Written by Taylor Cameron
Fine Wine & Craft Sales/Brand Manager for Farrell Distributing
An active volcano, high elevation, incredibly low yielding ancient vines, and wildly unpredictable weather patterns would send most winemakers sprinting in the opposite direction. However, these very characteristics are what have been attracting some of the most exciting growers to Mount Etna for the last three decades. Etna is located in the northeastern quadrant of Sicily and its active lava flows threaten not only vineyards, but all life in its path. The volcano reaches 11,000 feet in elevation and is snow capped nearly year round. Why the hell would anyone invest decades of passion and labor into an area with such extreme and unforgiving conditions? The answer is that when all goes as planned, the wine of Mount Etna can be some of the most intriguing wines in all of Italy.
Wine production was first brought to the slopes of Mount Etna in 700BC by the Greeks and has more or less continued since then with some local notoriety, but remained under the radar of the global wine landscape. Mount Etna largely escaped the “international variety” craze of the 1970’s and 1980’s – old vine blocks of indigenous varieties remain intact.
The red wines of Etna are based on Nerello Mascalese and the fuller bodied and slightly less acidic Nerello Cappuccio. Nerello Mascalese shares the acidity and tannic structure of Nebbiolo with the body and elegance of Pinot Noir. Both varieties have flavor profiles that begin with cherry and strawberry primary fruit then lead into hints of baking spices and leather. Throw in some spicy volcanic notes and you have a very complex and unique wine that is as terroir driven as some top Burgundy and Barolo, at only a fraction of the cost!
White wine varieties are also grown on Etna though it is much more rare: Carricante and a mix of other indigenous varieties make up the majority of plantings. These wines can vary in style depending on the vineyard site but generally speaking have racy acidity levels, medium body and are dominated by citrus, lemon zest and a pronounced minerality.
So, why plant on a volcano when there is plenty of hospitable vineyard land in Sicily? The short answer is elevation and soil. We all know that in most circumstances high elevations equate to cooler temperatures, and this is certainly true on Etna. Cooler temperatures allow grapes to hang on the vine longer and develop full phenolic ripeness and greater complexity. The cool temperatures also lead to higher acidity and lower alcohol, which in turn makes the wine more age worthy, food-friendly and balanced.
The soil makeup on Etna is one of the most unique in all of Italy for two distinct reasons. The first sounds obvious; Etna is a volcano so there is plenty of volcanic soil. But that’s not the whole story. There are many vineyard areas throughout the world that are based on volcanic soil, but those soils come from ancient, now defunct volcanoes allowing soil to decompose. On Etna, “lava flow age” is a common talking point and has lead to the creation of the “contrata system.” A contrata is the Etna version of “cru” and is meant to single out specific vineyards and lava flows for their unique characteristics.
Young lava flows (within the last 500 years) are often recognized as specific contrata for their rugged nature that will make a vine produce the most interesting wine. Intermixed with these lava flows are vineyards planted on pure sand. This is significant because the soil louse called phylloxera that devastated the world’s vineyards in the late 1800s cannot survive in sand. Therefore, Etna has many parcels of Nerello that are well over 100 years old! Mount Etna is the closest we have to a vineyard time capsule.
So, we have established that Etna is like nowhere else in the world and it’s wines epitomize the concept of terroir. Now let’s taste some wine! Look for wines from pioneering producers like Salvo Foti, Cornellisson and Fattorie Romeo del Castello. These wines below are available all across the Green Mountains.
About the producer
The “Maestranza dei Vigneri” (“Winegrowers Guild”) was established in Catania in 1435. This important association of vine cultivators working in the Etna region was the foundation stone for professionalism in wine growing and production.
After 500 years, I Vigneri is today the name of a company of winegrowers and producers operating around Etna and in eastern Sicily. The proprietors are vine experts like Salvo Foti (www.salvofoti.it) and a group of local growers from the Etna region.
I Vigneri is the culmination of more than 30 years experience in Eastern Sicily, of historic, social and technical research aimed at achieving “excellence” in wine growing and producing. We have sought to use non-invasive methods and systems, to respect local traditions and our own ancient grape varieties as far as possible, and to avoid the damage that over-reaching ambition and egoism can cause. Our work ethic lies in the pleasure of work well done, without frenzy, in harmony above all with ourselves, and with all that surrounds us: environment, nature, the volcano Etna, which is so much a part of us. I Vigneri is also a holistic system of grape growing and wine production which respects our environment.
About the producer
Frank Cornelissen is the owner of 12 hectares of vines high up on Mount Etna. Frank has been involved in wine his entire life. He is the son of a wine broker in Belgium and so has had the opportunity to be around wine on a professional level from a very young age.
There are a lot of details in his winemaking that affect the way that the wines end up, but for him it all starts in the vineyards. Frank isn’t Sicilian so choosing Mount Etna was decision and not just happenstance. He chose Mount Etna for a few reasons, but the first was the soil. He feels that volcanic soils have a significant voice and, in concert with Etna’s primary variety Nerello Mascalese, he could make a wine of great complexity and distinction.
In the winery his work follows the same philosophy of using what nature provides him. There are no yeasts, sulfites, or anything else added to the wines. The idea is to have wines that taste of grapes and terroir.
This elegant, structured red opens with a potpourri of perfumed berry, wild flower and a whiff of cake spice. The juicy palate doles out black cherry, wild strawberry, cinnamon, star anise and menthol alongside firm but fine-grained tannins.
Taylor was first introduced to the world of fine wine by family members who had just returned from a sabbatical in Australia. After graduating from UVM he made the snowboarder’s pilgrimage to Lake Tahoe. With Tahoe as a home base, Taylor started exploring the west coast wine regions from Santa Barbara to Napa and even into the Willamette Valley and eastern Washington. During this time Taylor jumped into the deep end of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust which he stuck with all the way through the Diploma program. Next stop was Seattle where Taylor received a crash course in distribution and small production old world wines at a boutique importer. After five years on the west coast it was time to head back east. Taylor took a job with the esteemed Michael Skurnik Wines where the next four years he “pounded the pavement” in Manhattan and worked with some of the city’s most exciting restaurants. Taylor is now back in Vermont and is applying his studies, experiences and vision to the fine wine portfolio at FDC.
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