• Salvo Foti's Mount Etna: The Cool Side of The Pillow

    Salvo Foti's Mount Etna: The Cool Side of The Pillow

    Salvo Foti personifies everything that's so exciting in the modern landscape of Sicily's Mount Etna. Yet, these wines of Nerello Mascalese and Carricante are deeply tied to the rich history on this active volcano. The high quality of wines coming from this estate today makes them the very first stop on any tour of Etna.

    Foti has served since 1981 as an oenologist and vineyard consultant for the top wineries on Mount Etna, including Benanti. After years building his reputation throughout Sicily, Foti branched out and started his own estate, I Vigneri. The name derives from the 1435-established Maestranzi dei Vigneri, a collective of vineyard workers who influenced the foundation of these magnificent vines atop Etna. Today, Foti collaborates with local growers who share his fervor for the traditions of this otherworldly terrain.

    I Vigneri works with very tightly spaced vines (1 meter x 1 meter) well over 100 years-old on the north side of Etna, where temperatures are considerably cooler as compared to the southern side of the volcano. At 2,300 feet in elevation these are among the highest altitude vineyards in all of Europe. The resulting climate here shares more in common with Alto Piemonte than it does with southern Italy. The wines from Foti are brilliantly finessed with a shimmering inflection of terroir that calls to mind top red and white Burgundies.

    Viticulture on the decomposed lava is done completely by hand with only organic treatments used. The sulphur regimen in the cellar is kept to a bare minimum. The purity in the wines here were a shock upon first tasting. There's a seamless and razor-sharp focus to the wines that's utterly captivating. Much of this has to be attributed to the extremely old vines and the painstaking care to which they are tended to by I Vigneri's team.

    The two reds, Vinupetra and the Etna Rosso are both comprised of the native Nerello Mascalese with small portions of Nerello Cappuccio. Stylistically they have a connection to Nebbiolo from Piedmont and Pinot Noir from Burgundy. The fruit profile is in the red cherry and plum spectrum with sweet spices. Air begins to unfurl a deep minerality with faint tobacco notes. These are charming and sensual wines that continue to reveal layer upon layer as they open in the glass. A slow evolution in the cellar is guaranteed.

    The white of the estate, Aurora, is made of 90% Carricante and 10% Minella, coming from rocky lava soils with rich iron content. Aurora is a dynamic white full of white peaches, melon, and a salty finish with hints of butterscotch. At 12.5% alcohol this really impresses for its refinement, delivering a gorgeous balance between textured orchard fruit and a chalky crisp finish.

    2015 I Vigneri (Salvo Foti) Etna Rosso
    $32 per bottle.

    2015 I Vigneri (Salvo Foti) Aurora Bianco
    $33 per bottle.

    2014 I Vigneri (Salvo Foti) Vinupetra
    $61 per bottle.

    Posted by Max Kogod
  • Etna at its Wildest: Frank Cornelissen

    Etna at its Wildest: Frank Cornelissen

    If Salvo Foti and Ciro Biondi thoroughly tell the story of Etna's past, then Belgium-born Frank Cornelissen illustrates the adventurous spirit of Etna's future. Cornelissen has been producing wine on Etna's highest elevation, north-facing vineyards since 2001. His style has changed quite a lot over the years, but he's perhaps recognized most for his insistence on a zero sulphur approach in the cellar. His name can be a lightning rod in the world of wine, and certainly in Sicily. After years of changing small details in the cellar his wines today are cleaner and more composed than ever before. This is the wild side of Mt. Etna.

    Cornelissen grew up in a family surrounded by wine in Belgium where his father worked as a wine broker. His studies created an intense fascination for the volcanic terroir on Mt. Etna's north side. He believed fervently there was a unique voice here, and he had his own plan for the story he wanted to tell of this place.

    He set his eyes on working strictly with old vines, 40-years of age being about the minimum under his estate. The process started with only 1.5 hectares in 2001 and now has grown to 12 hectares, with vines going back to plantings from 1910. 

