Archives for August, 2012

Tour of Sicily 12-Benanti

Etna’s best-nerello mascalese grapes

Benanti is one great Etna DOC winery that everyone should visit-it’s a very old place set on a small hill (Monte Serre, 450 m) in the village of Viagrande-on Mount Etna’s eastern slopes.

For a start it is one of the originals to resurrect the Etnean vineyards which had fallen foul of development and the bulk mentality taken towards Sicilian wines in general from the 60s onwards.

Evidence of grape culture millions of years pre the settlement of Sicily was discovered on Etna in 1860 and since that time vineyard production has both expanded and contracted. Today it is expanding again.

The heart and soul of Etnean producers is their palmenti-original yet abandoned wineries that operated by gravity feed and totally by hand labour from the 1860s until the depression in the 1930s where the industry died but the vines survived.

Benanti’s palmento in Viagrande is mid-way through revitalisation but has not been restored for winemaking while other farmhouses are now the tasting cellars and reception halls.

The large wooden grape press handle counterbalanced by a huge granite boulder however gives prominance to the palmento’s doorway. These men must have been one tough race of winemakers to operate such fearsome manual equipment.

Old Palmento Press

Benanti’s seminal white wine is made from the native carricante grape-the best expression being in the Milo region a little north of the cellars, also growing at high elevation (900-950 m).

This wine rides on its fineness. It is pale, slow maturing, unassuming in the mouth until you strike the minerality and acidity, coming around your mouth in a thin stream.

Pietramarina-from carricante grape

It is high end seafood wine which the province of Catania exudes with-swordfish, sea bass, sea urchin, tuna, octapus, calamari and more.

Benanti’s best white is Pietramarina 2008 (96); not yet released; 12%; elegant, smells of small white apples; is lean and restrained; then 2006 (95); subtle and toasty to a small degree, is pale emerald green; then 2001 (96); green, no more colour than that, toasty but still chalky to taste from the dominant minerality.

Three gems, having also drunk the fourth one-2007 (95) when visiting last year.

Serre della Contessa; Etna Rosso DOC (designated red Etna wine) 2006 (90) 14%; contains the two great red grapes of the mountain, nerello mascalese (80%) and nerello cappucio (20%); just a lovely pair to drink here, and take with you.

It’s tobacco, sour cherry, lean and lingering, 2006 is drying, then 2004 (92), 14%; a little funky, dry also, then 2002 (97); 14%; positively great with its cherry-jam notes, extra fineness and line. Great drinks.

Why so good? Well its a mixed-age blend of vines; some pre-phylloxera, over 80 y-olds; falling all over the ground as untrellised and misshapen bushes, low cropping vines, others more recent no doubt giving the blend its vitality.

Ungrafted, 80-100 year-old nerello, pre-phylloxera

Benanti produce a single varietal red; Monovitigno Nerello Cappucio IGT Rosso di Sicilia 2005 (92) from Verzella; 13.5%; having perfume, sweet fruit and very easy to get into; somewhat uncomplicated, spicy and soft; as were 2000 (91); 14%; and 1998 (92); 13.5%; soft landing wines, nice drinks, easy to see that this variety softens the Etna Rosso DOC two grape blend.

Benanti make another super Etna Rosso DOC called Rovitello from a northern Etna site in Guardiola contrada, 750 m altitude, the same 80/20 blend of the two designated red varieties.

This was a great visit. The challenge now is to drink more of these excellent varieties native to Mount Etna.

Tour of Sicily 12-Donnafugata

Donnafugata’s Estates-western Sicily

There was great anticipation in visiting Marsala.

First is the wonderful producer of the near-forgotten wine of the same name.

Then the exotic expectation of the street and beach scenes-more African like with the stark, square buildings, whiteness, both from chalky soils and white beaches, roadsides and salt piles, a startling place which connotes heat and dryness (great for fortified wine too).

Then there is the book-The Leopard which directs me to the notional remains of past Sicilian noble times in the 1890s at the wine properties of Donnafugata penned by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

A cherub who eats nero d’avola!!

The Rallo family from Donnafugata were responsible for rejuvenation of the slowing marsala trade to super table wines from 1983, now with a 150 years of traditional experience, and maintaining a top vineyard (260 ha) at Contessa Entellina, 60 km south of Palermo.

So it was great to enter Donnafugata’s big barrel room to taste across all their wine styles; with even the wines from their island of Pantelleria- 100 year-old Khamma contrada (vineyard) sites there for dessert time.

While you drink these wines ahead, buy the pair of dvds Donnafugata Music and Wine Live -it should make the enjoyment even better.

Donnafugata’s white wines smelt carefully-made. They are modern, attractive form for New World drinkers yet reminding us that the variety is native, and therefore largely unique to Sicily.

What a great place to be! And of course the labels are happy. That improves the drinking because of the positive expectations. Heey.

I tried Vigna di Gabi DOP 1998, 2006 and 2011; a lovely line of the native ansonica (presented as inzolia elsewhere in Sicily); 88, pale green as I expect it to be, tropical yeast, fresh flowers too, endearing, tasting unwooded where it looks the best (ten percent had three months oak.

This is terrific white, gluggable; the 2006 now honied (89) and 1998 (90) even more honied, nice, tight old wine.

Two terrific and fresh native white IGPs were Anthilia 2011 (catarratto and ansonica, 90); and Polena 2011 (catarratto viognier 88); the latter crossing  alsoover with a chewy French variety.

However these natives just don’t “do it” when blended with chardonnay as the result is a gharish, chewy, over-coloured range of wines. Best leave chardonnay to the cool sites like Etna DOC where the racy, minerally tastes that I had were just divine-not fatness there!

