There is a part of Sicily where the wines are made almost solely by producers that style the wines primarily for themselves. This is important, as these bottlings are not market-driven, the vintners can truly make hand-crafted wines that represent the local terroir. These are wines that have a soul; these are the wines from Etna.
I was reminded of that fact earlier this week when Steven Alexander, wine director of Spiaggia Restaurant in Chicago (one of the country’s most ambitious Italian wine programs), invited me to a seminar with two producers from Etna: Alberto Graci and Frank Cornelissen. Each producer makes small lots of regional wines based on local varieties such as Carricante (white) and Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, which give them their unique identity.
Alberto Graci presented two bottllngs of Etna Rosso DOC that by law contain 80% Nerello Cappuccio and 20% Nerello Cappuccio. The 2008 Etna Rosso from Graci has beautiful young garnet color with lovely aromas of roses and cranberries. Medium-full with very good acidity, the wine has moderate tannins and very subtle wood. Graci commented that he ages this wine solely in large casks, which he believes is the best way to produce a wine that represents what Etna is all about. This wine sells for around $32-$35, which I think is a fair price, given the quality and style of this wine. This is not about making a powerhouse wine, rather it’s about finesse and elegance.
His second wine, Quota 600 – named for the elevation in meters of this vineyard – has the same varietal mix, but has riper bing cherry fruit and more distinct spice; the wine finishes with a nice hint of clove. Again the acidity is quite lively and the wood notes are very subtle. This wine will have a longer life; I expect this to be at its best in 7-10 years versus 5-7 for the regular bottling. The $70-$75 price tag reflects the work that went into this wine as well as limited availability.
Graci pointed out how different the Etna district is from the rest of Sicily. While much of the island is quite warm (or hot) and harvest starts in August, the surroundings at 600 to 1000 meters (1970 to 3280 feet) in Etna mean conditions vary more dramatically here, with some years cold and rainy (2009) and some, such as 2006, extremely hot with drought conditions. Thus harvests vary from August to November, acidity levels are different and the resulting wines have a more marked identity with a specific year. This is clearly one of the secrets of Etna wines.
We then moved on to the wines of Cornelissen; these bottlings are a marriage of Etna varieties and terroir along with the personal philosophy of the winemaker himself. Frank Cornelissen is from Belgium and produced his first Etna wines in 2001. He is a vintner that believes he will never quite understand all the complexities of nature, so he does his best to observe and learn the hidden mysteries provided by Mother Nature; he also thinks that he must respect these enigmas.
Frank tasted out four wines, starting with his white, named Munjebel Bianco. The word Munjebel is a variation of two words – one Italian and one Arabic – that combined are a variation themselves of the word mongibello (“beautiful mountain”), the ancient name for Mount Etna. His Bianco, labeled as non-vintage, but essentially a 2007 wine, is deep amber color or what many refer to today as an “orange wine.” It is made from several varieties, incuding Carricante, Grecanico Dorato and Coda di Volpe. Frank noted that while Coda di Volpe is best-known in Campania, it is planted in good quantity in Etna; the variety adds finesse as well as backbone to this wine (these vines, incidentally, are on their own roots).
Cornelissen does not use any wood, nor does he use stainless steel, which makes his winemaking practice different from Graci (and just about anyone else!); he uses both anforae (clay pots) as well as demi-johns. I asked him if this wine had been aged in anforae and he replied that it indeed had, but promptly added, “I am not an anforae producer, I am a wine producer.” Clearly he wants to be known for his wines and not as someone who is following a trend. He also commented that “I am not a biodynamic producer. I am a natural winemaker. I add nothing.” In fact, Cornelissen does not even add sulfur dioxide.
His Contadino Rosso is a charming red made from 70% Nerello Mascalese with the additional 30% comprised of Alicante Bouchet, Nerello Cappuccio and even a small amount of white grapes. Loaded with fresh Queen Anne cherry aromas, tart acidity and extremely soft tannins, the wine displays remarkable concentration and a lengthy finish. This sells for anywhere between $35-40 and is a gorgeous wine that charms you instead of hitting you over the head.
His Munjebel Rosso (from 2006 and 2007, though labeled as non-vintage) is 100% Nerello Mascalese with aromas of dried cranberries, sherry, sundried tomato, rhubarb and turmeric. Medium-full, the wine has refined tannins, excellent concentration and outstanding complexity. This wine should drink well for 10-12 years – perhaps longer – and sells for around $50 per bottle.
The ultimate Cornelissen wine is Magma5 Riserva, a 100% Nerello Mascalese from a single cru, planted in 1893. Deep garnet with a light edge, this has unique aromas of soy, dried cherry and sundried tomato and offers remarkable concentration. The tannins are subtle, the acidity is quite lively and overall there is a delicate spice throughout with a great deal of finesse. This should be at its best in 10-12 years and I can best describe it as a singular, almost mysterious wine. It’s well made with impeccable balance, so it’s certainly not an experiment, yet it is a meticulous wine. I’m afraid at $300 a bottle (or more), it’s a bit rich for my blood, but what a wonderful experience to taste this rarity.
“My winemaking is about expressing the terroir of Etna. I go about it the easiest way, the simplest way,” Cornelissen explains. Like a great artist, he makes brilliance seem easy, even though we know it is not. Here’s to Alberto Graci, Frank Cornelissen and many other vintners from Etna for staying the course.