These days wines from Sicily (and specifically Mt. Etna) are among those gathering the most interest among U.S. consumers, sommeliers and wine media. I know a bit about the region and have enjoyed the wines for several years, but must admit to not having the kind of detailed knowledge of Mt. Etna grapes, soils and wines that I do of most of the world’s other tip winemaking regions. Since VinConnect has two great partner wineries in the region (Passopisciaro and Tenuta di Castellaro), and since it was high time to schedule another customer trip, the decision was made to travel to Sicily to see if we all couldn’t learn quite a lot more about the place and the people shaping this fast-emerging region.
As usual Sunday was a long travel day, so we were thrilled to finally arrive at the Shalai Hotel and Spa in Linguaglossa. There we enjoyed a wonderful get-acquainted dinner at their outstanding 1-star Michelin restaurant, with great food and several excellent wines to orient our palates toward Mt. Etna. Following that it was off to bed, as we had a very full agenda for our next few days.
Benanti (website) — We kicked off our tasting tour of Sicily at Benanti. This was fitting as Benanti is recognized as being the first prominent winery credited with the resurgence of Mt. Etna. Launched in the late 1980s, they rehabbed vineyards, updated cellars, and started putting out wines that rapidly got the attention of the wine world. Shortly thereafter other early entrants arrived, include Frank Cornelisson and Andrea Franchetti (Passopisciaro), whom we visited later in the week. Export manager Agatino Failla provided an extremely educational tour of Mt. Etna wine geography in the course of our tasting, which gave us great context for the rest of our week’s visits. We also tasted some 10 wines, including a lovely roséand various current whites and reds, with my favorites being the Pietra Marina 2015 (white) and Serra Della Contessa (red) 2014.
For lunch we stopped off at the rustic yet luxurious boutique hotel Monaci delle Terre Nere. What a lovely, peaceful and romantic place, with a great restaurant featuring products grown in gardens throughout the property. This will definitely be a place I want to revisit on my next trip to Mt. Etna.
Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri and Aeris (website) — This was my first chance to meet the great Salvo Foti, who is regarded as the Godfather of the resurgence in wines from Mt. Etna. He was the original consulting enologist at Benanti when they launched, and over the past 20+ years has either made wine, consulted, or trained the winemakers at literally dozens of the top estates on Mt. Etna, and perhaps every one of significance. His colleague Salvio Simone took us on a tour of the vineyards adjacent to the winery, paying particular attention to the climatological factors that result in this area being named the only DOC for Enta Bianco Superiore. Then Salvo Foti led us through tasting of a broad range of his wines, including I Vigneri projects on Mt. Etna, as well as wines for Aeris (a U.S. project that’s an offshoot of Rhys). From Aeris we tasted the soon-to-be-released 2016 vintage (the first from the vineyard planted across the street from the cellar), and a sample of the 2018 Sonoma Carricante, the first vintage from the vineyard they planted there. We also tasted several reds, and my favorite was the I Vigneri red 2018, which is a historical project in which the grapes are crushed by feet, pressed in the palmento, and aged in amphora — all to preserve the traditions or the region. What’s even more interesting is that the wine is SO “traditional” in its production methods that by law it cannot be sold in Italy, so most of it goes to the U.S. where eager sommeliers gobble it up!
I Biondi (website) — Our final stop on this busy first day was with another early arriver to Mt. Etna, Ciro Biondi. In fact, the Biondi winery dates to the late 1800s, and in the early 1900s the estate was renowned for its wines, which won awards in competitions around the world. Following World War II the estate experienced a dramatic decline, until in 1999 Ciro Biondi decided to return to his family’s roots and set about reclaiming the then-overgrown and defunct vineyards. After several years of hard work the wines now again win acclaim, and it was thrilling to share dinner in their vineyard and hear the family’s stories. During dinner we enjoyed a casual tasting of 5 or 6 wines, with favorite being the 2016 vintage of their flagship Milo white called Pianta. Formerly known as Chianta, the name was changed after the 2015 vintage to avoid confusion with the wines of Chianti (as if anyone there ever made a white this good!).