That’s advice from a consummate maker of “new style” minerality-derived chardonnays. Colour must be pale straw, not irridescent green-gold.

Polena 2011- catarratto and viognier

Then there is the most anticipated moment of tasting Sicily’s most favoured red grape-nero d’avola. It comes in many great forms, all enjoyable and it is intriguing to witness the polarisation of style that is developing.

Donnafugata are unashamedly modern, and outfit their neros with tiny tipples of oak aging in French barrels.

I just loved Sherazade 2011 IGP (88); the anthesis of wood-aged wines; this is an entry-level drink, all cherry-juice fruit and fresh, ripe berries, lowish alcohol, all stainless steel-aged for brief life drinking.

The serious nero was Sedara 2010 IGP (91); just an appealing wine, smells sweet, tastes savoury-an ideal outcome; a racy wine, not too alcohol hot, not too oaky either.

Then there is the single vineyard wine from Contessa Entellina: Mille e una Notte 2010 IGP (94); heavenly, cherry-red, rich, oak-sweet, intense, extremely interesting, just engaging on the palate with its “New World” oak weight, still uncoiling, so it has another decade of drinking. One emphatic nero.

Also tasted were 1999 (92) and 2003 (86); the latter too oaky for my preferences.

Mille e una Notte-single vineyard nero d’avola

The next highlight of visiting was to walk below the tasting room to the cavernous barrel room to taste barrel samples. Just for fun.

The single site neros (Miccina, Mazzaporro), shiraz (Casale Bianco), cabernets, tannat (Predicatore) and petit verdot (Pandofina) from the 2011 harvest, bottled much later, show excellent promise to stir my sensory imagination.

More important than tasting was hearing the resident soloist, Jose Rallo, the owner’s daughter serenade her guests with her romantic songs-deep under the ground in a starlight barrel cellar. Goose bump stuff.

Donnafugata say they are a jazz-paced winery blending rules and creativity, feelings and technique. Now that is very sensitive-very Sicilian.

Tour of Sicily 12-Cottanera

Masters of Wine Tasting-Cottanera

What a pleasant day to visit the Cambria family, makers of Cottanera, on a sunny spring morning.

Etna was behaving itself though there was a thin cloud of steam emitting as one looked across the nerello mascalese vines towards the south.

This visit was hailed as a property taking the international approach-the philosophy focussed on international varietals and a more international style of winemaking.

Cottanera today is reversing its trend and philosophy, and I was there to investigate. We were in Castiglione di Sicilia.

This brand is current in Australia and is becoming well known.

The welcoming party was extensive-principal Vincenzo explained the wines, assisted by Enzo, Emanuele, Francesco and Mariangela.

I took to the Etnabianco immediately because the grape used is really going to be the white face of Etna in future-carricante. It just loves growing at this elevation and produces great results.

Etnabianco 2011 (88) 13%; DOC Etna is pale, not an aromatic or tropical wine, its making in stainless steel actually preserves its terroir; its all about the taste, the minerally, stony notes, long and lean, mouth salivating and delicacy to boot.

The international winemaking here is all about the cool ferment-it preserves fruit and the delicate notes which the grape possesses.Curiously there is is ten percent catarratto included (the western Sicily white used in Marsala) which must be an experiment to see how it performs on Etna. Good so far.

The more international style white is Barbazzale Bianco 2011 (88) 12.5%; IGT which blends a terrific local white-inzolia with Rhone-origin viognier, and gives it a big slap of skin components.

The word barbazzale means golden beard for those curious about the naming.

This looks like work in progress as both varieties have a tendency to taste chewy. This is a step up in body over the loveable, racy, carricante.

Classic Etna Red

The Barbazzale Rosso 2011 (89) 13% DOC Etna is back to traditional Etna red grapes-nerello mascalese and nerello capuccio housed in some new French oak which was evident; these grapes have a lovely texture and softness, even at entry level wines.

The internationalisation of Etna’s prima red grape, nerello mascalese goes one stage further when blended with merlot and shiraz at 15 percent.

That makes Fatagione 2009 (93) 13.5% IGT; a hybrid of flavours which captures the silkiness of nerello with the bigger and fleshier merlot and shiraz; it works well in a new French oak barrel for a year.

The key to this style appears to not being heavy handed with the international pair-keep them in small proportions so the long fleshiness of nerello is not interrupted. Other vintages 2008 (90) and 2010 (92).

Cottonera make a big monster chewy Merlot called Grammonte 2008 (87) 14.5% IGT; other vintages 2007 (90) and 2009 (88). And a curio variety, a savoury Mondeuse called L’Ardenza 2007 (90) 13.5% IGT.

Finally I had to deal with how cabernet sauvignon grows on this mountainside. Cabernet is a very important grape, and the better ones around the world become the domain of collectors. It’s a variety with a great capacity to age and also excite.

This was my first Sicilian cabernet. It did not come across as a cool climate style (Yarra Valley) so I had to make warmer regions-McLaren Vale comparisons.

Nume 2007 (90) 14.5% IGT is a big chunky style of rich and ripe cabernet, has fifteen percent franc, ample layers of ripe cassis and minty fruit, powdery tannins and plenty to satisfy hearty drinkers. Other vintages 2006 (90) and 2008 (91).

The verdict: international versus indigeneous varieties; both types are well-made wines, people chasing honest and original wine will ask for carricante and nerello; new drinkers will just buy international if they are allowed to do so.

A true test of the winemaking is in the straddle of international varieties with local so that the wines produced become the unique personality of the property, local terroir and therefore the lasting and distinctive part of branding.

Owner Vincenzo Cambria (right) | Etna smokes

Etna has special values-it’s a great destination.

Like the latest
wine & travel news?

Subscribe to our mailing list and get Peter's latest posts to your inbox.