direct press | september 2021
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Wines of volcanic intensity and deep history
The conclusion of our three month exploration of Italy's mountains, coasts and islands, wrapping up with Sicily's Mount Etna. Pictured above: Chiara Vigo, of Fattorie Romeo del Castello, holds a volcanic rock found in her vineyard as Etna fumes in the distance. She was a just child in 1981 when her family was evacuated during the last major eruption but she remembers it vividly. Illustration by Jonathan Kemp
We could not think of a better way to end our three month journey though Italy's coasts, islands and mountains than to feature wines from arguably the country's most famous mountain on its most famous island: Mount Etna. We had no idea when we chose this month's theme, however, that Etna would be actively erupting as we composed this newsletter - a testament to the extreme climactic experience of farming and making wine on Europe's largest active volcano.
Though the Etna DOC, the first Sicilian Denominazione di origine controllata, was only established in 1968, the mountain is one of the worlds oldest grape growing regions, with evidence of vines being cultivated for wine production as early as 800 B.C, when the Greek's occupied Sicily. There is even reference to the magical healing powers of the indigenous wines of Etna peppered throughout Greek mythology.
There is certainly something magical about this land, and Etna has several elements working in its favor to make it an ideal region for viticulture. First, it has its elevation advantage - with vineyards situated at upwards of 1200 meters above sea level, not only do the vines benefit from a diurnal shift (warm days, cold nights), but the diversity in altitudes creates a vast array of microclimates, allowing for unique site specific expressions, not dissimilar to Burgundy. There is also the influence of the Mediterranean sea, with its coastal breezes elevating disease pressure, and in some eastern-facing vineyards the sea creates something similar to the lake effect, with the water cooling temperatures in the summer and warming the vines in the winter. But without a doubt, the trademark rich, black volcanic soils set Etna apart from any other region in the world: ideal for water retention and imparting its fascinating smoky, flinty flavors in the finished wines.
Today, Etna DOC is mostly focused on 2 grape varieties: Nerello Mascalese for red wines, and Carricante for whites. Etna Rosso is allowed to blend up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio, and Etna Bianco's can contain a small portion of Catarratto, Minnella and (rarely) Trebbiano. The area has also become a hot bed for natural wine, thanks to the likes of folks like the infamous Frank Cornelissen, and has undergone a quality over quantity stylistic shift over the last couple decades. Thoughtful farming, lower yields, and a return to historic practices have taken centerstage.
We have Sicily's oldest established winery, Barone di Villagrande, in 4 Red, 4 White, and 4 Mix - a certified organic estate, founded in 1727 in the village of Milo, one of Etna's most revered terroirs, home to the areas only Superiore designated wines. But we aren't solely focusing on the old school, we have wines from new favorites Palmento Costanzo [4 Red, 4 White, and 4 Mix], Eno Trio [4 White] and Ayunta [4 Red and 4 Mix] alongside some of our go-to producers like Graci [4 White and 4 Mix] and Calabretta [4 Red].
Press 2 features two of the most exciting producers on Etna. Chiara Vigo's Romeo del Castello is focused solely on the Nerello Mascalese grape, and her wines can easily rival top Barolo and Barbaresco bottlings. Meanwhile the Bianco from Girolamo Russo is pure, captivating, and translates the 100+ year old vines into something otherworldly.
A few years ago in the NY Times Alberto Aiello Graci [4 Mix and 4 White] was quoted as saying, “Lava? We are fatalists. We don’t care. It’s normal for us.” The risky thrill and resilience of the winemakers working under constant threat of volcanic destruction — many of whom lived through the devastation of 1981's eruption and returned — is instructive if not inspiring in a world increasingly on fire and prone to natural disasters. The lurking volcano seems to give Etna residents a buzzing energy for life and a brave wisdom that comes from accepting that nature is as severe and unflinching as it is beautiful. Accepting that life can be cruel and short is as good a motivator as any to share a bottle of wine with a friend and live in the present as much as possible. In the words of some ancient Italians: in vino veritas, and carpe diem.
Kirk & Jonathan