Sicily Land of Delights: Etna

Hope fully you enjoyed my piece about Sicilian food and your appetite was suitably whetted to hear some more about the wines from this wonderful island. I wrote about Donnafugata, one of the leading Sicilian estates here, but this article focuses on one of the leading quality wine regions on the island – Etna.

Mount Etna, a wonderful sight and at the heart of an amazing wine region.

Views of Etna dominate the landscape.

The first couple of days of my Sicily trip were spent around Etna and although this wine region is a mere D.O.C. – rather strangely the only D.O.C.g. on Sicily is Cerasuolo di Vittoria. I found Etna to be the most consistently high quality region that I experienced on Sicily. Other areas have some great producers making very good wines, but to me Etna appeared to be Sicily’s most consistently reliable region for making good and interesting wines. The natural conditions seem to lean towards excellence and excitement whereas perhaps the other places need to work that bit harder for really exciting wines? Of course the fact that it is Sicily’s smallest region might help keep the quality up too as it means that by and large Etna is a land of boutique producers and small estates.

Sicily 2013 blog

Wine map of Sicily – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Etna is an amazing area and although wine is produced all over the volcano’s lower slopes and surrounding hillsides, the D.O.C. only covers the northern, eastern and southern slopes – see my map. This can mean that some very good Etna wines only have I.G.P. on the label, as does the fact that the D.O.C. does not cover the very highest slopes – yet.

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The soil is a fine volcanic dust – see the bird in the sky, look 2 photos down.

A close up of that fine volcanic soil - at Firriato this time.

That volcanic soil again.

The best shot I got of that bird, anyone know what it is? It looks eagle-like to me.

That bird again, as close as I could get it, it looks like an eagle to me. Anyone know what it is?

Altitude varies enormously here from 450m to 1100m above sea level and the eastern slopes enjoy much more rain than the other sides. This tempers the heat and dry conditions, so together with the height making it cooler and the rich mineral, volcanic soils this area is really good for white wine production. Certainly three of my favourite whites from the trip were grown around the village of Milo on the south eastern slopes of Mount Etna – if your Etna Bianco is labelled Superiore then it can only come from Milo.

I really liked a great many wines from around here, but the whites led the pack for me – perhaps because they suited the cuisine so perfectly, but possibly because they were really very good. The secret weapon of the area is their own indigenous white grape called Carricante. It does not seem to be grown anywhere else, but it responds superbly to the local conditions to produce elegant dry white wines with high acidity and wonderful minerality – so can put the drinker in mind of Assyrtiko from Santorini.

My highlights:

Tenuta di Fessina

The beautiful Tenuta di Fessina.

The beautiful Tenuta di Fessina, the site of an ancient lava flow, blocks of volcanic stone are used to build the retaining walls.

Our host at Tenuta di Fessina. Like most Sicilian winemakers she was very difficult to photograph as she never stood still!

Diletta Lavoratorin, our animated and informative host. Like most of our Sicilian hosts she hardly ever stayed still enough for me to get a decent photo! I did wonder about a caption competition for this, so feel free to send ideas in!

This beautiful estate is the brainchild of Tuscan wine producer Silvia Maestrelli and Piemontese Federico Curtaz and is just 10 hectares pieced together by buying up old bush vine vineyards.

a-puddara2011 A’Puddara
D.O.C. Etna Bianco
100% Carricante from 45 year old vines grown in Santa Maria di Licodia at the southern tip of the Etna park and on a southern exposure at around 900 metres and although I loved all the wines here, this was my favourite and the one that I actually bought. Unusually this was seemingly fermented and then aged for 6 months in large French oak barrels, these varied between 1 and 15 years old – leaning towards older and so neutral in taste – but oak does not dominate this wine at all, or detract from the minerality, acidity or tension, or not yet anyway. Perhaps the oak will shine through in a few years time, but I would rather have it now with a pristine, mineral feel to it.
Right now though it is taut, lean, stony and mineral with a thrilling citrus cut of high acidity to the palate and a touch of saltiness too. There is real richness to the palate as well which gives that lovely feeling of tension to the wine. I really really liked this and it went wonderfully with a superb dinner at the winery, the arancini were especially good – 91/100 points.
Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the UK from Outis.

Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the US through Winebow.

Azienda Vinicola Benanti

Benanti's Vigneto Monteserra.

Benanti’s Sera de la Contessa vineyard.

