are also stored and aged in clay vats (known as amphora), much like they would have been centuries ago.
My recent visit to Sicily thanks to SI Contributor and Italian specialist Michele Shah, really opened my eyes to how amazing the wines from the Etna DOC are. Three highlights are below, but these are by no means the only outstanding wines from the region. By far, the best producer we visited was Tenuta di Fessina, run by Federico Curtaz, ex-winemaker at the famous Gaja winery in Piedmont, but there are loads of others. The estate’s top wine, Musmeci is a blend of native varietals Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappucio.
The 2007 vintage of this wine is quite extracted with big tannins yet still with elegance and freshness. Red fruit and even some spice from the 14 months spent in oak are evident. The wine is not available in India yet, but sells for about the equivalent of Rs 2500 in Italian retail.

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