Volcanic Wines I: Wineries on the Edge.

Etna has been spewing out small grains of black sand since February.  If you leave furniture outdoors there is a sprinkling of black grains the next morning.  The less well-used roads get covered in a layer, with only tyre paths through the middle showing their true surface.  Then the volcano starts smoking, and you wonder if it is a sign of more natural violence to come. 

Black sand on road.

The vineyards around Etna have to be at a reasonably high altitude in order to avoid excessive heat – up to 800 metres on the northern slopes of the mountain.  When I talk to one producer, Cottanera, they point out that this gives a high  day-night temperature variation which is excellent for retaining acidity and freshness in the grapes.  The altitude means, however, that the best are planted on volcanic soils, a well-drained rocky-sandy environment.  Yet there is no one volcanic soil.  Lava flows have accumulated over time and each eruption gives a patchwork of rock-types and in many places ash is also significant.  Older elitico soils (dating back to an eruption 60 000 years ago) are pointed out which can sustain vines; alongside them we see the remnants of a 1981 lava flow which is still just large, dense boulders.  Only with time will they erode to give a workable and very fertile soil for vines or olives (the other crop which can survive in the harshest parts of the moonscape-like environment). 

The 1981 lava flow looking across to the San Lorenzo vineyard.

When I visit another of the producers here, Terre Nere (the name translates as ‘black lands or soils’), Domenico, our guide, suggests that ‘we don’t plant on soil, but on what Etna has thrown out’.  The vineyards are not what have always existed, but the innards of our planet vomited up for the wine producers to find and turn into something unique.  This leads him to suggest that what creates the wine here is not just static place, but temporality, that which has changed with time over many thousands of years, yet which is still changing.  At Cottanera they say that they like the black sand which is being blown out from the mountain at present because it allows the terroir to evolve.

This patchwork of volcanic deposit leads the producers on Etna to focus very closely on the different vineyard sites that they have.  For some time they have defined a number of contrade (singular contrada); when they discuss them they may call them crus, but the word in Italian means a district, even the quarter of a city.  It’s a place, but – at least as used in Sicily as a whole – maybe more a territory than a terroir, a community than a cru.  On Etna the contrade certainly have specific relationships to geological formation; the local producers have talked about them for many years but they could only put the word on a label as a designation of the wine’s origin from 2011 – many adopted it instantly – like Cottanera who use it for five of their wines which come from grapes.

So why is this of interest culturally?  The first point to note is this idea of temporality.  We’re used to seeing terroir as a static notion – it exists now in time.  However, for the producers on Etna it stretches back and also varies with the future.  That’s actually quite accurate.  The viticultural consultant Claude Bourguignon has said that after 1800 years of viticulture some parts of the vineyards in Burgundy are more sterile than the Sahara.  Those same vineyards were pumped full of fertilisers containing potassium from the 1950s onwards which dramatically changed their composition and reduced pH levels in the wines.  These changes are the results of human intervention rather than the natural world, but, while often barely noticed, still change the vineyards over a period.

The next thing I take from this is the profound need we have for ‘making special’; in the context if wine, it is that our place is unique (including the deep time which has reshaped it repeatedly), and the sense therefore that the wines which come from it are both unique and significant.  This is good; it allows producers to take pride in their product and it that happens then good – and unique – wine may result.  The understanding of what makes the wine special may not always be accurate (you need to see my next blog post for more on this) and the reasons given may be contradictory from place to place, but it’s a recurring refrain.’  Thus, I am told by Domenico that Etna wine is not Sicilian, it is an exception (just like every wine region) an island between two rivers.  It has 40% more rain than the rest of Sicily.  Crucially it has a soil and bedrock unlike most other places on Earth.  What they are saying is ‘we are not like all the rest, we are special’.  Certainly, on Etna they are special in terms of the specific geomorphological challenges they have to deal with.

The other point of interest here is to see a wine region which is living on the edge.  Many regions claim ‘volcanic wine’ but most are based in areas of what is now extinct volcanic activity.  They have the soil, but not the danger, and not the threat of a constantly changing landscape, nor even of the chance that your vineyards will be destroyed in a lava flow.  Perhaps the producers of lacryma christi on Vesuvius and a few in Washington and Oregon states in the US share this sense of risk, the added frisson which comes from knowing that this vintage could be your last, if the Greek god Hephaestus, who has his forge under the mountain, gets so angry with his fellow gods that he decides to explode again.  This has always been a hard place to grow grapes and phylloxera and rural depopulation have probably caused more social harm over the last century than the volcano.  Nevertheless, we’re told, the people welcome the risk, because it is the result unexpected which has also given them their livelihood. 

Smoke coming out of Etna.

Since I wrote this Etna has begun erupting again.  The smoke you see in the picture above is just a precursor to the real thing.  Maybe that will again restructure the landscape of the vineyards and provide some new soils in the future.  If not now, then perhaps in 4, or 17 or 32 years?  Who knows when, but it’s likely to happen.