I was greatly looking forward to visiting Benanti. I had tried a couple of their wines before and knew they were good, so eagerly anticipated trying them in situ and learning about this impressive producer. Technically it was established in 1988 by Giuseppe Benanti, but actually his family had farmed this land for generations and what he did was to really focus it on wine production. Not just any old wine either, right from the start he wanted to produce fine wine. As recently as 1988 no one else was trying to make top quality wine on Etna, so Benanti was the trend setter. He saw the potential in his land and sought outside advice from experts in Burgundy and Piemonte on what to grow and what to do he set off trying to turn Etna into a great wine region.

Antonio Benanti.

Antonio Benanti – the only photo I have of either of them even vaguely in focus as they would not keep still, even when posing for pictures!

Today the place is run by Giuseppe’s twin sons Antonio and Salvino and they really do seem to do a wonderful job. They exude charm and confidence and a real love for their land, although they have both had other careers before joining the family firm.

What fascinated me was their belief that Etna is totally unlike the rest of Sicily, they claimed to never even talk about Sicily, just Etna. They regard their wines as mountain wines, Alpine like Austrian or Friulian wines rather than Sicilian Mediterranean wines. I can see what they mean too, their wines – the whites anyway – have a purity about them that seems very unlike the Mediterranean. Although the history of Benanti wines is not long they have come a long way since 1988 and now exclusively champion the native grapes of Etna over the international varieties they started with.

Again I thought all the wines were good, but the stand out wines for me were:

NoblesseBrut Noblesse
This is a delightful sparkling wine made from Carricante grapes, grown at between 950 and 1200 metres above sea level, plus some other local grapes to add a little richness to the acidic, taut and mineral citrus notes of Carricante. It was quite delicious and hit the spot rather well before climbing up into the vineyards. A small portion of the wine is barrel fermented and it is aged on the lees over the winter before the second fermentation takes place the following Spring. After bottling it was aged for 18 months on the lees before disgorging. An attractive and enjoyable sparkling wine of excellent quality and finesse, if not great complexity – 87/100 points.

Pietramarina2009 Pietramarina
D.O.C. Etna Bianco Superiore
For me this is the standard bearer wine for Sicily – or Etna anyway. Pure Carricante grown in Milo at over 950 metres above sea level, most of the vines are over 80 years old and many are ungrafted. The wine is unoaked, but released after ageing in bottle, 2009 is the new release. This age means that we still get the taut, nervy minerality and high acidity, but it is balanced by some creamy waxy richness that makes the whole wine more complex and interesting and introduces richer orange notes and nuts in to the flavour profile. This is a wonderful wine – 93/100 points.

Yet again it was the whites that really thrilled me and again they were just perfect with the food, but everything Benanti made seemed very good including 2 of the very best Etna reds that I tasted on the trip:

Castiglione di Sicilia.

Castiglione di Sicilia where Rovittello’s grapes are grown.

Castiglione di Sicilia from afar with vineyards in the foreground.

Castiglione di Sicilia from afar with vineyards in the foreground.

The hillsides around Castiglione di Sicilia.

The hillsides around Castiglione di Sicilia.

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Elders of Castiglione di Sicilia.

Rovittello2005 Rovittello
D.O.C. Etna Rosso
80% Nerello Mascalese – the dominant black grape in these parts – and 20% Nerello Capuccio. Masacali is a village on Etna which lends its name to the Nerello Mascalese. This wine is made from a 80 year old vines on a single vineyard site in Castiglione di Sicilia at 750 metres above sea level and aged in cask for 12 months.
This is a delicious red wine, rich with black cherry characters and iron-like minerality, silky tannins and earthy, mushroomy, leathery, tobacco together with dried fruit and gently rustic and baked Medierranean flavours. The finish is very long and with a wonderful savoury character – 90/100 points.

Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio2006 Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio
I.G.T. Scilia
100% Nerello Capuccio, also from Castiglione di Sicilia, grown at 700 metres above sea level and aged in cask for 8-10 months. This is simply an I.G.T. as the  D.O.C. rules only allow up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio in Etna reds. This is because it is not so widely grown and is very much the junior partner historically.
I did like the Rovittello very much, but this really stood out, everything about this wine is a delight. The colour is intense, the nose is lifted and aromatic with rich red fruit and savoury leather and herbs. On the palate there’s a supple, mouthfilling and velvety texture with soft tannins and intense sweet red fruit, ever so slightly cooked and reminiscent of rich Pinot Noir, especially as there is some freshness of acidity. There are herbs, iron, earth, rich cherry, salami, tobacco and mocha, some of which implies a sort of rustic memory somewhere in this wine’s DNA, but it isn’t rustic at all. A glorious wine – 93/100 points.

