Slow Wine 2024
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Between history and future, DOCG and zoning, Etna wine, a diamond of Sicilian and Italian wine

The vision of the territory of producers such as Cottanera, Graci, Girolamo Russo, Pietradolce, Donnafugata and Planeta

Today Etna is one of the diamonds of Sicilian and Italian wine. Made of a thousand facets, represented by the Contrade, close but all different. Told in the glass by Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, with more than 130 wineries that today make the most of the 1,300 hectares of vines in the most suitable areas (compared to the more than 50. 000 hectares of vineyards that covered the volcano at the end of the nineteenth century, from which blended wines used throughout Europe were produced), an expression of a quality that comes from the courage of producers who give life to a “super heroic” viticulture, with the vines climbing on terraces and “glades” made up of chestnut, walnut, hazelnut and other forests that tell of incredible natural biodiversity, nurtured by the volcano’s vitality. This is a territory that is ancient and young at the same time, but which has clear ideas for the future: working even more on quality, on the longevity of the wines (even the whites, capable of surprising over time), on a thorough and precise zoning, on the transition from Doc to Docg, on sustainability and hospitality, with an increasingly international and high-level tourism precisely thanks to the success of wine production (also told by the numbers for the first half of 2022, which see growth in bottled wine for all types, white, red, rosé and sparkling wine), and focusing on growing the value of the wines, and not on increasing production, also to consolidate the value, which is growing (even in collecting). And to protect the integrity of a landscape and a territory that, from the more than 3,300 meters of Etna’s summit to the sea, has so much to offer, even in terms of gastronomy. A route that, to WineNews, on a trip to the Volcano (video online in the next few days, ed.), the producers themselves have traced, from those always present to those who have arrived on Etna in recent times, such as Francesco Cambria (president Consorzio Etna Doc) and Mariangela Cambria (Cottanera), Alberto Aiello Graci (Graci), Michele Faro (Pietradolce), Giovanni Russo (Girolamo Russo), Antonio Rallo (Donnafugata) and Alessio Planeta (Planeta).
After all, Etna is different from the other wine territories of Sicily, Italy and the world. Because on the highest active volcano in Europe, and among the most active on Earth, a UNESCO heritage site and a territory on the crest of the wave when it comes to wine, everything is different. Its pedoclimatic situation plays on three factors: altitude, exposure and soil, which combine into infinite variables. From northeast to southwest, on the different slopes and in the 133 Contrade, Etna's viticulture is a seamless amphitheater that ranges from 400-500 meters to 1,000 meters. Each vineyard in fact has its own history, and is climatically different, and these conditions and staggers the phenological phases, from budding to ripening, giving rise to so many variables in the accumulation of sugar, and the development of acidity and aromas. Vineyards that are among the oldest cultivated in Italy, in the typical training form of the Etnean alberello climbed on the volcano thanks to the black lava stone terraces.
The phenological phases are affected by altitude, with the temperature range between day and night varying from area to area, and is decisive in defining a quality aroma profile. Then there is the pedological element, which, if at first glance appears less important because Etna’s soils are young compared to those of other areas, the volcano having developed only a million years ago, affecting it are variables mainly due to the antiquity of the eruptive phenomena. Then there is the varietal discourse, with the most widespread indigenous red grape variety being Nerello Mascalese, to which Nerello Cappuccio is added to bring color, although the tendency of Etna wines is to make wines discharged of color, in the style of the great Pinot Noirs, Nebbiolos and Sangioveses of Montalcino, Nerello being the offspring of Sangiovese and with a very close anthocyanin profile. The altitude mitigates ripening, and climate change causes a formidable acceleration in aging, which means that wines, produced in the higher altitudes, ripen more slowly and age better. And alongside reds, rosés and sparkling wines, for whites there is Carricante and, to a lesser extent, Catarratto. The result is distinctly unconventional wines, an expression of the personality of each individual vineyard, as in no other Italian wine territory. All this has led, since the late 1990s, to a crescendo of productivity and professionalism, and to a great flowering of wineries and new wineries, new vineyards and new wines, but also to numerous awards from international critics, thanks to the investments of the pioneering companies, the historic producers of Sicily who have estates and vineyards here, and to the arrival of vignerons and entrepreneurs who have come from outside, from Angelo Gaja to Oscar Farinetti, glimpsing there a new “El Dorado” of wine where a hectare of vineyard is worth up to 75,000 euros, more than in the rest of Sicily, for a wine that is already among the few on La Place de Bordeaux, with Etna Rosso from the historic Barolo label Giovanni Rosso.
