Every step Federico Graziani takes in his new vineyard throws up little puffs of black volcanic sand, each grain as fine as talc. Mareneve (meaning sea and snow) is on the flanks of Mount Etna. One of Europe’s highest vineyards at 1,200 metres above sea level, it was planted with an experimental mix of grapes 20 or so years ago – local carricante and grecanico as well as chenin blanc, riesling and gewürztraminer. Graziano is counting on that altitude to lend freshness to the unusual blend he makes.
Like many of the local vineyards, Mareneve is surrounded by an abundance of fruiting trees. Few other producers have olive trees as old as Mareneve’s gnarled 800-year-old veterans, but olives are found in abundance, as are several varieties of cherry, almonds, lemons, oranges, pomegranates, loquats and figs. These trees are part of an incredibly biodiverse ecosystem. The stone terraces of the area’s oldest vineyards are woven into a landscape of grasses and shrubs vividly coloured with yellow broom, the bright magenta of valerian, scarlet poppies and tiny blue borage flowers. The scent of herbs perfumes the air, a heady blend of oregano, chamomile and fennel, and humming bees and chattering birds provide the soundtrack.
Ultimately, all this abundance stems from “the lady”, Mount Etna herself. Her looming presence is everywhere and the clouds that wreath her summit are a reminder of her power; these are not actual clouds but, rather, smoke billowing out from her active core. Evidence of her wrath lies not far away. A seam of petrified lava dating back to an eruption in 1981 snakes downwards from the summit towards the town of Randazzo, stopping just short of the outskirts. The dark rocks tumble their way down the slope, carving a sterile channel through nature’s bounty. But, if you look closer you can see signs that life is creeping back into the lunar landscape – a colourful sprig of flowers here, some grasses there. Ultimately these rocks are destined to degrade over time, first into rubble, then into pebbles and finally, in several thousand years, they will become as fine as the volcanic sands so typical of Mareneve and other surrounding vineyards.
The mineral richness afforded by this topsoil of volcanic dust, stone and sandy loam is tempered by the lack of organic matter in the volcanic bedrock, whose structure ensures that what little rain falls on Etna’s slopes drains rapidly away. This particular zone of Etna – running along its north-facing slopes from Randazzo to Linguaglossa – is further protected from precipitation by the Monte Nebrodi range, home to wild pigs whose meat is considered a local delicacy. The hot, dry conditions of summer are particularly suited to growing red grapes, especially at lower altitudes (400-800 metres above sea level). As a result, the slopes are dotted with abundant bush vines of nerello mascalese, Etna’s hallmark red grape, which produces wines whose pale colour belies their structure and the intensity of their fruit. According to some, mascalese is related to sangiovese, but many I tasted reminded me more of a rich southern take on nebbiolo – high in alcohol with firm, ripe tannins and aromas combining floral notes with red fruits. Nerello mascalese is often blended with nerello cappuccio, a softer, earthier grape valued less for its finesse than for its ability to lend generosity and deeper colour to a wine.
Etna’s white grape, carricante, typified by high acidity and a saline lick of minerality, is also widely planted. The best wines, however, are from grapes grown on the volcano’s eastern slopes, close to the town of Milo. The climate here is gentler and more humid than that of northern Etna, the local vegetation more tropical in nature, the landscape punctuated by palm trees like botanical exclamation marks and clusters of vibrant bougainvillea cascading along the walls of the houses.
Etna’s richly biodiverse terroir has been exploited with great enthusiasm in recent years by a number of winemakers, attracted not only by the area’s potential but also by the relative affordability of land. Hipster winemakers with a penchant for experimenting with terracotta amphorae and minimal sulphur levels work alongside more conventional producers to create a wide variety of wines whose quality and reputation is growing fast. The fame of leading figures including Frank Cornelissen and Giuseppe Benanti has contributed to the growing tide of excitement in the region, and the existence of pockets of old vines, many of them ungrafted, scattered around the slopes, is another compelling drawcard.