A foodie postscript: the main vineyard areas on the north of Etna cluster around a village called Castiglione di Sicilia.  It’s a typical Italian hilltop settlement, but rather down-at-heel at present.  However, it’s worth a visit and if any reader happens to go there then I strongly recommend a visit to a restaurant called ‘Vitis’.  Actually – and the name gives it away – it is more of a wine bar with food.  However, the wines are amazing in a bar in a side street in a Sicilian village of around 3000 people – empty bottles cluster down the alley: many good local wines of course, but also great Italian reds from Tuscany and Barolo – then German riesling, a Fixin from Meo Camuzet in Burgundy, good Spanish wine, and champagne.  The owner and his sommelier are trying to bring the world of wine to this small corner of Etna (and I hope many of the local wine producers are making use of it to expand their knowledge of the world of wine).  I went into the temperature-controlled cellar which measured about one metre square and had bottles ranged up the walls, bottoms facing out with only a price on them; apparently the sommelier knows what each one is even though the labels may not be accessible!  Yet more than that, the food is interesting: our waitress explained that they can’t and won’t compete with the ‘normal’ trattoria so they were offering linguine with fermented black garlic, another pasta with local herbs and toasted breadcrumbs, as well as – our choice – cous cous (it is actually a Sicilian speciality) with potato, capsicum and chickpeas.  Well worth a visit.

Marsala: Bringing back a wine from the dead.

Marsala is a drink which is barely remembered today, even by those who drink fortified wines regularly.  Its major market is as a product sold cheaply for cooking with, mainly in Italy and France, often flavoured with other products like vanilla or eggs – or worse.  As an ingredient it adds richness to a sauce, maybe some nutty, torrified sweetness.  There is nothing wrong with chefs using it; but there is – or at least was – much more to the wine than that.

Marsala was developed by an English merchant, John Woodhouse, in 1773.   I avoid saying that he invented it because wine – rich, strong, wine – was already being made in this part of Sicily before Woodhouse arrived there; those old wines might merely have been made from grapes left to concentrate sugars late on the vine, or may be strengthened with mosto cotto – boiled (thus concentrated) grape juice making a kind of caramelised juice which could be added to the wine to sweeten it and add flavour.  What Woodhouse did was see how it could be marketed on the back of sherry, port and Madeira and – like those wines – be produced to a consistent style and standard, by careful fortification.  The Marsalese talk of their wine as being similar to Madeira, though to me the link to sherry is perhaps more useful. 

The fortification meant that the wine was able to travel to all corners of the British empire in rickety sailing ships without turning to vinegar.  By the end of the 19th century, on the back of both British merchants and some enterprising local producers the wine had become as well known as the other fortified wines.  Yet as recognition of its use as a cooking aid expanded, so its reputation declined.  Production was concentrated in larger companies with less connection to local viticultural traditions who mass produced cheap wines which were sold providing profits coming from volume sales with thin margins.  Most producers went out of business and the market for quality Marsala has dropped dramatically over the last century, to the point where it is almost an extinct wine.

Almost, but not quite.  A few still want to make a wine which continues to reflect its old reputation.  Some of these have a foot in both camps – the volume and the quality.  A small number are still the standard bearers for the latter, trying to keep the body alive before it dies, or maybe resuscitate it so that it can live again.

One of the most well-known of these ‘resuscitators’ is the firm Marco de Bartoli.  The eponymous founder had his roots in the marsala establishment, but decided, in 1980, that he wanted to rediscover the old styles of the wine, made to be drunk rather than just used as a condiment in the kitchen.  It was a difficult process, which produced a great deal of local opposition.  I don’t want here to go into that history (interested readers can explore the story in Nick Belfrage’s book Brunello to Zibbibo); what I am interested in is how, today, the company is producing great wines which challenge the long-term decline of the Marsala denominazione and whether or not this means the wine can be brought back to life.

When Marco de Bartoli decided to set up in wine production, he chose to leave the town of Marsala, where the main companies are based, to escape the claustrophobic emphasis on ‘cooking wine’, and created his winery in locality of Samperi, about 12 kilometres away.  Rather than focus just on production, he wanted to start with the vineyard.  It’s a chalky soil (much like that for sherry grapes), with deep sub-soil, ideal for water retention in the hot, dry summers.  He chose only to work with the grillo grape, rather than the higher-yielding and less interesting cataratto.  He also decided only to use his own grapes, rather than buy in from lots of local growers (this enables careful quality control).  All their grapes are grown around the winery, except for their red table wines, which need a different soil, and a passito from Pantalleria.  The key here is the attention to detail and commitment to quality, and a focus on place rather than a wine style, which they claim to be alone in the region to have.  Grillo, so Sebastiano de Bartoli says, is essential for conveying that sense of Samperi – ‘it’s talking about the territory’.  Territory is a word that Sebastiano, one of Marco’s sons, keeps returning to with emphasis when we talk and encompasses not just the terroir, but also the traditional variety and the traditions of making the wine.

