By Cynthia Chaplin IWA
First day up on “Mongibello,” or Mt. Etna to those of us unfamiliar with Sicilian dialect. The highest and most active volcano in Europe was the backdrop for a magical day, starting with a visit to I Vignieri da Salvo Foti at Milo. Early in the 21st century this inspirational man became the one of the backbones for all the winemaking on Etna. Today we were greeted by his son, Simone, clearly having inherited an intense passion from his father. Simone took us through the vineyards, pointed out that no lava flow ever reached this position, where they have dense plantings in the albarello style with vines staked to chestnut staves. We saw the staves for future plantings ageing in an open air shed, reached by a path covered in the bristly, furry chestnut shell husks. Volcanic ash and sand in the soil provide natural fertilizer, along with magnesium and potassium for the grenache and nerello mascalese vines, growing at up to 1000 meters above sea level, 8 km from the sea, 10 km from the volcano. Foti is working with ungrafted vines, which adapt better to the constantly changing soils, with micro-vinification of each set of vines showing differing pH and acidity levels. The winemaking includes amphorae, acacia, French oak and chestnut wood barrels to age the reds, and Foti is still using their beautifully restored palmento in the traditional way, including foot treading, for the I Vigneri Rosso – “an illegal” wine because the DOC does not allow palmento use. Foti’s belief in preserving some of this old tradition is a crucial piece of the Etna puzzle. We tasted the 2021 carricante/minella blend, “Aurora,” the 2019 “Vigna Milo” (100% carricante) aged in big neutral botte, the “Palmento Caselle” 2019 – the first ever vintage of this red wine, made using whole bunches and some acacia ageing. All of the wines, both white and red, had a common acidity running through them, as well as fascinating textures, flinty minerality, good notes of fruit and sage. It was an enormous privilege for our Ambassadors to taste these wines with Salvo and his sons, on their beautiful terrace overlooking the sea, on the doorstep of the timeless palmento that spawned the regeneration of winemaking on Mt. Etna.
Our next stop was at Tornatore, where Angelo, the enologist, and Federica, our delightfully passionate hostess, toured us through the vineyards nearest to the family home and treated us to a gorgeous lunch and wine tasting at a fantastically long table in the garden. We looked out over the pillow lava hills and old extinct craters, as well the ever present Mongibello in the distance. The Tornatore family has owned vineyards here since the 1800’s, but they are only growing native varietals now in their vineyard plots across eight contradas. The primary winemaking cellar is here in Valdemone and we were able to clamber up on the catwalks above the steel fermentation tanks to see the mechanized punch down of the caps taking place only days after their recent harvest. We were treated to Etna Bianco 2021 and 2017 to see how well carricante ages and how the pale lemon, high acid of the young wines evolves into a deep lemon, rounded, fruitier, more balanced wine with petrol and smoke notes. For reds, we tasted Etna Rosso 2018 and 2014, seeing more evolution, from the rosey, ripe crunchy cherry 2018 to the tar and rose, balsamic herbs, nutmeg and plum deliciousness of the 2014 – a vintage that Angelo described as “the perfect harvest. Another special treat for VIA Ambassadors was Tornatore’s new wine, “Caldera” 2019, made from vines grown at 650 meters above sea level and made using 30% whole bunches from pre-phylloxera vines (120 years old). The wines spent 3 months in closed cement tanks, then pressed and aged in big old oak barrels for 18 months. The final wine was precise and elegant, with notes of tart sour cherry, blood orange rind, with soft polished tannins and wonderful acidity – something we were all beginning to expect from Etna wines. As Angelo said, “it’s easy to make wines from Etna, but difficult to make wines of Etna.” Tornatore is clearly succeeding at this goal.
Dinner was at the impressive modern winery I Custodi, pride and joy of owner Marco Paoluzzi, a former engineer whose skill is demonstrated by the ingeniously designed winery, mostly underground, where is it kept cool by the use of a water system from a natural well, located at the bottom of a curved ramp that feels almost like a DNA double helix as you descend. The winemaker is Salvo Foti, bringing our day full circle. We were able to taste several wines in succession, beginning with “Ante” 2019 from old carricante vines growing at 750 meters asl. Savoury and salty with high acidity and notes of white peach, lemon oil and fennel, this wine had a flinty mineral character we all enjoyed. The 2017 vintage from a warm, dry growing season gave us notes of hazel nut, intense concentrated acacia with a hint of mushroom, tart lemon and anise seed – a rounder, fleshier wine with a good balance of acidity and sapidity. The mild, wet and cool vintage in 2013 produced an elegant, supple, textural wine with lemon cream, saline and slivered almond notes, as well as a fresher feel than 2016. Federico Latteri from Cronache di Gusto was so generous with his time, explaining how the cloudy, cool, rainy weather on the Eastern side of Etna was creating the best expressions of carricante, helped by deep terraces that drain quickly. Finally, we tasted the 2010, Marco’s second vintage, which had developed a beeswax, gardenia, lanolin textural quality, while maintaining a bright acidity with notes of white miso and sage butter. Reds at the tasting included nerello cappuccino from 2020, described by Marco as cheerful and friendly, served to us in gorgeous magnums, filling the glass with floral notesand hints of pepper, black cherry, unripe plums, crunchy red berries – a light bodied wine that could be served chilled. The rosato “Alnus” 2021 was a blend of 33% nerello mascalese and 66% cappuccio, with a bright pink colur and notes of pink grapefruit, pink roses, tangerine and strawberry. Marco remarked that nerello cappuccio is hard to grow, “like planting trouble,” and they only produce 3000 bottles of this rosé per year. “Aetna” 2009 rounded out our night, made with grapes grown on vines right in front of the cantina, matured in a combination of barrique and tonneaux, givng the wine an oaky, smokey, toasty, meaty, caramelized blood orange and sweet tropea onion complexity. I can’t leave I Custodi without mentioning the fabulous chef Marco Cannizzaro from Ristorante Km.0 in Catania who gave us an amazing dinner, and wonderful Maurizio, the “court jester” head of hospitality at I Custodi, whose smiles and jokes had us laughing all night, right til the moment of the last group photo, where he joined us, shouting, “I love everybody here tonight!”