Sicily is one of the biggest wine success stories of the past twenty years and small wonder. The largest island in the Mediterranean, it boasts approximately 135,000 hectares of vineyards – more than in all of Bordeaux -- a winemaking history some 2500 years old, and an alphabet (from Acitana to Zibibbo) of native varietals thriving in near ideal viticultural conditions. The classic Mediterranean climate of bright sunshine, and reliably moderate rainfall allows for an extended, three month harvest season, beginning in the August heat of Trapani on the west coast and ending on the slopes of Mt. Etna in mid-November. The generally arid conditions reduce the chances of rot and mildew, especially in coastal areas, which makes it easy to go green. (“It’s stupid not to farm organically in Sicily” renowned local enologa Arianna Occhipinti has said. “We have the perfect climate.”) While there are arguably more celebrated (and certainly more expensive) wine regions in Italy, none can match Sicily’s particular alchemy of terroirs, grapes, and intrepid vignerons steeped in local tradition and relatively unencumbered by the fine print of Italy’s wine classification system. So while Sicily has only one DOCG status wine region - Cerasuolo di Vittoria, in the island’s southernmost province of Ragusa - it is one of the best places to find singular, delicious and well priced IWC selections. We’ll probably be back here again before the end of the year, but spring is an excellent time to visit, so this month we’re headed to the heart of Sicily’s viticultural renaissance - Mt. Etna, Europe’s most active volcano and one of the planet’s wildest sources for great fermented grape juice.
Vineyards have flourished on the slopes of the volcano as far back as the 6th century BC when the Greeks first colonized Sicily. Ancient writers and poets composed odes to Mount Etna wines, and it’s not hard to understand why. A snow-crowned volcano within site of the Mediterranean, Etna is a breathtaking alloy of extremes, an IRL song of fire and ice, where some of the highest vineyards in the world sit atop diverse soils of hardened lava, ash and sand - the legacy of 500,00 years of volcanic activity - and receive intense sunlight exposure, but also twice the rainfall as the rest of the island. The massive diurnal temperature shifts help facilitate berry growth, coloration and complexity in the grape flavors, and Etna wines are perhaps most often identified by their uniquely concentrated mineral essence. While that term remains controversial on account of its lack of scientific support, bottles from this place are quite palpably distinctive. For me, they are distinguished by a unique capacity to comingle and reconcile apparent tonal opposites; Etna wines can be quite complex, but with a clarity of purpose that makes them seem intuitive, simple even. They are rustic and elegant, ramshackle and opulent, svelte but substantial etc. – and no two taste exactly alike. (This is way less scientific a description than even ‘mineral’ obviously, but it has the advantage of being pretty much unfalsifiable.)
Given all this long established idiosyncrasy, it’s not surprising to learn that Enta was one the first DOCs in Italy, so designated in 1968, a couple years after Barolo (which is now a DOCG of course.). What’s weird is that it is only in the last twenty years or so that Etna wines have begun to approach their full potential and popularity. This has been due in large (but not exclusive) part to the work of determined foreign vintners like Belgium’s Frank Cornilesson and New Yorker Marco de Grazia, founder of the pioneering Terre Nere, willing to brave the steeply-sloped, terraced and occasionally lava-pocked, vineyards that are almost impossible to navigate with mechanical equipment.
Our two producers this month are both area natives however, and veterans of these labor intensive circumstances. Calegaro Statella spent 15 years as the oenologist at Terre Nere before fulfilling a lifelong dream and purchasing a vineyard on the north slope of the Pettinociarelle district in 2016. His Etna Biano is 90% Carricante, (the indingenous varietal, grown nowhere else that must comprise at least 60% of all DOC Etna Biancos) and 10% Cattarato, and a quintessential Enta white: aromatic, with great citrus and orchard fruit and a long, briny finish. The red comes from Calabretta, a winery that dates back to 1900, and is a little more unusual: it is 100% Nerello Cappuccio (neh rel’ loh cah pooch’ cho) and classified Terre Siciliane for that reason; DOC Etna Rosso wines must be primarily composed of the Nerello Mascalese grape with no less than 10% but no more 20%, supplied by the Nerello Cappuccio. Mono varietal bottlings of it are consequently rare (it is also prone to disease and difficult to grow.) Calabretta has been making one for years though and it is clearly a grape that deserves its own spotlight: lighter and more aromatic than its counterpart, it foregrounds a wonderfully tactile herbaceous core, along with expressive red fruit and salinity.
