This is the second article (Part one is here) in an investigative series on Sicilian wines. Part Three of this series will be a focus on the Sicilian palate, foods and wines from the southern most region of Italy.
My wife’s cousin, Fabio, navigates the winding roads up the east side of Mount Etna as naturally as the breeze follows the Sicilian coastline. We are en route to the small mountain town of Randazzo where Fabio’s friend is the winemaker at a winery called Gurrida. Over the course of an hour, we have passed thousands of acres of vineyards and citrus groves and several ancient villages carved (literally) out of lava.
Fabio says his friend makes wine “the old way.” When I ask him what that means exactly, Fabio replies. “I will let him tell you. It is probably better.” Fabio is a computer specialist, not an agrarian.
Looking down from the shoulders of Mount Etna National Park, the sunlight reflecting off of the Ionian Sea is subordinately blinding. A warm afternoon wind is gently nudging the miles of vineyards and citrus groves that frame the smoking volcano.
That’s when it hits me, a heat of the kind you experience when opening a hot oven. Suddenly, it is very, very hot.“The sirocco” Fabio says, in response to my sudden pallor. Until now the hot North African, nee Saharan, winds were something I had only heard of. “Heat is good for the wines, yes?” Fabio says.
Yes, I say, but the intensity of the heat – from the sunlight, the sirocco, and the volcanic floor – is astonishing.
The sirocco is both a blessing and a curse. At times the winds can grow so strong that sand and particulate bombard the southern coastline of Europe. Thankfully, Mount Etna shields the east central coast of Sicily from the worst of it.
The heat eventually relents, but the sunlight reflecting from the sea up the side of the mountain does not. (This is the same kind of reflection that Rieslings in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer wine region of Germany depend on for ripening. There the steeply planted hillsides rely on the reflection of sunlight from the Mosel River.)It is easy to see why there is such a fuss about the wines being produced on the foothills of Mount Etna – Gambero Rosso recently tapped Benanti Winery, on the southeast slope in Viagrande, as Italy’s Winery Of The Year (2007) – the conditions for growing grapes are ideal: there is a unflinching amount of sunlight; a naturally arid condition; a warm volcanic subsurface that is porous enough to retain and drain water.
But what Sicily benefits from the most is experience, the kind that’s taken a world and a few millennia to cultivate. Together, the perfect balance of time-tested methods and the urging hand of Nature are rewarding wineries like Benanti who are attempting to guide rather than respond to the perpetually emergent modern palate.
“[There are] dozens of … wines driven by excellence, complexity and balance, rather than the extractive weight, fruit and oak, that used to be the stereotype of quality Sicilian offerings,” write the editors of Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wines 2007.Benanti is an example of a producer who makes wines in “the new way” – utilizing modern innovations and know-how to showcase native Sicilian varietals such as Carricante, Nerello Mascalese, and Nerello Carpuccio, not to mention international varieties like Merlot.
We arrive at Gurrida. Fabio’s Alfa Romeo is the only element of the mountain scene that reminds me of your typical California winery setting. There is no tasting room, or a shopping area where pleasant music sets the mood for an afternoon of quaffing. Gurrida is a two-hundred year old vitivinicola (a producer that grows its own grapes). They make several wines from granacha (grenache).
This is the other side of Sicilian winemaking in and around Mount Etna, “the old way.” It is rustic, less concerned with gustatory tourism. Gaetano, the 28-year-old winemaker, is the second-generation caretaker of the property planted by a Frenchman more than two-hundred years ago.The original winery operated by gravity. Cement rooms acted as fermentation tanks. Today, the winery utilizes large oak, stainless steel, and epoxy-coated cement tanks. There are pumps and hoses. The laboratory is a countertop of chemical solutions. Gaetano walks us out into the vineyards. There are gnarled rows of vines about the size of two football fields set side-by-side. The floor of the vineyard is exceedingly lush, compared to the sun-dried hills surrounding the vineyard.
Gaetano explains why this is. “For five months out of the year, the vineyard is submerged by water.” He produces a picture. It is of the place where we are standing. “If this was February, we would need our swimming suits,” Gaetano says.
Gurrida’s position is unique. It is not on the sunny southeast-facing slopes of Mount Etna. Gurrida is at the basin of a valley on the northwest slope of Mount Etna, at more than 2500 feet above sea level. Any winter snow and spring rain drains off into the vineyard. So much so at times that the walkway Gaetano and his father built (15 feet above the vineyard floor) in order to be able to walk out into the vineyard is under water.
“We deal with it,” Gaetano says with a nonchalance that only comes from experience.
Over time, he says, the waters drain through the substructure of lava stone leaving the vines irrigated through the growing season and parched at the harvest. There is no other irrigation system, there is no need for one. The vines are cane-pruned and healthy.
“Every year, the vines produce better fruit,” Gaetano says. A graduate of the oenology program at the University of Catania, Gaetano knows how to treat the grapes. “So, every year we make better wine.”On the exterior of the winery is a row of new stainless steel fermentation and blending tanks. I ask Gaetano if he knows about Benanti Winery, the attention it and other producers are bringing to the Etna DOC.
He explains that new winemaking methods and gastronomic theories have arrived in Sicily in a big way in recent years, but not every winery is pushing the envelope. To punctuate this statement, Gaetano offers us a slice of home-made pecorino cheese (made from sheep’s milk).
Sicilian culture is, after all, slow to change. The advance on the international scene as a major player in the wine industry has not yet become so important as living richly every day – one step at a time.