The drive from Mt. Etna to Vittoria was 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.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2018 COS Frappato for $26 per bottle, along with the COS Nero d'Avola and Cerasuolo.
Originally, 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 clay/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 be 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. The Cerasuolo is 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.
In so many ways Ciro Biondi is the perfect introduction to the land of Mt. Etna. Of all my visits, Biondi's estate is the closest to the southern port town of Catania, my home through my June 2017 stay. 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 softly-textured. The charm and infectious enthusiasm of Ciro Biondi is an easy way to be pulled into the history of Etna.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Biondi Outis Etna Rosso for $40 per bottle.
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 conquerors 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 very first time I imagine Outis would be the wine to do it.
We recently focused on Salvo Foti's Mt. Etna value knockout, the I Vigneri Rosso. Today we turn to Foti's top wine, Vinupetra. With so many exciting producers today on Etna it can be hard to pick favorites, but when the discussion turns plainly to the greatest red wine from the slopes of this active volcano there's no debate in my mind.It's Vinupetra.
Today, I'm happy to offer the brand new release, 2016 I Vigneri Vinuptra for $63 per bottle, along with a small collection of magnums.
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. At 2,300 feet these are some of the highest altitude vines in all of Europe. Massive mountain ranges form the back drop of the terraced vineyards, and the sea's influence is minimized as compared to Milo in the south where Foti sources his Carricante.
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 likeBiondi 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, all 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 seamless contours of Aurora is what stands out in the end.
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 with its transparency and ethereal nature on one end, and powerful concentration at the other. 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.
“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.