Tenuta di Fessina (website) — We kicked off our day on the north side of Mt. Etna with a lovely walk through the vineyards of this relatively newer incarnation of an historic estate. In addition to reclaiming the ancient vineyards, they have also rebuilt the winery building and added several lovely suites for guests to the property. Here we had the tasting of 9 wines, including all of the current white and red releases, as well as a few older vintages. My favorite white wine was the Il Musmeci Bianco 2015 from Contrade Cassale in Milo which, when released later this year, will be the first vintage of this wine the estate has produced. We also did a mini-vertical of Il Musmeci Rosso from the core plots of old vines next to the winery, which included the 2015, 2014 and 2012 vintages. All were delicious, but my favorite (at least for near-term consumption) was the 2014.
Calabretta (website) — This visit was a fun surprise. I have enjoyed these wines for many years, appreciating their character and rusticity while occasionally being frustrated with bottle variability. It turns out this is a truly garagiste operation, with barrels and tanks of various shapes and sizes piled up to the ceiling and hidden in nooks and crannies to maximize the use of their small space. We had the pleasure of tasting several wines from barrel, tank and bottle, with my favorites being the 2011 Nerello Mascalese Vigna Vecchia and 2015 Rosso (100% Nerello Capuccio), both from barrel.
Frank Cornelisson (website) — This was a highly anticipated visit, at the estate many consider to be the quintessential representative of the natural wine movement. Unfortunately Mr. Cornelisson himself wasn’t there to lead our tour, but his colleague was kind enough to take us through the cellar and taste several tanks and bottles. We began by sampling direct from the fiberglass tanks he is renowned for using (a completely neutral material, unlike oak or even stainless steel), followed by several bottles opened through their composite plastic corks. We were able to sample all of the current releases of Munjabel, along with two of the single-vineyard 2017s (Feudo di Mezzo (FM) and Vigna Alta (VA)). I enjoyed the reds more than the whites, and my favorite selection was a new wine called Munjabel P. To be launched soon, this is a multi-vintage perpetual blend including vintages 2015/2016/2017, which I found very soft and easy-drinking. Surprisingly the wines weren’t nearly as weird and funky I expected, but neither did I find them particularly distinctive or impressive.
Tuesday’s dinner was just around the corner from the hotel at Macelleria Dai Pennisi. Here they feature a variety of dry-aged beef from around the world, all cut and cooked precisely to order. This made for a fitting end to a very busy day of tasting predominantly red wines.
This morning we decided to take a modest break from wine tours and tasting, and instead went on a hike of several craters on Mt. Etna. With the help of a local guide and volcanologist we learned a lot about the history and geology of the region, and got some much-needed exercise on a beautiful morning to boot!
Passopisciaro (website, profile) — Another much-anticipated stop on our Sicily tour was at Passopisciaro. A VinConnect partner winery for several years, I have been yearning for a chance to visit and compare what I’ve been experiencing in the bottle with the microclimate, vineyards and cellar. Our colleague Sarah Bray led us on a very educational tour of several individual contrade vineyards, and then took us through a comprehensive tasting while we ate a delicious lunch featuring local dishes. We tasted some 10 wines total, mostly 2017s (which are in bottle but not yet released). Renowned for harvesting later than other winemakers in the area, Passopisciaro makes wines that often show tremendous power and concentration, which these did especially given the hot 2017 vintage. Among them we tasted all 5 single Contrade wines, with my favorite being Contrade S (Schiaduanova), which showed gobs of dark fruit but retained the signature balance and elegance typical of this contrade.
