Anthony Rose: The strength of Sicily's volcanic terrain is in the native grape varieties

 

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Rising from fertile orchards and vineyards surrounded by wild flowers, Mount Etna's pockmarked summit is a constant reminder that Europe's tallest active volcano has blown its top many times down the centuries.

Destructive and productive at the same time, Etna's lava is the building block of wild and beautiful Sicily. Not only has the solidified lava been deployed in the construction of local towns and villages, but it's been skilfully contoured into the drystone-walls that shape the vineyard terraces on gentle slopes. The strength of this volcanic terrain is not in international, but in the native grape varieties, nerello mascalese and carricante,in particular.

Nerello mascalese is responsible for pale-hued reds with beguiling perfumes, wild red berry and sour cherry-fruit flavours. Its best vineyard lies between Quota 600 and Quota Mille, mountain roads at 600 and 1,000 metres. Carricante is its refreshingly bone-dry white alter ego. Both grapes derive their concentration, rasping acidity and minerality from Etna's sandy, volcanic soils, its Mediterranean-influenced climate and, as often as not, its ancient bush vines.

With the oenologist Salvo Foti, Giuseppe Benanti pioneered the new wines of Etna in 1988, just as Italian consumers were starting to appreciate and look for quality. In place of the high-yielding, bulk-producing pergola grape system, local winemakers have resurrected Etna's historic winemaking methods, planted vines in lower-yielding rows and bottled their own wines.

In addition to local companies such as Benanti, Planeta, Tasca d'Almerita, Cusumano, Graci and Giralomo Russo, from 2000 onwards newcomers started to arrive on the scene,driven by the search for a challenge. The most influential were the flamboyant Florentine wine merchant, Marc de Grazia with his property Tenuta delle Terre Nere and Andrea Franchetti from Rome, whose property Passopisciaro takes its name from the local village. They encouraged a steady stream of newcomers, among them Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, with his wine, Il Cantante, and Tuscany's Silvia Maestrelli at Tenuta di Fessina.

According to Pietradolce's Michele Faro, "Etna is a region within a region and with its minerality, acidity and elegance, it's a different planet". Standing at a dizzying 1,000 metres above sea level, with spectacular views over the Ionian Sea, you're inevitably struck by the fact that Etna's unique aspect, altitude, old vines and volcanic soils create a very special terroir. And you begin to comprehend why, despite the challenges of such a mysterious and dangerous force of nature as a volcano, growers, wine lovers and tourists alike are drawn to this extraordinary place.

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