• Simon Reilly

Making Etna wine with I Vigneri

Another family holiday, another vineyard trip craftily sneaked in.

I am the booker of holidays in our family, a role which allows me to strategically map my way around Europe’s wine regions under the guise of family time. As long as I can spin a story that there is something the kids really want to do in the general vicinity, I can usually create a gap in the family schedule to get my fix of talking to winemakers and tasting fermented grape juice from barrels.

Last year we went camping in the Ardeche (the family friendly name for the Northern Rhône) and who knew one had to drive through the vineyards of both Baden and Champagne to get to Legoland Germany? The kids are quite into volcanoes at the moment so I thought it would really bring things to life for them if they visited a real one. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

We did venture up Mount Etna on the cable car and onward 4x4 buses. Sadly, conditions were far from ideal. At best the visibility got up to about 10 metres. Sitting huddled together in the small, glass cable car, peering out at the coral reef like rock and sparse plant life that jutted out from the murky cloud and black hillside, it felt more scuba diving than volcano climbing. When we got to the guide’s cabin at 2,900m, the temperature was a whisker above -2c and the winds were high. We were told we couldn’t go any further and hot-footed it back to the cable car cafe for panini and coffee.

I’m not convinced that the trip enriched the kids’ understanding of volcanoes in any way, but by this point I had already secured the following morning slot for a visit to I Vigneri in Milo, so feeling generally good about life I treated them both to a €5 model of Etna made from volcanic rock from the gift shop. Been there, bought the volcanic rock…

Things were a lot more civilised the next morning down in Milo at about 850m. The sun was shining and I was standing in the vineyards of I Vigneri, the project of Salvo Foti, a man widely recognised for putting Etna on the vinous map. Salvo began working at Benanti in 1989 when there were 5 wine producers on Etna. Today there are more than 300. Despite Etna’s current popularity in the wine world, Salvo is dismissive, “there are two types of winemakers in Etna; people who make Etna wine and people who make wine on Etna”. Just how many more than the 5 wineries present in 1989 he puts into the first bucket is not clear but I get the impression bucket two is pretty full. I deviously mention to his son, Simone, that the wines of Frank Cornellisen are popular in London. He declines to comment on which bucket he falls into, but I have a pretty good idea.

Above; The view from the top of the Aeris vineyard towards the I Vigneri cellars and the Mediterranean beyond

The I Vigneri project began in 2000, with Salvo leaving Benanti in 2011 to run it full time. They have 2.5ha of vineyards in North-West Etna where the fruit for their red and rosato wines are grown. There are two red wines, a vino rosso and Vinupetra, a premium Etna D.O.C., both made with Nerello Mascalese (NM) and Nerello Capuccio at about 500-550m. I was surprised to discover that this is about the highest that NM can ripen, both Salvo and Simone gleefully dispelling the myth that it was a mountain wine; “NM is named after the town of Mascali, it’s next to the beach!”. It’s clear to see tasting these wines the stylistic similarities that NM has with both Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, both in weight and aromatic profile.

The rosato is a field blend of various red and white varieties grown at 1300m, where intruders like Grenache ripen slowly alongside a mix of indigenous varieties. Of all the I Vigneri wines this is the one that really stopped me in my tracks. That unfathomable mix of cherry, grapefruit and salt is like nothing I have tasted before.

All of the wines are vinified at their Milo HQ and it is here where the largest holding of vines (about 5ha) are planted. In Milo the focus is on championing the Carricante grape, a white variety indigenous to Etna and particularly Milo, where the only Etna Bianco Superiore can be produced. There are two cuvees made; Aurora is a blend of 90% Carricante and 10% Minella Bianca aged in steel and the “cru” Vigna Milo is 100% Carricante aged in large oak barrels. Both white cuvees are high in acidity and rich in minerals, the saline kick in both kicks hard. In the young wines I tasted the acidity suggested the potential for old bones and a 2014 Aurora tasted later in the week enhanced my belief that these wines will age like Grosset’s Polish Hill Rieslings; very long and very well.

His two sons, Simone and Andrea are now involved in the business. Simone trained in oenology in Burgundy, returning to work his father’s estate a year ago, and it is he who shows me round the vineyards. There are two things that strike me on entering the vineyard; the terraces and the tree-like trained vines, known locally as “alberello”, which translates simply as small tree. The alberello makes the vineyard look more like a fruit orchard, with noticeably large spaces between the vines. This give the vines the space to branch out and ensures all of the grapes have the same access to sun, rain and shelter.

Above; young "Alberello" vines in Milo

The terraces protect the vineyard from being washed away from the short sharp bursts of heavy rainfall experienced on Etna and the constant erosion from volcanic ash and debris. The other thing evident from the walls of the terraces is the fossil like profile of the soil, eruption after eruption, creating a complex and mineral rich base for the vines to grow.

