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swirl and savor

Exciting Mount Etna, Sicilia at It's Best

Beth Ribblett

One of the great things about the wine industry is that there is always something new and exciting to be discovered. It may be an ancient grape varietal brought back from extinction, a little known region that enters the spotlight or an up and coming, passionate wine maker who gets recognized for creating extraordinary wines. The most recent example of this for me came about in the research I've been doing for our wine and culinary trip to Sicily coming up this fall. The little known Mount Etna region has it all, a history of winemaking that dates back to the 5th century BC, ancient grape varietals grown in difficult volcanic soils, and some of the most exciting producers I've come across in a long time.

For most Italian wine drinkers, Sicily is associated with the Nero D'Avola grape which is characteristic of deep, dark wines that are, big and rich in blueberry and blackberry fruits with a touch of smoke and spice. Producers such as Donnafugata, Planeta, Morgante and Tasca D'Almerita that are located in the center and western part of the island, are famous for their awarding winning wines made from Nero D'Avola and are what we usually associate with Sicilian red wine.

Mount Etna, on the north eastern side of the island represents and entirely different style of wine making with red grape varietals such as Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Mantellato and whites with Carricante and Catarratto, making up the majority of the blends. Wines made with Nerello Mascalese offer a delicate, complex alternative to the rich and robust Nero d'Avola. Reminiscent of Burgundy, it has ripe, dark berries with modest tannins and a dusting of mineral earthiness.

Growing grapes on the slope of an active volcano is not without some obvious risks. In addition, the soil is difficult to work. It is a combination of volcanic soils and sand. Quite a bit of sand. In a twist of fate, the soil may be the reason these wines will be stars of the 21st century. At the end of the 19th century, Phylloxera had destroyed much of Europe’s vineyards. The louse, however, was unsuccessful on Mt. Etna due to those same sandy soils. Phylloxera cannot exist in such a soil which prevented the louse from spreading. As a result, there are now some very old vines that are on their original and ungrafted rootstock, a rarity in Italy. Of course, the steep terrain combined with the sandy volcanic soil makes tending the vines quite difficult. It is hard for a worker to keep from falling, especially during harvest, when carrying baskets of grapes. The work is so difficult that it is often problematic employing harvest workers.

During our trip to New York last month, I was able to taste quite a few wines from this region that has become a bit of an obsession for me. The problem is that none of the wines are available in Louisiana so I am working with a few of our distributors on bringing them in. I contacted an importer of one of the "superstars", Passopisciaro, and our friends at Uncorked Wines have agreed to bring them in for me. A consistent Tre Bicchieri wine by Gambero Rosso and rated 93 points by Parker for the 2005 vintage, this wine is an incredible example of what the region is capable of and retails for around $50 a bottle.

Gambero Rosso says:
...a perfect peak of eloquence. The colour is a bright ruby. The nose is irresistible with great depth and elegance as healthy, ripe, red and blackberry fruit interweaves with elegant notes of balsam and mountain herbs before the palate shows full and powerful, with plenty of fruit and sinew, but it also has that amazing mineral depth which epitomizes Etna.

Parker says:
"The 2005 Passopisciaro (Nerello Mascalese) opens with suggestions of candied red cherries and raspberries. It is lithe and sensual on the palate, with an attractive liqueur-like, perfumed quality to its fruit. From start to finish the wine reveals notable clarity and precision. This is a remarkable effort from this young property. Anticipated maturity: 2008-2015 Andrea Franchetti of Tenuta di Trinoro is among those who have recognized the unique qualities of the vineyards located on the hills of Mount Etna. These high-altitude vineyards give Franchetti the optimal conditions for gradual ripening and a late harvest that typically stretches in to mid-November, sometimes later. The wines Franchetti makes at his estate Passopisciaro present a fascinating expression of his style and these terroirs."

I'll be writing more on the region in upcoming posts and as soon as we have enough examples brought in there will definitely be a seated tasting. I'll keep you posted on our progress and the trip to Sicily, October 11-21, which will start in the Mount Etna region. We will start taking reservations for the trip in April or May as soon as the itinerary is confirmed.