“I make my wine like Bartolo Mascarello!”
That's what Massimiliano Calabretta told Mascarello's New York importer when he first visited the estate on Sicily's Mt. Etna. Taking cues from Piedmont's iconic producer is not something one would expect to hear in these parts of Italy. Etna is a landscape built on rich winemaking history, but the style has veered modern as global awareness has skyrocketed.
At Calabretta the wines are firmly entrenched in the traditional, just as Bartolo Mascarello would've approved. And for a turn to Calabretta's white, Carricante from vines up to 100 year of age, we're looking at the single most precise and delicous example I had during my June 2017 visit.
Today, I'm happy to offer the two wines that best illustrate the magic of Calabretta and the own-rooted old vines they farm on Mount Etna's volcanic soils.
You may consider Nerello Cappuccio to be an Etna blending grape (and you'd be right). But, Calabretta saw his old, ungrafted vines offered a very differnt expression of the variety used by many to add color and body to their Nerello Mascalese blends.
Cappuccio certainly adds something special to the Mascalese-dominant wines that are Etna's signature. But, the primary reason Cappuccio is rarely seen on its own relates more to viticutture difficulty and its succeptibility to diesease than to any varietal shortcoming. Own-rooted vines often give an aromatic lift that simply stands apart from grafted counterparts.
In Calabretta's Cappuccio it's this animated yet sensual quality that's so delicious, and so unique. There's dark red fruits, smoke, lavender, violets, and a saline-infused finish that make reaching for this glass of 12% alcohol wine habitual.
The formula at Calabretta is a simple one, with organic farming, reliance on old vines (over 60-yrs), and own-rooted parcels preserved as long as possible. The 100% Nerello Cappuccio is fermented in steel with pumpovers only by hand, contributing a seamless and velvety texture that stands out first and foremost. Elévage takes place in a combo of used barrique and steel for 6 months. These two parts are then blended into 12-hectoliter botti for an additional 6 months prior to bottling.
For Sicilian whites, Carricante's bar is set very high for me, just in terms of what really pulls me in and brings a refreshing elemenent that I often find missing from producers here. Calabretta's Carricante has become my favorite white in all of Sicily. First sip immediatley showcases that crisp structure, with deep and incisive volcanic minerality that almost dances on the palate. White pear, lemon oil, and green apples cover the kaleidoscope of fruit here, but it's the crystaline core of pulverized volcanic soil that ultimately grab my attention and linger on the finish.
Vines range in age from a selection of 100+ yr-old through some younger plantings. Fermentation and aging is done in steel, a huge factor in how this Carricante maintains that sleek and taut structure, but buffered with those deep and textural traits from these old vines. If there's one white in all of Sicily I can get behind enthusiastically this would be it!
Calabretta was founded in 1900, but it wasn't until 1997 that the father and son team of Massimo and Massimiliano decided to bottle their best wines and sell under their own label. This was a guarantee that historic practices of vinification and aging would stand protected as the world around them was changing at a rapid pace.
2014 Calabretta Carricante
$24 per bottle.
2014 Calabretta Nerello Cappuccio Etna Rosso
$42 per bottle.
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.
Mt. Etna's history with the indigenous Carricante variety is a long and storied one. Many have sought to express this distinct terroir from the eastern slope of the volcano, but one family is most synonymous with the greatest heights it has achieved. Etna doesn't have a classification system to rank estates or vineyards like Bordeaux and Burgundy, but if there was one Grand Cru white from these volcanic slopes perched over the Mediterranean it would be Benanti's Pietramarina from Milo. Sourced from 80-year-old vines it showcases Carricante at its most structured and age-worthy.
The late 1800's was the inception of Benanti's viticulture on Mt. Etna. But, it was truly in 1988 that the estate began to garner the worthy fame that slowly spread throughout Sicly and abroad. It was Giuseppe Benanti who re-examined and questioned every aspect of viticulture and winemaking. He re-thought conventional wisdom on clones and their compatibility within each distinct parcel. And he knew that in order for his wines to transform slowly in bottle winemaking and aging would have to be held to much more rigorous standards than were acceptable to his contemporaries.
Pietramarina is Carricante's most profound bottling on Etna. While salinity is a hallmark of the grape from these sea breeze parcels grown on sandly volcanic soil, the defining element here is a tightly wrapped core of citrus, orange peel, and almond. There's a frame and touch of austerity to Pietramarina that shows a discipline worlds apart from the more oxidative and plush style of wine commonly found in Milo. In the end, it's the vein of minerality and and grip that appropriately put this benchmark bottling on the table with top Chablis and Burgundy.
Stainless steel aging and modest alcohol of 12.5% are crucial elements in keeping this southernly white so fresh and crisp. But, make no mistake: it's these same qualities that give Pietramarina its backbone to age in your cellar for many years to come. 2013 has been a great success for the whites on Etna and no bottling deserves more attention today than this brand new release from Benanti.
2013 Benanti Pietra Marina Bianco Superiore
$59 per bottle.
Some producers define a region, and others transcend it. Arianna Occhipinti, the niece of Giusto Occhipinti of COS, is the latter. Since her teens she closely spent time with her uncle who had put Vittoria and its Cerasuolo blend of Frappato and Nero d'Avola on the worldwide map. In 2004 with just one hectare she produced her first wine, and every day since it's more or less been a battle of allocations. Today we focus on two blends of Vittoria's most prized varietals, the SP68 and her top wine, Grotte Alte, only produced in exceptional vintages.