    Everything that's exceptional and intriguing about the Cornelissen wines exists in the vineyard. These are some of the most awe-inspiring parcels I've ever set foot on. Walking among the 100+ year-old Nerello Mascalese vines tied to the local chestnut alberello stakes was a dramatic experience, faced out from these terraces seeing the valley below with towering mountains in the distance. The black sandy volcanic soils that falls through your hand immediately draws to mind the power of this active volcano beneath your very feet.

    Frank's work in the cellar is something that needs very little time to detail here. He has moved away from amphora, and oak is never used. All wine are aged in fiberglass-lined tanks. His interests are in expressing Etna without any intervention from materials outside the vineyard. The tanks are completely inert, serving only as a safe vessel for aging. There's zero sulphur added to the wines at any point. This regimen requires the winery to be a extremely clean from top to bottom and every detail of work here is done with the most scrupulous eye. It was evident the second we walked in that this was a very different kind of cellar.

    The non-sulphur regimen brings a vividness and bright, fresh quality to the fruit profile that stands out immediately. The minerality from this singular soil is certainly obvious, but the dynamic personality of the fruit makes itself known first. I personally find that non-sulphured wines, when executed the very best, have a pickled fruit quality that offers an abundance of concentrated spice that's rare in more conventional wines. This quality can be divisive in some circles of drinkers, but I find it to be fascinating and met with clean winemaking it really pulls me in each sip.

    Frank's rosé is made in minuscule quantities. It has a darker hue and richer texture than most rosés, with tell-tale spice from the portion of Nerello Mascalese in the blend.

    Contadino is a prefect introduction to the style of his Nerello Mascalese-dominant wines. Spicy and very lifted in 2015.

    Munjebel is composed entirely of very old-vine Nerello Mascalese, and is  the wine Frank feels reflects Etna the very most, with raw power and uncompromising minerality. 

    Magma is his monumental expression of Etna, where vines over 100-years-old are sourced from ancient terraces. Each bottle is hand painted. 

    2016 Cornelissen Susucaru Rosé (July arrival)
    $29 per bottle.
    Rosé of Malvasia, Moscadella, Insolia, Nerello Mascalese

    2016 Cornelissen Munjebel Bianco (July arrival)
    $49 per bottle.
    60% Grecanico Dorato and 40% Caricante, skin-contact.

    2015 Cornelissen Contadino
    $29 per bottle.
    80% Nerello Mascalese, with Nerello Capuccio and Minella Nera, Allicante Boushet.

    2015 Cornelissen Munjebel Rosso 
    $43 per bottle.
    100% Nerello Mascalese

    2014 Cornelissen Magma 
    $224 per bottle.
    100% Nerello Mascalese

    Posted by Max Kogod
  • The Godfather of Etna: Salvo Foti & I Vigneri

    The Godfather of Etna: Salvo Foti & I Vigneri

    The impact Salvo Foti has had on the wines, vineyards, and producers of Etna is a tough task to complete in a few paragraphs. He is the Godfather of wine on this volcanic landscape. His work was for so many years tied to other top estates like Biondi and Benanti, serving as an oenlogist and vineyard consultant. But, in 2001 he began to focus nearly exclusively on his own project, I Vigneri - The name derives from the 1435-established Maestranzi dei Vigneri, a collective of vineyard workers who influenced the foundation of these magnificent vines atop Etna.

    At I Vigneri production is split between the white Carricante on Etna's Mediterranean-influenced south-east facing vineyards, and its very old vine Nerello Mascalese in the high altitude northern side of the volcano. Today, both wines truly set the bar for the heights now expected from Etna wine. 

    Foti's Aurora is composed of Carricante (with 10% Minella) grown in the village of Milo. It captures the brilliance and purity of the variety that's so heavily influenced by the sea breeze. At once its fleshy, honeyed, with notes of melon, pear, and almonds, but the driving vein of salinity is what ultimately defines it. All the components are in place to allow this to age beautifully, but current release is generous and seemingly holding nothing back. The exquisite balance and drinkability of Aurora is what stands out in the end.