I should also point out that the 2006 Il Monovitigno Nerello Mascalese is rather lovely too, but the Cappuccio totally thrilled me that bit more.

Benanti wines are available in the UK from Les Caves De Pyrene.
Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the US through Wine Warehouse in California.
The road to Cottanera.

The road to Cottanera.

Another family winery that is seeking to make great Etna wines in the Castiglione di Sicilia area, Cottanera was created in the 1990s by brothers Guglielmo and Enzo Cambria when they converted a hazelnut grove into a vineyard. Since Guglielmo untimely death the estate has been run by his daughter Mariangela and Enzo.

cottanera_etnabianco2012 Cottanera Etnabianco
D.O.C. Etna Bianco
The fresher, zestier side of Etna Bianco This is basically a cold fermented Carricante – with a little dollop of Catarratto – that was aged on the lees.
The nose was restrained, tight and mineral with just a touch of lemon, lemon rind and smoky lees. The palate is deceptively rich with zesty lemon rind acidity and some weight of smoky creamy lees in the mouth. It is almost crisp and has pretty high acidity too and is very clean with a feeling of purity and lively with pear and grapefruit on the long finish. A lovely dry wine – 89/100 points.
I also highly rated (90 points) their seductive 2005 Etnarosso which is 90% Nerello Mascalese with 10% Nerello Cappuccio aged for 9 months in a mixture of large wooden vats, new and older barrels.

As I say Etna seemed to me to be the finest and most cohesive of Sicily’s wine regions. I had lovely wines elsewhere, but they seemed more dependent on being made by a good producer, whereas all the Etna wines I have tried have been very good indeed – especially the whites.

In fact after I arrived back in the UK I tried the Wine Society’s bargain 2012 Etna Bianco from a producer called Nicosia and while it was not in the same league as the other whites mentioned in this piece, it was a lovely, fresh, crisp, mineral and tasty dry white wine of real quality at just £8.50.

I also tasted one more Etna white on the trip when I visited Planeta a few days later. This impressive producer started making wine much further West in Sambuca di Sicilia and Menfi, but now has vineyards dotted throughout the island. They created an estate on Etna in 2008 and their first vintage is the 2012. So far they only make a white that it is mainly Carricante blended with something quite surprising – and wow is it good. More of that another time.

In the meantime, do try some wines from Etna – you will enjoy them, I promise.

Sicily Land of Delights: the food

Early this Summer I enjoyed my first wine trip to Sicily. I had never visited the island before and was thrilled by everything I saw and almost everything I tasted. Our little group were all members of The Circle of Wine Writers and we experienced some breathtaking scenery and visited some wonderful producers which demonstrated to me what fabulous wines this beautiful island can produce.

Greek and Roman ruins dot the landscape.

Greek and Roman ruins dot the landscape.

It seems pretty much the norm that wine regions are beautiful places, or at least dramatic, which must be to do with the conditions that grape vines need to grow, but I thought this island was especially lovely. Sicily is of course in the Mediterranean Sea and so I expected it to be wild and rugged, like Southern Spain. Some of it is like that, but over all the place struck me as being amazingly lush and green – it helped that while we there the island was ablaze with wild flowers adding colour and softness to every view. The trip was a constant surprise with stunning vistas of dramatic mountains, rolling hills, ancient ruins and enticing towns that made the whole trip a delight.

Beautiful wild flowers were everywhere.

Beautiful wild flowers were everywhere.

Castiglione di Sicilia near Etna.

Castiglione di Sicilia near Bronte and Etna.

Sicily is mainly the bulk wine producing giant of Italy, but we were there to see the finer side of what Sicily does. Being so near North Africa I would have expected Sicilian wines to be robust affairs, full-bodied and hot with little or no acidity, but it seems that I was very wrong. The good wines that I tasted all offered elegance, freshness and good acidity, with nothing flabby or hot about them – which was just as well as the local cuisine seems to be largely based on vegetables along with some stunning fish – all of which cries out for lighter, fresher wines and more white wines than most consumers (UK ones anyway) associate with Southern Italy, which is a shame as the whites from this part of the world have become generally very good of late and also have some true flashes of brilliance – which I saw in Sicily.