Chalky soils

Marco de Bartoli also had a vision to renew the wine styles.  He wanted to return to the original ‘madeira from Marsala’ (as the wine was first known), sold by Woodhouse to Horatio Nelson when his fleet was in this part of the world.  Even more than that – as we’ll see – the vision was to see if the styles of wine made before Woodhouse could also be recreated.  Wines that were already distinctive and of high quality.  As part of his drive for improving quality, when he established the cellar in the 1980s he bought up a lot of stock of old wines from other small producers who were selling up and leaving the business – even one butt of wine from 1903, which they still use as blending material for some of their top wines.

The cellar at De Bartoli

The production of marsala is complicated, and the profusion of styles makes even sherry look as simple as a child’s six piece jigsaw (for those who are interested and can access Jancis Robinson’s website there is a great article about it by Tim Jackson MW here).  Crucially there are two distinctive styles: a wine which is fermented dry then fortified to about 19% alcohol and aged for five years or more, called vergine, and similar to an oloroso sherry; the second is a wine fortified to 17-19% with alcoholic grape juice or mosto cotto added to sweeten it to one of three different sweetness levels – plus three different colours and three different periods of ageing.  The permutations are enormous, especially when you add on at least six other official terms which can be applied to the wine.  However, I’m just interested in the vergine and the best sweet(ish) wines (superiore riserva) as these are the most significant qualitatively and historically.

Nevertheless, Marco de Bartoli’s attempt to recreate the older wine styles went further than just finding a special place and making good wine.  He wanted to take the vergine wine back to its pre-Woodhouse roots; an unfortified but high alcohol, oxidatively aged, wine.  He has done this with Vecchio Samperi, a great, complex wine with intensity, length and beautiful balance; it’s also aged in a solera, again mirroring sherry.  You could argue that this is a desire to make an older form of authenticity: the Sicilian marsala, of elegance and power, that preceded the arrival of the British.  There’s just one problem though.  The specification for the PDO of marsala requires contemporary vergine wines to be fortified to 18% alcohol at least – and the de Bartoli version is an unfortified wine.  It may reflect the Sicilian vergine of over 250 years ago, but it can’t call itself that.

Vecchio Samperi Solera at De Bartoli

Just once did Marco make a ‘legal’ vergine – in 1988 – just really to show that he could.  It’s similar to the Vecchio Samperi, very complex, though – inevitably – with more evident alcohol.  For what it’s worth I prefer the non-fortified equivalent.  However, it’s never to be repeated; Sebastiano told me they haven’t made another since and when the supplies of this wine run out that will be it.  You need to get it soon if you want to try it (though be prepared to pay upwards of 100€ a bottle for the pleasure).  Again, we have a disappearing wine.

As well as this dry style, wines with the designation ‘marsala’ are still made by the company.  These are fortified, and are sweeter, also having a great emphasis on poise and balance (showing a distinctive hint of curry aromas, which are often typical of good marsala); these, however, are fortified in accordance with the regulations.  Even here, though, they are making the wine as they believe the first Woodhouse marsalas were made, using fortified grape juice to sweeten, and not the mosto cotto which they consider gives simpler, less fine wines, with the cooked character masking the vinous nature of the drink.

For all that the company doesn’t live in the past.  They have been at the forefront of developing red and white table wines in the region – and the acidity in grillo allows some very fresh, direct white wines to be made.  Sebastiano also showed me the wines they are making with skin contact and ageing in amphorae, as well as an ancestral method bottle fermented sparkling wine.  All very trendy – while carefully made; each a good example of the style.

Is this enough to save the marsala?  I’m a sucker for oxidatively aged wines and find what they offer is brilliant, and good value.  The Vecchio Samperi is gorgeous and has less alcohol than a typical amontillado or oloroso sherry, so I’ll go on drinking it.  However, I’m hardly the typical wine drinker and my few bottles won’t save the industry; a drinker who prefers New Zealand Sauvignon blanc or Gevrey Chambertin may find them a bit strange.  Even Italians don’t seem to know about it, and certainly don’t seem to drink it, which is a shame given their commitment to other ancient styles of wine like amarone and vin santo.  The wines deserve a wider audience, but is there enough momentum now?  As Sebastiano says, as his parting shot, ‘port is a big nation, sherry and madeira are large regions.  Marsala is just a small town’, and perhaps it’s on the way to being a dead town.  Yet I also suspect the family don’t worry about that so much; they are there to perpetuate a tradition and respect the wines of the past, to ‘make a speciality’ as he says.  Whatever happens beyond them isn’t so significant then.

Other good marsalas are available: Rallo have a long tradition with the style.  There are also Carlo Pellegrino (who are putting a lot of effort into marketing cheaper but still carefully-made wines) and Duca du Salaparuta; both produce some good wines, though these are much larger company with a range of offerings to distract them.  I’d love the wine to continue, but at present I’m not sure that it will.  The fact that you have to get to the end of Italy, almost the southernmost tip of Europe, to see the wines doesn’t really help the revival.  It becomes a pilgrimage, rather than part of a tourist destination.