The wines of Sicily have long had an undistinguished history. They were known as powerful and tannic feedstock for the more tepid strains of the northern Italy and Calabria. Much of the wine was produced in cooperatives, often in the press-cum-warehouse called a palmento. When the EU outlawed the palmenti as unhygienic (cue Brexit contingent’s ferocious gnashing of teeth ‘bloody Brussels bureaucrats !’), Sicily finally moved into the era of modern winemaking. The Art of Eating issue 65  is an excellent and poetic, albeit dated, introduction to Sicilian wine.
This article is more of a photographic survey of the area, contextualised with food, rather than a particularly knowledgeable review of wine – the links below are a good start, and there are plenty of wine blogs with great articles on Etna DOC.
One cannot drink wine in Sicily without a little sense of the climate. Sicily’s Pozzallo port is located further south than Tunisia’s Cape Bon, and the African sun affects all. The heat saps one’s desire to do anything, least of all drink the off-dry, alchoholic production. As Luigi Veronelli (taken from AoE 65) put it: the wines of Sicily ‘flash like a knife…leave the unprepared drinker more dead than alive’. While, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote of the pouring style practiced by footmen of the Bourbon-era – ‘no collars’ i.e. up to the brim. He goes on: ‘ “Only water is really good”, [Don Fabrizio] thought like a true Sicilian; and did not dry the drops left on his lips.’
Yet it is all different on Mount Etna. In the curious landscape of Etna Nord, away from the tourists who throng the beautiful sun-drenched green south slope, we find a gentler, cooler clime, hospitable to such vines as can survive in the rich but unyielding soil. From Randazzo to Linguaglossa heading clockwise on the SS120 lies an extraordinary zone of production that has, in the past 10 years, attracted tremendous, well-deserved, attention. As ever, an excellent introduction is Jancis Robinson, but Eric Asimov at the New York Times has also energetically championed Etna, and Sicily generally. Very briefly, the principal grapes are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio for reds, while Catarrato, Carricante, and Minella Bianca fill out the whites.
The terroir has been most memorably described by Marco de Grazia (see below) as the ‘Burgundy of the Mediterranean‘. He sees Burgundy’s variety of soils and fickle climate mirrored in Etna’s geography: the DOC encircles the mountain for 120 sq km, with exposures ranging between full north to full south; rainfall 6-10x Sicilian average with one of the latest harvests in Europe; volcanic soil with layers of lava flow interpenetrating, creating soil zones, only hundreds of metres separated, yet that originate in eruptions thousands of years apart; and lastly, an altitude range of 400-1000m. Despite all the variety, the wines, and how they interact with the food and landscape of Eastern Sicily, seem to have a deep unity and embedded history.
Our trip started in Bronte & continued, via Catania, to the Baroque jewels of Noto and the sea at Siracusa. Yet it was in the misty, brooding slopes of the devil’s mountain, as Etna was known to the Arabs who once ruled it, tramping amongst vineyards and fields of pistachio & almonds, that we were happiest.
Every day the mountain would be different, often with clouds blown from the south, giving an English aspect to the hill towns. On certain days, one could see the slightly different denser clouds expelled from the craters of Etna – sole sign that Monjebello could, once again, erupt. All around was evidence of volcanic activity, as ravines were filled in with volcanic rock, while the soil was often crumbly black, almost a fine black talc. This soil often had few weeds or plants, for it is rough and inhospitable. Yet, for those hardy greens which can survive, it is nutritious.
The legendary & idiosyncratic winemaker Frank Cornelissen inspired the trip, and we mostly drank his wines and those of a few other producers who share his philosophy – a fidelity to the earth that most winemakers preach, but few practice. In the tasting at his cantina, he told us about his background and how he came to Etna, and his approach to making wine. As an glimpse of what winemaking really boils down to, it was invaluable, particularly as we have seen and drunk his wines over years, and remember the especially volatile and idiosyncratic wines of the early days. Some of his wines employ skin contact, yet he made an interesting comment on orange wine, a trend that’s gripped the weingeist in London and New York. His sense was that orange wines tend to have a certain similarity of flavour – they resemble each other, in their oxidative notes and strong tannins, more than they fully express individualities of terroir. While I am not sure I can entirely see the wines of Gravner or Radikon in that way, I do agree, that, in lesser producers’ hands, after one subtracts the colour and tannin, there’s precious little left of fruit or individuality.
Cornelissen also gave an example of a cold maceration as an approach that let’s him get the things he wants, such as the transfer of natural yeasts from grape skins to the juice, without undesirable effects, such as transfer of tannins.
That said, Cornelissen is all about expressing the identity of the land, grape, and vintage, with as little intervention in the cantina as possible.
