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swirl and savor

Munjebel, The Elegant Wines of Passopisciaro

Beth Ribblett

Winding through the switchbacks and little hill towns around the Etna, we arrive at the church in Passopisciaro to meet vineyard manager Vincenzo Lo Mauro who leads us up the narrow roads that circle the vineyards. We stopped along the road above the estate to get the full view of the terraced vineyards of Chardonnay, Nerello Mascalese, Cenase d'Affile and Petit Verdot.

The property was bought by Tuscan wine superstar Andrea Francetti in 2000. Completely abandoned since a fierce eruption of the Etna in 1947, they had their work cut out for them. They completely renovated the 150 year old lava rock buildings and replanted the vineyards using the existing terraces. There is a specific spot on the property where the lava flow from the 1947 eruption stopped, saving the structures and the vineyards from complete devastation. Marked by a Madonna in a lava rock shell it is a constant reminder of how lucky and how vulnerable they are.

Piling in to the bed of the pik up, Vincenzo drove us up into the vineyards where winemaker Anne Martens was collecting samples of nerello mascalese to determine the precise moment of harvest in the next few days. It was an absolutely stunning day with temperatures in the low 80's and soft breezes rustling through the vines.

From there we went to the production facility where we were greeted by a few adorable dogs with a little girl named "pucci" stealing the show before we went inside. After touring the fermentation tank area Vincenzo took us to the cellars where the wine is stored before bottling. Only one wine, their franchetti sees small barriques for a short 6 month period, everything else is aged in large, well used foudres that impart little to no flavor to the wines. There are 4 current releases , the Guardiola, a Chardonnay; the Passopisciaro, a Nerello Mascalese; the Franchetti, a Petit Verdot/Cenase blend (that just happened to receive 97 Parker points); and the Dolce, a beautiful passito style white dessert wine. But they've got a few new wines in production right now and we were able to barrel taste a few of the 2008 that will highlight the nerello mascalese grape at different elevations.

Next we went up to their sorting room that they set up as a tasting area for us. Here they laid out a table covered in typical Sicilian foods such as the local pecorino and smoked ricotto cheeses, salumi, grilled eggplant and zucchini, olives, fresh tomato salad and a house baked bread all accompanied by the 2007 Passopisciaro, delizioso!

While we were enjoying the food and wine, winemaker Anna Martens had finished testing the bags of grapes she had gathered from the different vineyard sites. To end our visit with a special treat, she squeezed the bunches of nerello mascalese and handed us glasses of the most amazing grape juice I've ever had!

We reluctantly said our good byes and headed back down the mountain to the agriturismo.

To view the complete slide show from Passopisciaro, click here: Munjebel, Visiting Passopisciaro