Etna DOC, Sicily
About the Winery: Calogero Statella has been the oenologist of Tenuta delle Terre Nere since 2008. In 2016 he purchased, together with his wife Rita, a vineyard on Mount Etna located in the Pettinociarelle district (Solicchiata, commune of Castiglione di Sicilia). Pettinociarelle is a district that was very famous in the past for wine, as the soils (that are poor) gave a low grape yield, but the wines from these grapes were of very high quality. Today the vineyard of Calogero and Rita is one of the few vineyards that are still productive. After the second World War many farmers had to abandon these vineyards as vines were planted in areas that ensured a higher production. Many vineyards were gradually converted into olive groves. The grapes are vinified at the cellar of Tenuta delle Terre Nere.
About the Winemaking: The 2020 Etna Bianco (90% Carricante, 10% Catarratto) is produced from a certified organic vineyard in the Calderara contrada district at 650 meters on Mt. Etna. The vines are 15 years old. The vinification is traditional intemperature controlled steel vats, without malo, followed by aging “sur lies” until March.
Tasting Notes: The color is pale yellow and the wine is quite intense on the nose, with hints of white flowers and ripe fruits. On the mouth it is fresh, with a pleasant acidity that enhances the natural minerality.
Price per bottle / Price per case
Suggested Food Pairing:
raw fish appetizers, first courses with fish or vegetables, fresh cheeses.
Terre Siciliane IGT
About the Winery: Calabretta’s vineyards are located nearly a half mile above sea level in the black volcanic soils of Etna’s north slope, between Randazzo and Castiglione di Sicilia. There, Calabretta farms roughly seven hectares of mostly 70- to 80-year-old vines—many of them ungrafted—on stepped terraces supported by stone walls.Since the winery’s founding in 1900, the Calabretta family has farmed and produced wines from Etna’s ancient indigenous varieties—including Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio—in the mountain’s unique noble vineyards.
Historically, the family had sold its wine in sfuso or in barrel to restaurants and to private customers, many of whom traveled long distances to pick up their wine. But in 1997, third- and fourth-generation father and son Massimo and Massimiliano Calabretta decided to bottle their best wine under their own label to ensure the winemaking traditions of their family and Etna would not be lost.
About the Winemaking: The grapes are sourced from a vineyard in the Cadlerara cru of Etna with black volcanic soil rich in stones. Massimiliano di a massal selection from his best, older Cappuccio vines to the plant the vineyard from which this wine is made. The grapes are hand-harvested between October 7-10. 90% of the vines are on original rootstock. They are Vinified in stainless steel for 5-7 days with pumping over by hand. Part of the wine is aged in used barriques for six months and part of the wine is aged in steel for six months, then those two parts are blended into 12HL botti for an additional six months.
Tasting Notes: Intense ruby red in color, this wine offers on the nose aromas of rose, lavender and small red fruits such as blackberries and currants, together with spicy nuances and vegetable touches. The taste is balanced, mineral and persistent, with fresh red cherry and raspberries on the palate, nourished by herbal-floral undergrowth.
Winemaker: Massimiliano Calabretta
Price per bottle / Price per case
Suggested Food Pairing:
Swordfish with tomatoes and capers,
Bucatini with Tuna,
Eggplant Caponata (see recipe)
This is essential and versatile Sicilian dish is sometimes likened to ratatouille, but functions more like a salad or even a relish. Serve at room temperature it on on crusty bread as an appetizer or as side with chicken or fish.
- 1 large eggplant 1 ¼ lb or so, cut into 1-inch cubes
- Kosher salt
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 yellow onion chopped
- 1 red bell pepper cored and chopped
- 2 small celery stalks thinly sliced
- Black pepper
- 1 cup crushed tomatoes
- 2 tablespoon capers
- ¼ cup pitted green olives roughly chopped
- ¼ cup raisins
- 2 teaspoons honey, more to your liking
- 1 bay leaf
- ¼ teaspoon to ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 2 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
- Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- Season the eggplant cubes with salt (if you have the time, set it aside in a colander to sweat out its bitterness for about 20 or 30 minutes, while you prepare the remaining ingredients. Pat dry with paper towel).
- Place the seasoned eggplant cubes on a sheet pan, add a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (about 3 tablespoons or so) and toss to coat. Roast the eggplant in the heated oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until browned.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions, bell pepper, and celery. Season with a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper. Cook for about 5 to 7 minutes, tossing regularly until softened.
- Add the tomatoes, capers, olives, raisins, honey, bay leaf and crushed pepper flakes. Pour in the vinegar and white wine. Stir to combine. Simmer on medium-low heat for 10 minutes.
- Stir in the roasted eggplant and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes in the sauce. Finish with fresh parsley and mint.
Salting the eggplant and allowing it to sit for a few minutes helps it shed any bitterness and improves its spongy texture. a If you have the time, leave the salted eggplant in a colander for 20 minutes or so while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
For best flavor: Let the caponata sit at room temperature for 1 hour before serving, or store in the fridge overnight and serve cold or at room temperature.