Yet, like all territories, it has “noble fathers”, as Antonio Rallo, at the helm of Donnafugata, explains: “I think of Giuseppe Benanti, who had a great passion for Etna and was the first entrepreneur who really focused on this fantastic volcano, and Giuseppe Castiglione (former Councilor for Agricultural Resources of the Sicilian Region and Undersecretary for Agricultural Policies in several Governments, ed.), who helped Etna bring back what we called, then, planting rights here, and repopulate these terraces with vines. And then a great one was Andrea Franchetti (visionary producer and guide of Passopisciaro, who recently passed away, ed.) who, with a lot of energy, contaminated a lot of producers, even those already established in other areas, and gave the impetus to make the territory redecorate”. An area “unique in the world, on an active volcano that makes 60 lava eruptions a year, a place with very young, contemporary soils, layered on top of those older than 50,000 years ago, which geologically are still nothing, with each explosive eruption bringing sand, lapilli, giving rise to a concept of the future inherent in the soil that is continuously renewed”, adds Alberto Aiello Graci. Who, speaking of the future, says, “Etna pushes us to focus on value, we have been working on the concept of zoning, on Contrade, because these eruptions have created unique Contrade on a geological and soil level. I think the focus has to be really on enhancing these individual vineyards, these Contrade. Right now there are 1,300 hectares and the Vineyard Register is blocked. We have to work, study, to get to know our vineyards better and better, look for cru, special vineyards, winemaking them separately, leveraging the greatness of this territory, not to make one more bottle, maybe one less, but of a great wine that can emotionally excite. Betting also on longevity, and if Nerello Mascalese in this sense delivers certainties, I believe that a special card we can play is on the longevity of the whites with Carricante, a noble grape variety that gives wines capable of evolving, exciting and that can be drunk even after decades”. The oenological prospects, in fact, are vast, as Giuseppe Russo, at the helm of Girolamo Russo, one of the qualitative references of Etna wine, explains: “great wines are made here, their success is linked to the territory and its grape varieties, which interpret it at its best, Carricante and Nerello. We producers have managed to renew the history that the men who worked here before us have left us. They are new wines, somehow, rooted in an ancient tradition, but at the same time they are modern, the result of a new vision of this area and this viticulture. And among so much diversity, there is a trait that binds them all, or an idea that we are all pursuing, which is to make wines that are elegant and deep, very drinkable but capable of restoring the depth of this land”. And to enhance this territory even more, two things are needed: zoning, with the Contrade already included in the Disciplinary for some time now, united in Uga or Mga, as argued by one of the greatest experts in viticulture and the territory, such as Professor Attilio Scienza, and the Docg.
According to Alessio Planeta, “the transition from Doc to Docg is expected by everyone, and I hope that we move forward on this path. Zoning, with the Contrade, in part is work that farmers have already done on their own skin, but there is no doubt that a direction, more knowledge and information about the Contrade themselves would be useful for consumers and producers. These are two important things for the development of Etna, to be done at a time of great splendor for the development of viticulture in the area”. Another fundamental aspect is to enhance the great biodiversity of the territory, which is not only expressed in wine. Thanks to millennia of eruptive activity, the maximum height of the volcanic cone, in fact, exceeds 3,300 meters above sea level, and Mount Etna, from the summit of the craters to the ash cones, from lava flows to lava caves and the depression of the Valle del Bove, is one of the most studied volcanoes in the world for its scientific importance, in volcanology but also for its biodiversity. Inhabiting its a mighty and destructive nature but which then knows how to be overflowing with fertility are endemic plants such as Broom, Astragalus, Soapwort, Chamomile, Orchid and Saffron, not forgetting the Hundred Horses Chestnut, one of the largest and oldest trees in the world, and rare animals such as the Wild Cat, Sicilian Shrew, Nightjar and Hermann’s Tortoise.
And sustainability is a key concept, as Michele Faro, at the helm of the Pietradolce label, explains, “sustainability is an often abused word, but on Etna it represents something important. Etna has everything to be a sustainable territory, old vineyards are cultivated, often recovered from abandonment, a good part are already grown organically, but there is also respect for the territory in all its aspects, with order and cleanliness. Many producers, for example, decrease the use of plastics, work on water recovery, reducing the use of electricity and so on. And there is still great room for growth for the territory”. A territory where they are also working on hospitality, and on the wine experience theme, which, according to an Assovini survey, more than half of Sicilian wineries are focusing on. All the more important for a destination such as Etna, rich in nature and culture, but also in myths and legends such as the one according to which the Mongibello, Fùcina of the Gods and Vulcan in the heart of the Mediterranean, would be the fiery “breath” of the giant Enceladus, who after rebelling against the Gods, defeated by Athena and trapped for eternity under Etna, lies lying under Sicily, which, from his body, would have originated.
