One of the most exciting areas for wines today is the area around the slopes of Mount Etna, the active volcano in Sicily. Although Etna DOC is the oldest/first demarcated wine region in Italy (1968), it is only in the last 15 years or so that top quality wine has been produced here.
A quick bit of history is required here. The soils in this region are largely volcanic: dark grey in colour and quite sandy. It is because of this that while Phylloxera (the vine louse that destroyed most vineyards in Europe in the late 1800s) decimated the vineyards of mainland Italy, it could not settle in Etna.
As a result, some of the vines in Etna are very old and are still growing on their original roots. Elsewhere, vine growers had to graft their vines on to Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. The old vines produce fewer grapes than younger, grafted vines, resulting in wines with generally more concentration of flavours and intensity. The vineyards are often high in altitude, have very hot daytime temperatures and cool nights. Sufficient rainfall and the volcanic soil combine to provide fine growing conditions.
There are also grape varieties planted here that are not really found anywhere else in Italy, let alone the world. These include Carricante and Catarratto — both rather citrusy medium-bodied white grapes (Catarratto can also sometimes be a tad bitter), and Nerello Mascalese, a red grape producing light-coloured yet powerful, fragrant and textured wines — a bit like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. Of course Nero dAvola (red) and Grillo (white) are also planted but somehow dont seem to fare quite so well on the eastern side of Sicily, where Etna is located. Interestingly, India produces one Nero dAvola and one Grillo.
So popular are the Nerello reds from this area that the last decade or so has seen some pretty famous wine names from elsewhere in Italy establish vineyards. Andrea Franchetti is one of these. His Tenuta di Trinoro Super Tuscan is one of the most expensive and collectible of its kind today. His wines from Etna, under the Passopisciaro label are far more cerebral and complex. They are also a fraction of the cost of Trinoro, which can retail for as much as $220 a bottle. Esoteric natural winemaker Frank Cornelissen also makes wines in this region. These wines are not for everybody: natural wines are all about zero intervention including no filtration or adjustments for colour nor addition of sulphur dioxide, so a lot of Cornelissens wines are cloudy and browning as they oxidise quicker. Some of his wines are also stored and aged in clay vats (known as amphora), much like they would have been centuries ago.
My recent visit to Sicily really opened my eyes to how amazing the wines from the Etna DOC are. Three highlights are below, but these are by no means the only outstanding wines from the region. There are loads of others, many of whom I really hope make it to India.
Benanti 'Serra dellaContessa' Rosso Etna DOC 2006
A delicious, textured, fresh red from 100-year old vines from a single vineyard. Quite restrained with minerality and delicate red fruit. Still youthful after six years. Approx. Rs 2,100 in Italian retail.
FeudoCavaliere Rosso Etna DOC 2008
Earthy and minerally nose with chocolate and liquorice flavours. 50% fermented in oak giving it a tad extra body. Approx. Rs 1,500 in Italian retail.
Tenuta di Fessina 'Musmeci' Etna DOC 2008
Quite an extracted, tannic wine, still with the elegance and freshness of Nerello. Red fruit and even some spice from the 14 months spent in oak. Made by Federico Curtaz, the ex-winemaker at the famous Gaja winery in Piedmont. Approx. Rs 2,500 in Italian retail.