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swirl and savor

The Etna Revisited

Beth Ribblett

For months now you've been hearing me go on and on about our upcoming wine and culinary tour of Sicily (which by the way we are leaving in less than 2 weeks!!) and especially my fascination with the exceptional wines and producers of the Mount Etna. The region is way off the radar of most wine drinkers, albeit Wine Spectator's latest edition did do a somewhat lame article, "Remaking Sicily" where they gave an approving nod to a few producers mainly influential importer, consultant and winemaker Marc de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere.

Growing vines in the shadow of Europe's only active volcano is not for the faint of heart. Towering above Catania, Sicily's second largest city, Mount Etna has one of the world's longest documented records of historical volcanism, dating back to 1500 BC with minor eruptions still taking place today. The major eruptions and lava flows over the last few centuries have created the huge variety of lava formations that make up Etna’s unique topography. Eruptions from volcanic vents on the east side of the mountain have melted a destructive trail through any communities that lay in their path towards their ultimate destination – the sea.

Etna has two distinct viticultural areas, the eastern and northern slope. The former has a mild, maritime, fairly humid climate, quite a bit of precipitation and is also the source for most of Etna’s distinctive, mineral, salt-scented white wines that are mostly based on the local Carricante grape as well as reds from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio. Sheltered from Mediterranean influences by the Nebrodi mountain range the vineyards on the northern slope see much less rain and the temperature differences between day and night can be extreme. Red wines reign supreme, with the Nerello Mascalese grape reaching qualitative heights. Here you also find much older, up to 130-year-old vines, partly ungrafted as phylloxera cannot survive on the very active volcanic ash sand.

The superstar variety of the region is Nerello Mascalese, with its bright red fruit, pleasantly earthy and floral notes, hints of tobacco and notable tannin, is often compared to the likes of Barolo and Burgundy. Nerello Mascalese ripens late, and grapes are grown up to a cool 4,000 feet on the slopes of Mount Etna so that they sometimes may not be picked until the end of October or even the beginning of November. The variety certainly holds its acid well and combined with a decent tannin structure, the wine is good to drink young and able to age too.

The Etna wines are excitingly different, very intriguing and unfortunately difficult to get in New Orleans....the only wholesaler in the city who is currently stocking an Etna Rosso is Matt Lirette (Lirette Selections). And not just any Rosso, but that of Salvo Foti, an impressive, leading local viticulturist who makes wine for many of the larger producers in the region as well as his own label, I Vigneri.

I've been a bit obsessed about these wines lately and have made a great contact with wine professional in Austin, A.J. Hernandez who is extremely knowledgeable about the region. He sent me a short list of "must see" producers and because of his help and advice we have appointments with 3 exciting producers in the area, Frank Cornelissen, Passopisciaro and Vini Biondi (Salvo Foti is the winemaker here). The Etna is awash with amazing small producers and other names to look for include Alberto Graci, Terre Nere, Benanti to name a few.

So if you are intrigued by all of this, join us of our Tuesday tasting of "Italy's Southern Stars" where we'll be tasting my "wine of the moment", Salvo Foti's I Vigneri Etna Rosso as well as other favorite selections from Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia and Campagnia.