By Cynthia Chaplin IWA
The last day of our magical VIA Gita to Mt. Etna began with an unforgettable visit to Sciara, brain child of the inimitable Stef Yim, the so-called Johnny Depp of Etna. Raised in California by Hong Kong Chinese and Japanese parents, Yim grew up in Los Angeles, became a sommelier and eventually a winemaker in Northern California. After some time in France, he ultimately bought his vineyard in Sicily – the answer to his dreams of high altitude, pre-phylloxera vines and great climate. His idea was to make “clean wine with character and a spiritual approach to understanding and nurturing the plants.” The visit began with a roadside stop, waiting for Stef to meet us, where we were enchanted by cows and goats meandering back and forth across the busy road, from field to field, without a care in the world. Soon we were tramping up the side of the volcano to the Sciara vineyard in Contrada di Neve, one of the highest vineyards in Europe at 1200 meters above sea level. Grenache is the name of the game here, growing in sandy soil and full sun, but benefitting from the cooler temperatures and breezes at this altitude. Despite losing 30% of his grapes from hail and wild boars this year, he harvested 12 days ago and is looking forward to a good vintage. The vineyard is filled with an abundance of wild plants, including saffron flowers, wild mint and wild fennel, all contributing to a gorgeous, healthy environment for the grapes. The vineyard lies in the crater between Monte Spagnola and Monte Maletto, both extinct volcanoes over 5000 years in age. The soil is rich with pumice ash, needing no chemical treatment, and Stef is using a combination of old vines and clones from Spain and Sardegna, grafted with American rootstock. He likes the diversity, explaining his wines end up with differing “head, heart and tail” notes. He is ageing some of the wine in amphorae buried in the vineyard for 12 months, so the wine can see all four seasons in the place where it was grown. The first vintage using this method (2021) will be released in 2023. Stef remarked, “and if it sucks, at least we will have damn good vinegar.” Back at his home/cantina, we were able to see the pressing going on and the giant tubs where he is conserving the pressed grape skins from nerello mascalese to make grappa. He also makes his own compost from a pungent mix of grape skins and various “poops”, which is sprayed back on the vines, keeping his system holistic in nature. “Sciara wines are made my way, I don’t give a damn about DOC,” laughed Stef as we tasted his “Uluando alla Luna” (howling at the moon), a blend of carricante, minella and catarratto with notes of sage and pickled lemons, dark green olive brine and mandarin peel. His series of reds, named for the altitude of their respective vineyards, are all made with spontaneous fermentation and have common threads of fine sticky tannins, gun powder, pomegranate, cherry and orange. They are textural and unusual, sometimes benefitting from recorking and shaking the open bottle, making the repoured wines feel as if they had taken a deep breath, opened up completely, dialled up the sound to 11. Of course, the theater of watching Stef crack lava rocks together and holding them to everyone’s noses, plus the vigorous bottle shaking, the joking and larking around all added to this joyful experience of examples of grenache and nerello mascalese like we had never tried before. Undoubtedly, Stef’s adventurous and restless spirit will continue to create unique and fascinating wines for years to come.
In 180° contrast, the infinitely calm and refined resort at Villa Neri served us a stunning lunch buffet under enormous white umbrellas on the lawn, water shining in the perfect pool and the merest whisp of white rose and lavender floating on the breeze. The DOC rosé (100% nerello mascalese), carricante and catarratto blend Contrada Arrigo 2021 and 2020 introduced us to Neri’s work, with many thanks once again to Federico for his explanations and patient answering of all our questions. The 2020 initiated a discussion of anchovy brine, “collatura di alici” between a bunch of us sitting with some of the Italian journalists, who generously turned up later with a small gift of a beautifully packaged tin for us to try! Arrigo Rosso 2020 and 2019 were both 100% nerello mascalese and showed notes of sweet and sour cherry, with 2019 more herbal and 2020 more floral. Both were fermented without stems and aged 100 months in French oak. Lunch wrapped up with divine cinnamon ice cream and cannolis, after which we had to waive goodbye to half our group, headed back to the airport and “real life.”
The lucky last ones carried on to Barone di Villagrande, where Marco Nicolosi is the 10th generation winemaker, passionately involved with production on his 40 hectare estate in the Valley di Bove, a collapsed crater with many differing stratas of lava, collapsed and slipped on their way to the sea below. Organic clay, minerals, sea breezes and lots of rain all combine to make exceptional wines in this tiny region on the east side of Mt Etna near Milo. Nicolosi is using a combination of albarello and guyot training, with 7000 vines per hectare, a very dense planting. He makes 40% red wines and 60% whites, using chestnut barrels and changing them for new ones every 5 years, which creates a constant rotation between 1,2,3,4, and 5 year old barrels. He believes the chestnut stabilizes the color in nerello mascalese and produces authentic, pure wines of Etna, with no French oak. His goal is to make wines that get better every year; with this in mind, he is putting 30% of the wines in chestnut and 70% in acacia. The Etna Bianco Superiore 2021 showed green, sea salt, white blossom, and a note of unripe apricot, with a deep lemon color, a round and soft mouthfeel and texture of thin cream. Andrea Eby commented that the acidity here is not as “piercing” as in other carricante wines we have been tasting. We were very lucky to taste the Etna Bianco Contrada Villagrande 2019, which has not yet been released. The paler wine was greener, more herbal, more acidic, with a tighter phenolic textural grip on the palate. Chatting later with Marco, he told us that 2017 was the best harvest in the last 20 years, all the grapes were perfect due to various brief periods of rain in Milo throughout the hot summer. The harvest came early in 2018 after a difficult rainy vintage that saw hail – good for whites and rosé but disaster for the reds. A “nice year, very typical for Etna” characterised 2019, and finally 2020 was a bad year with a lot of heat and a lot of rain. Truly amazing to listen to a winemaker recount vintage after vintage in detail off the top of his head, only because a casual question was asked, it was as if he were remembering everything he ever loved or hated about every girlfriend since he was a little boy. He also filled us in on his approach to harvesting, based on pH, acidity and sugar levels, checking and rechecking until the perfect balance was achieved and harvest could begin. We tried his Etna Rosato 2021, a blend of 90% nerello mascalese and 10% catarratto and carricante, which he harvests specifically to make rosé. He told us Villagrande “always made rosato, it is from my heart, it was a wine for the grandmothers and we made 1500-2000 bottles, but now we love it all year, the acid and fruit are in harmony, we make 20,000 bottles a year and sell out.” The luminous medium salmon color, and notes of orange blossom, yellow peach, apricot and pink Himalayan sea salt combined for a wine we could all see drinking all year round. We couldn’t ignore the grandfather in the story either, and Marco shared “Sciara” IGT from 70 year old merlot vines, which his grandfather made only for friends, using French oak barriques, truly a piece of family history on this beautiful and elegant estate, where we could hear a little voice calling “Papà, Papà!” – the future generation of Etna already on its way.