There is, of course, far more to Sicily than Etna, even if the volcano does seem to dominate not only the landscape but also the attention of wine buffs. As you travel southwards from Etna towards the splendidly baroque city of Noto, you’ll pass by the coastal town of Avola, whose fame largely lies in the fact that it lent its name to Sicily’s most widely planted red grape, nero d’Avola. In all probability, the temperature will have climbed a degree or two – you’re not too far from the coast of north Africa, and the coastal plains are swept by hot winds. The soils have changed – here the most prized soils contain a high proportion of whitish calcium carbonate, which reflects the heat of the midday sun onto the ripening grapes, but you’ll find darker clays and sands, too.
In addition to the dense, dark-fruited nero d’Avola, you’ll find plantings of the lighter, more perfumed frappato, especially as you head towards the town of Vittoria. Vittoria is the only part of Sicily to have its own DOCG zone, that of Cerasuolo di Vittoria. This tiny appellation (almost 190 hectares) stipulates a blend composed of nero d’Avola and frappato. These grapes benefit from proximity to the sea, whose coastal breezes help keep the fruit disease free. Although the wines made here can age well, the majority are most enjoyable in their youth, when nero d’Avola’s plush, plump structure is given counterpoint by frappato’s liveliness and perfume.
If you’re heading to Marsala, stop off to visit Agrigento’s extraordinary Valle dei Templi. This complex of Greek temples, dating to the 5th and 6th centuries BC, are among some of the best preserved in the world, and provide a historical counterpoint to Sicily’s Baroque heritage found in most of the island’s major cities.
To write Marsala off as a cooking wine is to do a disservice to one of the most complex sweet wines in the world when at its best. A complex legislative framework within the DOC outlines various different styles, depending on colour, cask ageing and sweetness level. Even the most basic assumption about the wine – that it’s fortified – isn’t always true. However, unfortified styles are not covered under the DOC regulations. Furthermore, most Marsala production is on an industrial scale, resulting in simple wines with flavours of burnt sugar and cooked fruits. The cheapness of such wines has helped drive this potentially great appellation even further into the abyss where most fortified wines have been relegated, yet a tasting of bottlings by one of the area’s handful of artisan producers should be enough to convince you of Marsala’s merits. One can only hope this once-great wine region – like Etna – will be rediscovered by those with a taste for quality and quirkiness, and its wines will again take their rightful place among the best of Sicily.
As always in Europe, booking a visit to a winery in advance is highly recommended, particularly when visiting smaller producers.
Pietradolce (pietradolce.it) is in the process of building a very smart modern winery. When it’s completed, it will have a magnificent tasting room with splendid views. Until then, tastings take place in a more informal setting, or, if you’re lucky, in a stone hut in the middle of the vineyards. Pietradolce’s philosophy is a mash-up of a hands-off approach to winemaking in combination with intensive work in the vineyards. The result is a series of wines that show great personality and sense of place. I enjoyed the whole range, but favourites include the 2017 Archineri Bianco, made from centenarian carricante vines grown in the area around Milo. It’s got incredible minerality, with carricante’s trademark saline twang on the finish as well as great freshness and a bright burst of lemon zest on the palate. Of the reds, the pick of the bunch is the sleek, elegant 2015 Barbagalli Etna Rosso. Its complex palate has layers of fruit – there’s smoke, rose petals and raspberries as well as liquorice and pepper. The tannins are plentiful but fine-grained, and the finish is very persistent.
If your tastes run to something a bit edgier, check out Vino di Anna (vinodianna.com). Winemaker Anna Martens grew up in Adelaide, but made wine around the world before settling in Italy. She was a key member of the team at the prestigious Tenuta dell’Ornellaia before falling in love with Etna on a visit in 2005. Five years later she began her own range, many featuring natural winemaking techniques. 2016 Palmen+o is an easy-drinking red made in a traditional Sicilian palmento, an old building with stone troughs used for crushing grapes by foot. Afterwards the grapes are fermented in a mixture of stainless steel, used oak casks and terracotta qvevris. It’s a vibrant, refreshing summer wine with bright cherry and chinotto-flavoured fruit that would benefit from brief refrigeration prior to opening. Martens splits her time between Sicily and London, so contact her well in advance to ensure she’s there for your proposed visit.