Tenuta Della Terre Nere (website) — I have enjoyed the wines of this estate for years and was thrilled to finally visit. Founded by Italian wine export agent Marco di Grazia around the turn of the century, this is another producer who was essential in the discovery, rehabilitation, and return to prominence of wines from Mt. Etna. Here the estate manager Marco quite ably gave us a quick tour of the ancient vineyards adjacent to the cellar and then led us through a tasting of 10 wines. Included was a horizontal of the 2017 single vineyard red and white wines, as well as a vertical of Calderara Sottana from 2015, 2016 and 2017. This was an extremely helpful way to compare and contrast the individual vineyards, and well as the unique expressions of different vintages. My favorite wine from among them was the 2017 San Lorenzo single-vineyard red, which is one of two wines (along with Guardiola) that Terre Nere is now labeling as “Grand Cru.” I can certainly understand why!
For dinner we ventured to Cave Ox, a local restaurant, bar and general neighborhood hangout well-known for its delicious pizza and amazing wine list. This also lived up to its reputation as the place for local vintner sightings, with Frank Cornelisson holding court in his usual spot at the bar.
This was a long travel day of car and ferry rides en route to our next stop in the neighboring Aeolian Islands. Along the way, however, we decided to make a special side trip to Salina Island in order to eat lunch at the 1-star Michelin restaurant at the Hotel Signum, set atop the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and two neighboring islands. All of us were gobsmacked by the experience — a spectacular setting, delicious food, incredible wine cellar, tremendous service, and gorgeous views. What a special place this is — one I would very much like to return to some day.
Tenuta di Castellaro (website, profile) — The highlight of our stay in Lipari was a several hour winery tour, tasting and lunch at this relatively recent VinConnect partner. Located essentially atop the island, the views from Castellaro’s vineyards are among the most striking of any winery I’ve ever visited. After walking the perimeter of the vineyards taking in the gorgeous scenery, we enjoyed a delicious light lunch on the patio. Then it was into the cellars for a quick tour, followed by a long, comprehensive tasting. We enjoyed 10 wines total, including all of their current releases, plus a couple of alternate vintages for comparison. Generally speaking these wines showed more elegance and less power than their Etna counterparts, but had a very high “deliciousness” factor that made them especially drinkable. My favorite from the tasting was the red wine Nero Ossidina 2016, featuring a native grape variety Corinto blended with a splash of Nero d’Avola.
Friday’s dinner was another seafood extravaganza at the famed local restaurant e Pulera, where we enjoyed delicious food, great service and some lovely wines while recapping the trip so far and looking ahead to our final stop.
Palari — Saturday began with a ferry ride back the main island of Sicily and the port of Messina, where we met up with proprietor Salvatore Giraci of Palari winery. After a brief tour of winery on another blistering hot day (with a bit of barrel tasting in the cool cellar where I would have stayed for hours), we made the decision to retire to the seaside for lunch so that we could taste several of their wines with food. Ristorante Da Nino was a spectacular host, allowing us to enjoy some 7 wines along with their spectacularly fresh seafood. The highlight was getting to taste multiple vintages of the flagship Palari red wine, including the 2014, 2013 and 2009 vintages. Given the circumstances (sitting in an outdoor restaurant on the beach in 90 degree heat for 4 hours eating the freshest seafood imaginable) I thought the wines showed quite well, with my preference being for the softness added by the age on the 2009.
We spent that evening wandering the wonderful historic cliffside town of Taormina and enjoyed dinner at Osteria RossodiVino, whose delicious food well-matched their excellent wine list and lovely outdoor courtyard.
In sum we had a ohenomenal trip. The quality of the wines was impressive, and the amount we learned was amazing, but it was the quality time and meals spent with proprietors that made this trip so very special. As the renowned wine importer Terry Thiese noted in his most recent book What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking:
“If you drink a bottle from a grower you know personally, if you have visited or maybe even made friends, the wine of course is larger and richer, no longer an object but a being that lives among the filaments of your recollection, and this is wonderful and many-dimensional.”
I couldn’t agree more, and this is truly the essence of the VinConnect experience — connecting consumers directly to the wines and wineries they are most passionate about.