Le Contrade dell Etna

Originally imagined some 10 years ago by the pioneering Andrea Franchetti, the event known as
Le Contrade dell’ Etna has just celebrated it’s 10th Edition in an entirely new venue, the grounds of Castello Romeo just outside the town of Randazzo …. more or less +650-700m up on Mount Etna’s currently ‘less eruptive’ northern face.

Leaving altimeters and vulcanologists to one side, this unique annual gathering of 100+ Etnean wine producers
effectively takes the form of an early ‘Primeur’ tasting, which in 2017 is focused on the
#V16 Etna winesRosso, Rosato & Bianco.

Naturally it’s still very early in the wine-making cycle for the 16’s.

Something eager tasters like us need to bear in mind. Yet, more than a flash tasting of the 2016 vintage, perhaps the real ‘inherent’ value of this event is that it creates an opportunity for all producers to come together, to share their collective endeavour, knowledge and experience.

A show of local oenological solidarity is always a good thing, and this is one that in recent years has significantly paved a way for international influencers, writers and wine buyers to follow, to learn and to understand what makes this volcanic winemaking environment tick.

Rustic though the event may be, it’s easy to appreciate the reasoning for the low frills approach. Every one is present on an equal footing. Quite literally, with tents set up ‘en plein air’ around the castle gardens. While open space allows guests to move freely, effectively it was a little like moving from one tasting scrum to another …perhaps a little room for improvement ;)
That said, fortune did favour us in many ways. All of Etna’s outstanding producers were present – Benanti, Frank Cornelissen, Marco De Grazia’s Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Andrea Franchetti’s Passopisciaro, Planeta, Giuseppe Russo, Graci, Tenuta di Fessina, Tornatore, together with a whole hive of new entries.

And as the storm clouds threatened above, fortunately we also avoided the downpour ;-)

In chatting with Andrea Franchetti, he explained to us that when this event began a decade ago, it featured just a handful of wineries.

Today it’s clearly a very different story with the insatiable demand for Etna wines at dining tables worldwide. That this annual gathering now tops 100 producers, and continues to attract such strong visitor numbers, is a welcome source of surprise for Andrea. It certainly speaks volumes about local wine-making aspirations and the appetite for Etna.

Of course, at the heart of the discussion are some very special native grapes. For Etna Rosso we’re talking Nerello Mascalese & Nerello Cappuccio. For Etna Bianco we’re speaking about Carricante, Catarratto Bianco Comune & Catarratto Bianco Lucido. Yes, other local native white varieties, like Minnella, do continue to play their role but mostly as cameo’s.

Speaking of role playing, no harm perhaps to have a quick refresher on what a traditional Etna Rosso means. According to the Etna DOC discipline, producers can blend a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese with max 20% Nerello Cappuccio. The reason for the Cappuccio variety is that it can offer winemakers useful components, namely colour intensity and a softer body, to adjust the pale crimson and usually more acidic, tannic structure of the Nerello Mascalese. Slighty different for the whites where your ‘standard’ Etna Bianco kicks off with min 60% Carricante + 40% others, moving to min 80% Carricante for the Etna Bianco Superiore. All that said, in their continued search for ‘quintessential identity’, increasingly vigernons are also producing in the ‘purezza’ style (i.e. 100%) of Nerello Mascalese for Etna Rosso and similarly with Carricante for Etna Bianco. It’s got to be said with plenty of merit and especially for the Whites.

In all of our own tastings, the 100% Carricante wines offered us a significantly more exciting fresh structured Etna Bianco sensation, compared with the more traditional blend. Infact wherever Catarratto was blended in, it tended to flatten out the expression of the Carricante, rendering overall structure a little too ordinary, lacking in edge and definition.

Speaking of definition, while clearly Etna’s native grape selection is fundamental, the unique diversity of its terroir is an equally critical factor.

These ancient lands are distinctly marked by their dark volcanic sandy soil (think coffee grinds), their generally north facing aspect and indeed their mountainous altitudes above sea level (550mts – 1,100mts). When you then consider vineyard age, many of which are 100-150 years old with alberello bush-trained, pre-phylloxera vines… honestly there’s nothing quite like this place.

The ‘Contrade’, as they are now referred to, are Etna’s equivalent to single vineyard sites. In loose translation the word contrada means a ‘ward’ or a ‘district’. Indeed it’s not unlike the French term ‘Cru’.

Yet here on Etna we reckon the contrade have their own unique sense of space. Inside each boundary you’ll find multiple owners whose individualised vineyard parcels effectively share natures bounty with their neighbour. Keep your eyes peeled for labels bearing contrade Porcaria, San Lorenzo, Feudo, Feudo di Mezzo and on higher ground look for Sciara Nuova, Guardiola and Rampante. In many cases, the leading wineries all own a portion of a number of different contrade and in turn, they will each produce their own single vineyard wine from that source. It has to be said with stunningly identifiable results.

Rewards, of course, bring mounting interest and pressures of a different kind. It’s not all plain sailing for these producers.

Apart from increasing local bureaucratic issues relating to restrictions on future vineyard and cellar development, ‘major’ infrastructural deficiencies and environmental neglect (roadside litter), all of which can and should be effectively managed, let’s not forget that these women & men of Etna, young and not so young, are all working and living on an active volcano.

While some might see ‘Le Contrade dell’Etna’ as an event geared simply for the local community, let us happily assure y’all of it’s global village importance.

For sure one can always improve event organisation. And we’ve no doubt this will happen in time. The kernel is this, if one truly wants to understand the meaning of this place, these grapes and their unique wines, then rather than waiting for the mountain to come to you, you really should go to the Mountain…..at least…. once in a Lifetime.

Le Contrade dell’ Etna 2017… in summary:
#1 – We love the feel of 100% Carricante. Definitely the most exciting Etna Bianco to be comin’ your way.
#2 – We love Etna Rosso even more than before…. all the way from the daily blended Entry Levellers up to those single vineyard 100% Top Graded Contrade.
#3 – We were surprisingly smitten by an Etna Rosato :)
#4 – Oh…and we love the word ‘Contrada’….three high-toned, structured, syllables with a defining beat to match!!

To all of Etna’s movers and shakers,

whose commitment to Quality continues to maintain Etna’s merited position amongst the vanguard of the world’s greatest wine making regions….we say… FORZA!

Long live Le Contrade dell’ Etna!

REMEMBER….at least Once in a Lifetime folks!

Vintage David Byrne !!

Once in a Lifetime – DAVID BYRNE (LIVE)

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