Federico Graziani (fedegraziani.it), former sommelier at Michelin-starred Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia in Milan, also splits his time between Sicily and his home (mainland Italy, where he works for Campanian producer Feudi di San Gregorio), so advance notice is also a must. If you can’t get a visit organised, the website lists a handful of local restaurants that carry the wines. His Mareneve white and his red, the Profumo di Vulcano, are made in minuscule quantities and (mostly) sold to high-end restaurants. The first vintage of Mareneve is exuberant with lush flavours of tropical and stone fruits, underpinned by stony minerality and bright acidity that carries the flavours onto a long finish. The Profumo’s 2014 vintage will take time to hit its stride, but already shows hints of great complexity with notes of dried herbs, sour cherries and spice with funky earthiness on the finish. The tannins are still tight and grippy but once they release their hold this should be a beautiful wine.
If you prefer your winemaking a little more conventional, Terrazze dell’Etna (terrazzedelletna.it) should hit the spot. This beautiful property is situated in the middle of Etna’s stunning nature reserve. The full visit includes a guided walk in the local forest and vineyards as well as a winery tour. Make sure the tasting portion of your visit includes a chance to sample the unusual 2016 Ciuri Bianco, a white wine made from (red) nerello mascalese grapes. This delicate, fresh wine shows plenty of Etna’s characteristic minerality as well as pretty aromas of melons and pears. The 2014 Carusu, by contrast, is a full-throttled red with layers of smoky red plums and berries tinged with spice and notes of chocolate and liquorice on the finish, all sustained by the grip of chalky tannins.
The vines at Paolo Cali (paolocali.com) grow on deep sandy soils, which heat up to an extraordinary temperature in summer, helping to ripen the bunches of frappato, nero d’Avola and grillo. His 2013 Forfice Cerasuolo di Vittoria is a 50/50 field blend of frappato and nero d’Avola. This mature wine is silky and mouth-filling with elegant tannins, plus heady flavours of summer berries, incense and spice. It is well-balanced by brisk acidity. The 2017 Osa! is a deeply coloured, medium-bodied rosé whose bright flavours of pink grapefruit and cherries, enhanced by a twist of salinity on the finish would make it a perfect partner for a lunch of locally fished tuna.
The jewel in Vittoria’s winemaking crown is COS (cosvittoria.it). From a first vintage in 1980, producing 1,470 bottles, COS has become one of Sicily’s pace-setters. Vineyards are managed biodynamically, while winemaking tends towards minimal interventionism. The wines show elegance and freshness. COS was one of the first in Sicily to use terracotta amphorae for maturing; the practice continues today with the Pithos range. I have a long-standing soft spot for the winery’s juicy, floral frappato – it was the wine I served at my wedding a decade ago. The current vintage is just as delightful. However, at a recent tasting, it was the 2016 Pithos Rosso, a blend of frappato and nero d’Avola, that impressed. As expected from a wine fermented and matured in amphora, there’s a hint of earthiness and the characteristically dusty tannic grip often shown by these wines. But what really strikes me is the wine’s freshness and the purity of its flavours with bursts of griotte cherries, sloes and violets, and a refreshing twist of bitters on the finish.
