On the deck of I Vigneri di Salvo Foti--with Mt. Etna rumbling and steaming in the background....
After a weekend in Rome and an overnight in Taormina, we made our way up the rugged Mt. Etna. Paradoxically, it's both one of the world's older wine regions and one of the world's hottest new wine regions. The history goes back somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 years...yet in the last two centuries the wine business--and the vineyards--have fallen into disrepair. There are a variety of reasons for that...among them, Sicily's history which found it on the wrong side of trade disputes that caused the primary overseas markets for its wine to dry up.
That began to change about 30 years ago when Dr. Benanti wanted to try to rejuvenate his family's vineyards and turned to a young Salvo Foti to carry that out. Foti was convinced the best way forward was to return to the way wine had been made on the island for centuries--including the albarello-trained vines (it means "little trees"...think bush vines that have been trained to stand up straight!). Foti continues to advise other wineries but his primary effort is now focused on his winery: I Vigneri di Salvo Foti. We visited on a beautiful day with Etna rumbling and steaming in the background. It was fascinating to see the historic equipment still in use, including the old stone lagar (that would look at home in Portugal's Duoro Valley) and the massive wooden press. A really interesting visit. The wines were excellent. Foti is an advocate of what most would call natural wines. He doesn't love that term--preferring the term "human wine." One of the risks of natural wine is uneven bottles due to limited use of sulfur--and that is sometimes a complaint with Foti's wines (though we did not experience it). During our visit, my favorite was the 2017 Etna Bianco Superiore (the Caselle). Focused, complex and minerally--it was really interesting. The Rosso we tasted was very good...but it was a couple of nights later when we were offered the 2006 Vinupetra at dinner that we fully appreciated how good his reds can be. Understanding the wines of Etna begins with Salvo Foti.
For lunch, a winemaker had recommended we visit Barone di Villagrande. It's the oldest continuously operating vineyard on the mountain and one of the oldest estates. It has been in the Nicolosi family for ten generations. When we made the lunch reservation they asked us to also participate in a short vineyard and winery tour and tasting before lunch. We did. The winery was interesting...some of the largest old casks I've ever seen. And the tasting was pleasant. Then we moved to tables set on the patio...a five-course lunch--food typical to the region--with wine pairings. The lunch was good. Each piece taken on its own--the tour, the tasting, the lunch with pairings--was very nice...but perhaps not memorable. Combined--memorable! And the Etna Bianco Superiore, which I had been told was outstanding, lived up to its billing.
Our last stop of the day was at the home of Ciro and Stef Biondi. After an appropriate period of playing with the cute bull mastiff puppies that were waiting to go to their forever homes, we walked the vineyard with Stef. Then into the kitchen where she and Ciro shared their wines. They were excellent. Sharing the wine, and the passion of the people who made it, in such a personal setting was such a rich experience!
That night we had dinner at Shalai Resort. It had been recommended to us by several winemakers. And we thought it was excellent, too. What was unique was that for most of our five-course dinner, we were alone in the dining room. We had our own private host...sommelier...waiter...and chef (two, actually, as we discovered when we went into the kitchen to congratulate the chef on a delicious dinner!). Guess Monday nights in September aren't a big social time on the mountain!
The next morning found us on the "north" part of the mountain visiting two wineries that are perhaps better known--though less boutique--than those we had visited on the southern part. Passopisciaro is the estate of Andrea Franchetti--scion of a well-known Roman family who also makes wine in Tuscany. The wines are very well done--and on the riper, richer side. If Napa is the heart of your wine envelope, Passopisciaro may be the Etna estate for you.
Our Etna adventures ended at Tenuta delle Terre Nere, the estate of Marco di Grazia. We, in DC, sometimes highlight Marco as an American and a DC native. And, as he pointed out when we chatted, that's technically accurate. He was born in Georgetown Hospital--child of an American father and Italian mother. Unfortunately, his parents split when he was 8 months old and he and his mother left DC for Florence, where he grew up. But he came back to the States for College (as did his brother). As many Italian youths do, he had grown up with wine as a natural part of dinner and he was unimpressed with the quality of Italian wine he was able to find in California. He said so to several wine merchants--and they encouraged him to do something about it. He and his brother did just that--moving back to Florence and starting a company to export wines to the US. It became very successful. In that process, he was exposed to the historic old vineyards of Etna--and decided about 20 years ago to invest. In fact, he made major investments--in the vineyards, in the winery and in the facilities. We watched artisans working on a new tasting complex that will stand comparison with the good ones in Napa or elsewhere in the US. We tasted a lot of wines and they were very good. In particular, the Prephylloxera wines--wines from old vines on their own roots--were exceptional...worth searching out.