-SeearcherEtna is full of surprises, as Planeta winemaker Patricia Toth can tell you. As the winery produces wines from several different estates across Sicily, Toth understands the uniqueness of Etna.
“It’s more unpredictable,” she remarks. “With its quickly changing weather conditions and special soils, producing wines from there is a beautiful challenge.” You might think that crafting sparkling wines in Sicily would certainly be a trial for any winemaker, but Toth notes that at their vineyards in Etna, situated between 800 to 900 meters above sea level, “quantity is abundant, and there is also a balanced, complex and fine acidity“.
While she notes that most initial experiments for Etna sparkling wine were with the Nerello Mascalese grape, she prefers to use Carricante, a local white variety. Some producers, such as Terrazze dell’Etna, use Pinot Noir as their principal component of their Etna sparkler, but for many of the finest examples Nerello Mascalese is the chosen variety.
This is the situation at Murgo for the vintage-dated Extra Brut, arguably the area’s finest bubbly. Proprietor Michele Scammacca first made sparkling wine from this variety in 1989, because, in his words, “then it was not so easy to sell Etna Rosso. One reason we made it was to find new ways to employ the Nerello Mascalese grape.”
For the 2009 Extra Brut, the wine was aged for a period between five and six years, similar to numerous great sparkling wines from around the world. “Only long aging in contact with the yeasts makes this wine interesting,” Scammacca said. “The Etna terroir gives a very interesting mineral taste that increases the complexity of these sparkling wines.” Sparkling or still, the volcanic soils of Etna are are major factor in the DNA of this area’s wines. Looking at this grayish/black lava and rock, one would imagine that it would be extremely difficult to grow much in this earth.
“The plant needs to dive deep, especially in the older vines,” says Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro, one of the key producers of Etna Rosso. But volcanic soil does have its advantage, according to Franchetti. “It’s very well draining, and it’s a very permeable soil, so the rain immediately penetrates once it falls.”
Franchetti notes that many grapes can grow well in these volcanic soils, and has planted varieties as widespread as Chardonnay and Petit Verdot in his vineyards. But his leading selection is Nerello Mascalese, a late-ripening variety. He points out that it has bitter tannins compared to other grapes, “so skins should have minimum exposure to the juice“. The grape has little color and, according to Franchetti, because it is a late ripener, “the tannins are good and silky if the wine is made properly, but coarse when the wine is badly made“.
These characteristics of light color and silky tannins have led many to call Etna Rossos “the Burgundies of Italy“. Upon initial glance and taste, this is easily understood, but more and more local producers today believe these wines have more in common with Nebbiolo from Piemonte than Pinot Noir from Burgundy.
Alberto Graci of the local Graci winery comments on this, saying: “They have in common with Burgundy elegance and the great possibility of possessing lightness and complexity together,” but adds that “sometimes the wines have more body and are austere, as with Barolo“.
At Cottanera, Francesco Cambria believes that the flavors of Nerello Mascalese “have some aspects between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, but it has its own unique floral flavor“. Ultimately, Cambria reasons that these wines will have their own identity, given time. “I think that Nerello Mascalese expresses itself in different manners depending on the different contrade [parcels of land], the age of the vines and the production process. The state of the art is that there are many different Etna Rossos produced in the area.”
Most producers use large wood casks for maturation, as small oak imparts more woody notes to the wine, taking away from the cherry, currant and red floral characteristics of Nerello Mascalese. Franchetti notes that he uses the same barrels for decades, “as they are well coated with that layer of wine, neutralizing the woody notes. We don’t find that the woody nuances complement Nerello very well.”