As Mariangela Cambria, owner of Cottanera, the Etnean winery with the largest area of vineyard planted on the slopes of the volcano, explains, “Etna is famous throughout Europe, wine is the main driver, and the diversity that Contrade, climates and areas tell is a journey within a journey. But work needs to be done on personnel and human resources, and languages, because our tourist is mostly foreign. And, at the gastronomic level, I believe we must continue to offer “home cooking”, that is, authenticity, which is what those who come here seek and expect”. Also because, even at the gastronomic level, Etna has a lot to offer, besides wine: Monte Etna extra-virgin olive oil, Etna Prickly Pears and Sicilian Pecorino cheese, all PDO, the Etna Cherry Igp, from Slow Food Presidia such as Bronte Pistachio and Etna Snuff Peach, Maletto Strawberries, the Honey of Zafferana Etnea, the liqueurs of Santa Venerina, the Strain Sausage of Linguaglossa, to give examples, which translate into a cuisine that looks as much to the sea as to the mountains, as indeed do the vineyards.
In the meantime, however, the Etna wine can look to the future with serenity and strength from the numbers of its present, recounted by Francesco Cambria, president of the Etna Doc Consortium. “In the first half of 2022 we have very positive numbers: bottled wine (3.2 million bottles, ed.) grew by 30% over 2021, and even surpassed 2019, it means we have overcome pandemic. The leap of Etna Bianco Doc (+37%) stands out, confirming the great favor that Carricante, a native variety that has found its cradle of choice on the eastern slope, is encountering thanks to its gifts of freshness and olfactory richness. Etna Rosato Doc is also doing well (+50.3%), interpreted by Nerello Mascalese with great personality, certifying the constant growth of a typology that is increasingly carving out a leading role for itself in consumer preferences. Even if the tow, the most bottled type, however, is confirmed as always by Etna Rosso Doc, which, in the first six months of 2022, reached almost 1.5 million bottles, marking a growth of 27% over 2021. But the Spumante typology is also growing”, continues Francesco Cambria, “which now includes the presence of Nerello Mascalese for at least 80% and which, although still a niche, has really interesting growth margins from which we expect a lot in the second half of 2022”.
Numbers that tell of the health of an area that looks to the world, with exports worth 60% of the market. And it is precisely on internationalization that the efforts of the Etna Doc Consortium are focused, which, despite its recent success, is the first Denomination born in Sicily (in 1968). And the Preview of the new vintages in the “Etna Days - I Vini del Vulcano” in September, which will bring international press and critics to the volcano, will also be a first. “It will be a tale that the wines themselves will make, which in the glass will tell the great natural biodiversity of this territory, which is unique because all it takes is a lava flow that touches one area and makes it different from the other”. A territory that is the protagonist of tumultuous development, Etna, and that must be protected. “As indeed it already is”, Francesco Cambria goes on to explain, “already with the presidency of the Consortium by Antonio Benanti, we have approved blocking of the hectares, and it is planned to maintain it for the future as well, for the next five years, both to quota production and to protect the territory, which must be kept intact with its dry stone walls, its woods, its uniqueness that is also protected by Unesco”.
A territory, Etna, that aims to enter among the myths of world enology. After all, if there is a place symbolic of mythology, it is precisely this volcano, cited by the greatest poets and literary figures, from Pindar to Ovid, from Hesiod to Aeschylus, from Euripides to Homer, from Virgil to Petrarch, from Goethe to Dumas, from Verga to Pirandello, as the prison of the winds, the home of the Cyclops, as the Tartarus of the dead, the refuge of King Arthur, the background of the legend of Acis and Galatea, and, as the cave of Polyphemus encountered by Ulysses in the Odyssey, but also a source of inspiration for the masters of cinema, from Visconti to Pasolini, Zeffirelli to Rossellini, not forgetting Tornatore, to a master of photography like Vittorio Storaro and for one of the greatest Italian singer-songwriters like Franco Battiato, who has passed on to us the magic of the Etnean landscape. Which today, more than ever, must be grateful to the wine producers, as Leonardo Pennisi, who, with his family runs the butcher shop with Dai Pennisi kitchen, and the Shalai Resort (with the starred restaurant Shalai), in Linguaglossa, explains: “we have only to say thank you to the wine world, its success has been the turning point for the whole Etna territory, especially for structures like ours. We opened Shalai fifteen years ago, we were the second leading facility on Etna. Before the wine success there was nothing, today there are many more restaurants and hospitality facilities. And this is all thanks to the work of the producers and the success of Etna’s wines, which attract fans here from all over the world”.

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