Above; the walls of the vineyard show the evidence of eruption after eruption

Below; volcanic soil, innit

I ask Simone about wine-making principles; “the viticulture style predates biodynamics, we do things the way they did on Etna two thousand years ago. It’s more about respecting the biology of the vineyard and the soil than following a handbook”. I think we both agree that biodynamics is a bit more of a religion than a science (I suggested “voodoo shit”, he just gave me a funny look), but there are some similarities, primarily the use of the poo to fertilise the young vines; “the nutrients in the volcanic soil means fertilisation is not needed after the plants are 3 years old, but we do use the shit from the sheep in the first few years”. Another nod to their respect for the vineyard is the wall that surrounds it, built using only rocks dug up from the vineyard itself. Sicily’s version of the dry-stone dyke.

Above; local lads collecting stones for the vineyard walls

Below; Simone shows off the old limestone palmento

It is clear that the Foti family are creating a legacy here, by respecting the winemaking history and terroir of Etna, retaining the local traditions despite the influx of new winemakers diluting these with winemaking philosophies and techniques imported from elsewhere. Even the local D.O.C. has moved on and doesn’t recognise a number of these traditions, like the old limestone palmento used to vinify their humble “vino rosso”, labelled as such because the D.O.C. forbids the use of the porous rock for such things.

This may have forced less confident, more commercially focussed winemakers to alter their course. But as far as I could make out the Fotis don’t really care what others think. They believe in what they are doing and seem pretty happy with life. I guess Jack Nicholson was right, “the less you give a fuck, the happier you’ll be”.

Here’s what I tasted;

Aurora, Vino Bianco 2018 (11.5% abv) – bottled two weeks before my visit, this is a blend of 90% Carricante and 10% Minella Bianco abelled “Vino Bianco” because it is not bottled on site. Aromatic, floral nose leads to a whack of acidity and salty minerals. A bit tight now, this definitely has the structure to age. A second bottle I purchased and drank a day later was more open and ready for business. The grapefruit pith stood up to the acidity more, particularly when taken with food.

(20 Euros from the cellar door)

Aurora, Vino Bianco 2014 (12.5% abv) – one of those fist-pump moments as I spotted this lone bottle in a bottle shop in Cefalu for only 12 Euros a few days after visiting the estate. After discussing with Simone how well the Aurora would age it was great to find a bottle I could test my thesis on. Clear evolution on the nose with beeswax and honey aromas. The acidity has softened a touch, but the saline hit is the overriding sensation. The pithy grapefruit appears on the finish, which is quite persistent. (12 Euros from a random shop in Cefalu)

Vigna Milo, Etna Superiore Bianco 2017 (tasted from cask) – 100% Caricante, this is their top white wine. Tasted from barrel, this sells through quickly so there were no bottles to taste. Simone said they were not happy with it at this stage so were delaying bottling until November this year. I was less critical. Lots of extraction on the nose, and lots of lemon acidity on the palate which is a bit tight at the moment, but the texture is to die for! I think this will turn into a swan.

(not yet available for sale, but I think 35 Euros from the cellar door when it is)

Vinudilice, Vino Rosato 2015 (12.5% abv) – field blend of red and white varieties grown at 1300m on NW Etna, where it is left to hang until November before being harvested. Again no DOC, this time because the DOC stops at 1000m altitude. Produced with zero added sulphur, this wine stopped me in my tracks. Words can’t describe how exciting this wine is to taste, but I’ll try. Very light in colour, almost white. Slightly oxidised nose leads to a mix of cherry, grapefruit pith and salt. Electrifying energy on the palate. This doesn’t really taste like wine, its more like something Willy Wonka would serve you on one of his factory tours and you marvel at how amazing it is, as you stare, all starry-eyed at the oompa-loompas. (30 Euros from the cellar door)

Vinudilice, Vino Rosato 2014 (12.5% abv) – more Willy Wonka’s wallpaper-licking vibes going on here on the flavour front, but this has more body than the 2015 and nods more towards red wine in body and texture, whilst retaining the colour and acidity of a white wine. In some vintages they produce this wine in sparkling form, “depending on what the vineyard tells us to do”. I didn’t get the opportunity to taste any of the fizz vintages but will make sure I do at some point. Can only imagine these would be equally mind-blowing.

(30 Euros from the cellar door)

Vino Rosso 2018 (13% abv) – 90% Nerello Mascalese/10% Nerello Cappuccio grown at 550m on NW Etna, vinified using an old limestone palmento, which is forbidden by the DOC, hence the humble name. Pinot-like, kirsch cherry nose, with violets and cinnamon to boot. Delicious cherry and spice flavours which intensify on the finish. To say there is acid here is an understatement. It probably needs a bit of time to settle but its delicious now if you are an acid-freak like me. (20 Euros from the cellar door)

Vinupetra, Etna DOC 2017 (13.5%, tasted from cask) – 90% Nerelo Mascalese, 10% Nerelo Cappuccio. Delicious sweet cherries and violets leading to a lovely wall of soft tannins and a really long, persistent finish. (35 Euros from the cellar door)

Vinupetra, Etna DOC 2014 (13.5%) – Purchased at the estate and enjoyed with a meal a couple of days later with a meal on the terrace of our holiday rental in Cefalu, the 2014 Vinupetra is a beautiful thing. Minerals and rich stewed fruit with the freshness of acidity. A wine that evolves through the bottle from glass to glass and feels very much alive. (35 Euros from the cellar door)

I Vigneri's wines are imported into the UK by Les Caves de Pyrene and are available retail from AG Wines.