Sicily 2013 blog

Wine map of Sicily – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

It was the freshness of the wines that thrilled me I think and made me realise just how wise the Sicilians are. They cheekily describe their island as a continent because – although it is very small in terms of landmass – there are many different soil types as well as climatic conditions from the different altitudes and proximity to the sea, all of which allows them to harvest over a three month period and so produce a bewildering array of different wine styles, delicate dry whites, fine sparkling wine, medium-bodied dry reds, concentrated dessert wines and fine fortified wines were all amongst my favourites on this trip. Look up variety in the dictionary and there really ought to be a picture of Sicily there.

An arctichoke in full bloom near The Valley of the Temples.

An arctichoke in full bloom near The Valley of the Temples.

Pistashios at Planeta.

Pistashios growing at Planeta.

The local food of course echoes these conditions just as the wines do, with great emphasis placed on the wonderfully juicy tomatoes – Pomodoro di Pachino is an I.G.P. – lemons and oranges – the local speciality blood orange Arancia Rossa di Sicilia is also an I.G.P., artichokes, aubergines, olives, olive oil, almonds and pistachios are all important and widely used. I was thrilled to see pistachios growing, the best apparently come from the Pistacchio di Bronte D.O.P., in Lord Nelson’s old Sicilian dukedom of Bronte near Etna, which is why he signed himself Nelson & Bronte – if you have ever wondered. I saw plenty of prickly pears growing and they too are a speciality with the best coming from the Fico d’India dell’Etna DOP – D.O.P. – P.D.O. prickly pears, who would have guessed it!

A prickly pear in flower.

A prickly pear in flower.

Every meal we had was beautifully simple and made from stunning ingredients, everything seemed delicious and fabulously fresh and was often totally unexpected – one of the very best things I have eaten all year was the sage leaves that we enjoyed at Tasca d’Almerita. They were fried in a soft eggy batter – I cannot find the words to tell you how good they were and nor can I tell you why they were so good, they just were!

Simplicity itself, but delicious too, pasta with a fresh tomato sauce, fluffy fresh ricotta and basil...happiness with a great white wine!

Simplicity itself, but delicious too, pasta with a fresh tomato sauce, fluffy fresh ricotta and basil…happiness with a great white wine at Tasca!

And on the subject of the food, I had never really known what do do with Ricotta cheese before I went to Sicily – now I know, you serve it fresh with anything and on everything.

Seafood
All the seafood that I had was fabulous too, perfectly fresh and simply cooked – it is that simplicity and reliance on really good ingredients that always lifts good Italian food and makes it seem so much more than the sum of its parts. Everything I tried in Sicily seemed to epitomise this.

This Spaghetti alle vongole was perfection and was superb with a Etna Bianco.

This Spaghetti alle vongole was perfection and superb with a fine Etna Bianco.

Steamed swordfish - pesce spada - a stunning dish, simple, delicious and memorable.

Steamed swordfish – pesce spada – a stunning dish, simple, delicious and memorable.

Street Food

Arancini - a wonderful bit of Sicilian street food that is a real speciality of the island.

Arancini – a wonderful bit of Sicilian street food that is a real speciality of the island.

I did not realise it, but one of my favourite bits of comfort food is originally Sicilian, the Arancini. These are rice balls deep fried in bread crumbs so that they resemble an orange – arancini in Italian – they are usually stuffed with ragu or Mozzarella and are quite wonderful, I first came across them on the website of jazz / swing musician Ray Gelato, of all places, and have loved them ever since. We had a great many of them and every bar sells them, even street stalls and cafés in the airport – I brought a few back and have since become very excited that I can buy rather good ones from the Arancini Brothers outlets in London and now in Waitrose too!

Cannoli

Simple, but delicious Cannoli makes a great dessert with some sugar, chocolate or pistashios sprinkled on top and served with a Passito di Pantelleria.

Sicily is also home to a stunning dessert – which is served everywhere in varying qualities, but is always at least nice – Cannoli, crisp pastry tubes filled with creamy sweetened ricotta are traditionally Sicilian and utterly delicious.

Add to all that the excellent coffee and a gloriously refreshing aperitif called an Aperol Spritz then the only surprise is that I came back at all!

I hope all this got you in to a Sicilian mood as I will be posting about the exciting wines the island produces very soon, so do come back for more.