Arianna's close bond with Giusto sent her to Milan to study oenology. There she was surprised and disheartened to find the more chemical and industrial focus on winemaking taking precedent over the natural vineyard-first emphasis she grew up around. When she returned to Vittoria she slowly began to make plans to cultivate her own land, growing vines and more. The one hectare she started with has now grown into 28. Organic farming is strictly followed on all parcels.
I had always loved Arianna's wines and her approach from what understood. But, I wasn't prepared for what I saw at her newly constructed Vittoria estate. Every step has been taken to ensure the most clean and precise wines are produced. Much of Italy still sees temperatures for aging much higher than ideal. Arianna's top wine, Grotte Alte spends extended time in botti and it's marvelous balance of deep textured fruit with bright piercing clarity is incumbent upon pristine conditions.
However, as much as I want to wax poetic about the underground cellar, Arianna would point out that it's all very much second to the work that occurs in the vineyard. The parcels are immaculate, as you'd imagine with her background and terroir-focused sensibility. The rocky limestone makes itself evident with patches on the top of the soil as well as deep below where her cellar is built with exposed walls (picture below).
We touched on the unique terroir of Vittoria on Monday, but it bears repeating. The reason these wines are so elegant and balanced in Sicily's hot interior is due to constant wind, sandy topsoil, and the limestone mother rock that brings marked acidity to the wines.
Grace is a characteristic that may be overused at times (guilty as charged), but there's no better apt identifier for Arianna's wines. They have a seamless, velvet texture, finely-etched minerality, and concentration that lets it be known power shouldn't be mutually exclusive with elegance.
SP68 is a blend of 70% Frappato and 30% Nero d'Avola. It's fermented and aged entirely in concrete. This preserves the fresh red and blue fruit notes, and crisp minerality streak that Vittoria captures so well.
Grotte Alte is produced only in exceptional vintages and is a blend of equal parts Frappato and Nero d'Avola, sourced from estate's oldest vines. It's fermented for at least 35 days on skins and then aged in large Slavonian botti (pictured below). If at any point in its evolution Arianna feels it's not up to the highest standard it will be blended into SP68.
2015 Occhipinti SP68 Rosso
$27 per bottle.
2012 Occhipinti Grotte Alte
$99 per bottle.
My time on Mt. Etna has come to a conclusion and now sights are set further inland due west. The drive to Vittoria is a great reminder as to just how varied the landscape and terroir of Sicliy is. Temperatures rise and the climate turns dry and arid. It's hard to believe this place I'm headed is beloved for the freshness and clarity of its wines.There's no better introduction to the wines of Vittoria then through the 1980-founded dream project brewed up three young friends.
Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti, and Cirino Strano (COS) chose as young men to produce 1,470 bottles of wine in October 1980. Cilia's father had a winery, and 3 hectares of nearby bush-trained vines were sourced. It was simply intended as a fun project. After showing the wine to a renowned sommelier in Palermo the trio received a much surprised enthusiastic response, and were told they needed to follow down this path.
The magic of Vittoria, one that took some time to make itself evident to the naked eye, is the soil and wind. There's a constant breeze coming from the Hyblaean mountains sweeping through these vines resting on red sand over a deep bedrock of limestone. The wind helps moderate these inland temperatures preserving acidity, the red sand cools immediately after the sun sets, and the limestone is responsible for low pH levels in the wine - giving high acidity and nervy minerality. Organic and biodynamic viticulture here are implemented on all parcels.
Putting all this together it's clear why the red wines coming from COS resemble traditional Burgundy and Northern Rhone in their brightness, energy, and spice. Frappato and Nero d'Avola are the two main red varieties. An over-generalization can me made to the former resembling Pinot Noir, with the latter resembling Syrah. Blended together the most recognized of the wines of Vittoria is produced, called Cerasuolo.
COS has put these two obscure varieties on the worldwide map. Over the years the small region of Vittoria has garnered more attention, and rightfully so. The three friends are the ultimate ambassadors and are constantly pushing the envelope in maximizing the potential for their wines, never resting on their laurels.
I met with Giusto Occhipinti just as they were starting to bottle the new vintage of Frappato. Both wines are fermented in cement and aged in large Slavonian oak casks, similar to what is used for traditional Barolo and Brunello. This is certainly one of the most important choices made to ensure the wines are accentuated by crisp, refreshing notes that make the wines a joy to drink, and just as importantly pair well at the dinner table with a wide range.
The Frappato is very much in the red-fruited category and has an intense perfume of roses, and white pepper spice. The Cerasuolo is dark-fruited, led by plum and darker spice elements. If pairing, the Frappato is ideal with a roast chicken, whereas the Cerasuolo excels with roasted red meats and stews.
Each year these two COS red wines are the among the first in Sicily I want to introduce people to. The approach from farming to bottling is a model for all of Sicily, and it's exciting to see their reach spread further and further each year from this small village tucked into central Sicily.
2013 COS Frappato
$38 per bottle.
2014 COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria
$45 per bottle.
60% Nero d'Avola, 40% Frappato