    Foti's top red wine, Vinupetra, comes from just a single hectare of 100+ year-old-vines on Etna's north side. Simply put, it's a magnum opus for Nerello Mascalese. The north side is home to the most serious reds on Etna, and the terroir here is a great departure from what we see earlier in the south. At 2,300 feet these are some of the highest altitude vines in Europe. Massive mountain ranges form the back drop of the terraced vineyards here, as compared to the Mediterranean seen from Milo.

    Nerello Mascalese sees intense sun exposure, but the huge swing into low temperatures at night keep acidity very high and allow this to walk that tightrope between concentrated, ripe fruit and a disciplined frame of structured minerality. Vinupetra dazzles the senses, each sip driving home the point more and more that this is what every other red wine in Sicily will be using as a benchmark. Transparent and ethereal on one end, and powerful and concentrated at the other. The aromatics soar from Vinupetra and it takes some time to finally go in for the first sip. Wines that find a harmony between grace and power are not easy to come across. Vinupetra is more than the top example of Nerello Mascalese or a Sicilian red, it's one of the world's great wines of terroir.

    2015 I Vigneri (Salvo Foti) Aurora Bianco
    $33 per bottle.
    The name Aurora derives from the butterfly on the label. One whose numbers have dwindled over the years as pollution on the island has steadily increased.

    2014 I Vigneri (Salvo Foti) Vinupetra
    $61 per bottle.
    Vinupetra translates to "Wine of stone".

    Posted by Max Kogod
  • The Start of Etna: Ciro Biondi's Southern Charm

    The Start of Etna: Ciro Biondi's Southern Charm

    In so many ways Ciro Biondi is the perfect introduction to the land of Mt. Etna. Of all our visits Biondi's estate is the closest to the southern port town of Catania, my home base for the week. As I drive up from the sea toward the massive volcano looming above I'm still greeted by the palm trees and scenery most reminiscent of the Mediterranean. It's in this southern portion of Etna where the Nerello Mascalese-based wines are the very most elegant and subtle. The charm and infectious enthusiasm of Ciro Biondi is an easy way to be pulled into the history of Etna. 

    Biondi's family has been farming vines in this small southern town of Trecastagni since the early 1800's, and began estate bottling in the early 1900's. Climbing the hills of his property 100-year-old vines point to a rich history, but it's the greek artifacts littered throughout that constantly remind Ciro of Sicily's past of guests, influencers, and ever-changing rulers. He admits that although Sicily is in so many ways independent of Italy, it would be lost without someone to rule her. Its history of wars and conquerers simply knows no other way.

    The steep terraces that make up each of Ciro's three vineyards are iconic. Immediately you have a sense you've been here before, but of course it's only through images you've stumbled upon in years past. Like most of Etna the black volcanic soil is evident, it falls through your hands like sand when you pick it up. Toward the very top of the steep terraces the soil and rocks turn a Mars-like red. I press Ciro on whether he ever has separated fermentation tanks to show the differences, but he's happy capturing the entire vineyard in one picture. He's discovered the need to limit his input into the winemaking decisions and do everything he can to let the place speak as honestly as possible, with the very lightest touch. Ciro reminds, nature is so much more powerful than he is, his best work over the years coming from recognizing that truth.

    And the wines show it. Here, Nerello Mascalese is light and perfumed, calling to mind Pinot Noir more so than some of its darker interpretations on the north side of Etna. A small amount (10-20%) of Nerello Cappuccio is historically blended to offer some darker characteristics. But, without a doubt, this is Etna at its most delicate, graceful, and aromatic. 

    Ciro's Outis is a blend of his three vineyards. Pale colored, with bright red fruits and that faint note of dusty volcanic soil that offers the structure and backbone defining these light reds from the south. Rose pedals, bright cherry, and notes of fig linger on the finish here. If Etna is to seduce you for the veru first time I imagine Outis would be the wine to do it. 

    2014 Biondi Etna Rosso Outis
    $39 per bottle.

    Posted by Max Kogod