Tasca d’Almerita (tascadalmerita.it) is one of Sicily’s biggest wineries. It dates back to 1830 and has over 450 hectares of vineyards planted across five different estates. Of these, the Tenuta Regaleali estate is probably the best to visit. The most pragmatic reason is that it’s Tasca’s headquarters and so offers an opportunity to taste through the producer’s extensive range. It’s also conveniently located midway between Agrigento and Palermo. The final reason is pure aesthetics. Driving through the dun-coloured hills of the island’s interior, your eyes become attuned to shades of burnt-out browns, khakis and yellows. As a result, Regaleali explodes on your retina in a hallucinatory burst of lush green fertility, due in part to the stream that runs through the property, but also to Tasca’s rigorous sustainability measures. Although Tasca made its reputation with wines based on international varieties, these days a good deal of the focus is on indigenous varieties. Stand-outs include the 2016 Nozze d’Oro, based on inzolia with a touch of sauvignon blanc. It combines subtle notes of lemon zest and almonds with a zingy acidity that promises a bright future. A tasting of older vintages suggests this is a cuvée that ages extraordinarily well, acquiring a semillon-like note of honeyed toast as well as that grape’s waxy texture over time. The property’s 2016 Perricone Guarnaccio is also worth visiting for a look at an indigenous grape currently undergoing a revival of interest on the island. This is an intense, brooding wine of great depth, showing an abundance of dense, spicy dark berries and damson fruits underpinned by firm, chewy tannins.
No vinous visit to Sicily would be complete without a pilgrimage to Marco de Bartoli (marcodebartoli.com), the winery single-handedly responsible for the revival of artisanal production of Marsala, Sicily’s sui generis sweet wine. The winery offers scheduled tours and you can opt for an entry-level tasting of either the Marsalas or the zibibbos from Pantelleria, or an in-depth tasting of dry and sweet styles. Of the dry wines, the 2016 Grappoli del Grillo may be the pick of an extremely good bunch. The wine is aged in oak, contributing a gentle toasty note to a palate of tangy iodine, lemons and apples. A bit of lees stirring adds creaminess, while the nervy acidity helps extend the wine on the persistent finish. It goes without saying that you should taste some of the Marsalas – keep your fingers crossed that they’re pouring the complex semi-dry 1987 Marsala Superiore, whose aged oxidative characters combine notes of caramel, dried peach and orange zest with a hint of incense and wood polish.
When visiting Etna, you could do far worse than a room at Parcostatella (parcostatella.com/index.php/en), a family-run agriturismo offering a warm welcome, a hearty breakfast and comfortable rooms from €40 (A$65) a night.
While in the area, spend at least one evening at Cave Ox (caveox.it). You might find yourself rubbing shoulders with half of Etna’s winemakers, who often visit this informal osteria. They come for the informal atmosphere, the splendid pizza and an extraordinary wine list which plunges deep into local terroir but also roams widely with bottles from some of the world’s best boutique wineries (bet you never thought you’d drink Château Musar or Ganevat’s Vieilles Vignes Chardonnay in a small Sicilian village).
Heading down the coast, have lunch at Taverna La Cialoma Marzamemi (facebook.com/Taverna-La-Cialoma-Marzamemi-198577995736), the ideal seafood venue. Take a seafront terrace table and tuck into sweet red prawns spiked with sharp citrus juice or a slab of grilled tuna, fresh from the sea. While I was there, a man in snorkelling gear emerged from the sea and clambered up the rocks towards the restaurant carrying an octopus. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.
Few Sicilian wineries provide accommodation. One exception is COS, which offers eight rooms from €50 (A$80) a night, although it’s worth forking out €100 (A$160) or more for one of the larger rooms in a house on the property. The place is exquisitely restored (a nod to winemaker Giusto Occhipinti’s training as an architect) and the meals, cooked for guests in the neighbouring stone palmetto, are delicious disquisitions on traditional Sicilian cuisine.
If you’re planning on a visit to Regaleali – or are just looking for somewhere to break up the drive between the southern coast and Palermo – Susafa (susafa.com) is a glorious place to stay from €100 (A$160) a night. Situated in the middle of the Sicilian countryside, this old farmhouse provides luxury levels of comfort as well as meals based on ingredients grown locally, many of them in the hotel’s own gardens.