Cornelissen, like many of the other top producers in the area, uses the archaic alberello approach to training vines. The French term is gobelet, but the gist of it is that vines are trained to form a clump of vine leaves and suspended fruit, around a central spur, so resembling a wine goblet or a tree. Given there is a minimum of external support (i.e. trellis or wire), the weight of the grapes can cause them to drag on the ground, hence this is a method better suited to low-yield varieties. It is also well-suited to Sicily’s relatively dry climate and difficult soil – because of the vine’s bushy, clumpy structure there is enhanced risk of damp and rot. This is also a fiddly approach that requires more manual work, and, combined with the steep terraced terrain, it’s not a surprise that Cornelissen requires a (very glamorous) enclosed tractor: Sicily’s answer to the Lamborghini tracked-vehicles we saw in the mountains of the Abruzzi.
Asked about what he thinks amphorae do, he was characteristically forthright – he lines his in epoxy, so they are essentially neutral vessels of 400 hectolitre volume, nothing more or less. He didn’t see any particular attraction, in the final product, to lining them with beeswax, making them out of terra-cotta, etc., as other producers sometimes claim. Georgia, a country with an illustrious and long history of wine-making, was one of Cornelissen’s first stops when he made the transition from wine trader to novice vignero. He recounts how Georgian oenology perhaps ended up pursuing traditional approaches, such as kvevri (amphorae), without questioning them sufficiently. Indeed, Georgian wine is somewhat ‘rustic’ (Cornelissen’s term), but I find it works well with the spicy, flavourful food of that land.
Similarly, his comments on the palmento were telling – they weren’t particularly hygienic ways of making wine – and as in any natural wine-making operation, Cornelissen has essentially no defence against harmful bacteria. That is, other than taking great care to keep kit clean, keeping the cantina cold, and, in the field, hoping it doesn’t rain too much.
Cornelissen’s cantina at Passopisciaro is bracketed by two fine eno-restaurants: San Giorgio e Il Drago in Randazzo, and Cave Ox in Solicchiata. San Giorgio is a joyous, casual place, particularly when one of the younger proprietors is on the floor – and it is, hands down, the best value on (high-quality) food or wine, that we have found in Sicily. Its wine list is exclusively Sicilian, with many Etna names. Cave Ox, owned by Sandro Dibella, is a bit of a legend – a phenomenal and wide-ranging wine list, both Sicily and otherwise. In particular, it’s great fun to drink awesome wine there with the equally spectacular pizze, though his lunch menu was some of the finest food we had on the trip. Prices are slightly higher, but it’s emphatically worth it – and it’s worth staying the night. In both places, we saw mostly local people eating simple food and drinking modestly-priced wine. It was early in the season, but there was a smattering of the international eno-set tootling along from village to village in rented Audis.
Other producers have gravitated to the area – such as Marco de Grazia who runs Tenuta delle Terre Nere near Randazzo. His vineyards are from 700 to 900m, and one parcel has pre-phylloxera alberello vines of 140 years age. The wines, while slightly spicy, have a chewy sort of minerality, described by Jancis Robinson as a ‘cappucino’ edge. Their soils range from volcanic pumice to volcanic sand mixed with basaltic pebbles and ash. The terrain is steeply terraced, and again, needs to be tended by hand.
Tuscan winemaker Andrea Franchetti’s Passopisciaro makes some phenomenal wines, both with the local grapes but also transplants such as chardonnay in the 2013 entry-level Guardiola white, from a parcel at 1000m, vinified in stainless steel and aged in wood botti grandi. Franchetti also makes single-contrada reds, and like wines from some other producers, the pale, perfumed production of nerello mascalese bring to mind northern greats like Pinot Noir as expressed in Chambolle-Musigny or Gevrey-Chambertin, or Nebbiolo as expressed in Gattinara.
We drank Alberto Graci’s wines a few times, as they were amongst the most affordable. Like Franchetti, Cornelissen, and Wiegner, Graci is an import from the north (a Milanese banker in this case, albeit with Sicilian roots), his parcels are also near Passopisciaro. This bianco is a blend of Carricante and Catarratto and was actually one of the loveliest and most versatile we tried, particularly with food.
The last producer we sampled, albeit back in London, was Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri, a collective named after a winemakers’ guild of 1435. His Vinudilice comes from a parcel nestled in a forest of holly oak (quercus ilex giving the name), near Bronte, located at 1300m, probably making it one of the highest vineyards in Europe. The grapes are Alicante, Grecanico, Minella Bianco, Minella Nera, and Nerello Cappuccio, growing on alberelli vines 100-200 years old. The soil is ash and sand, and the terrain requires Foti to employ Ciccio the mule – fair competition to Cornelissen’s tractor. This was a pretty remarkable rose – pale in colour, strong acidic backbone, but a tremendous complexity of nose and palate – really not like any other rose we’ve had. That complexity, I suppose, was the pure expression of rock and ash. We paired it firstly with boquerones, then a guinea fowl roasted in wine and grappa – secondo Patience Gray’s recipe from Carrara. Vinudilice is available retail at Noble Fine Liquor and also through Les Caves de Pyrene.
Enoteca Solaria: Via Roma, 86 in Ortigia, Siracusa
Tutto Wines, Le Caves de Pyrene, Noble Fine Liquor, Berry Brothers Rudd, and Corney & Barrow are good places to start in London if one wants to track these wines down.