April 11th 2012 update :
For those who clicked on the newsletter link to get our last edition (From West to Esat, and vice versa), the link was wrong... and the right link is:
Sorry for this !
March 2012 update...
I just received our 100 cases of wines, fruit of this wonderful crush on Etna 2010. Here are the labels which will tell you how the story with Etna wines ended up.
Magnificent Etna Volcano around where our holidays took place.
2000 Kms away from our farm and after a whole overnight drive, we finally arrived at 4 AM in Villa San Giovanni to take the first morning ferry to Messina which we could already distinguish from the freeway, all lighted.
During the short cruise, we saw the beautiful sunrise to this so desired Sicilian island we have all been looking forward to visiting.
As it was a little early to check in our renting place, we stopped on the way for coffee. The odds made us stop in Taormina, probably the most beautiful place of Sicily.
After a ristretto, we called our hosts at "La Gardenia" and they kindly offered to arrive early and even greeted us with a beautiful breakfast prepared by Larry. We had not arrived for more than a day and we already felt home.
Our place is located of the foothills of Mount Etna, in a village logically named Piedimonte Etneo. It is overlooking the Mediterranean on the South and the splendid Etna Volcano on the North.
Our first day was logically dedicated to the beach, which is our N°1 priority during these holidays, where we have relaxed and played beach rackets. On the way, back, we shopped and got some BBQ meat which we enjoyed with some rosé I brought back from the farm…
At "La Gardenia", Larry told us about a special lunch with English speaking from various horizons and this is what we did on Sunday, after a quick beach bath. This restaurant treated us with endless "antipastis", all better than the one before and some local refreshed bulk red which I also enjoyed. Just in case, I had brought a bottle of Mistral red 08 which, at my grand honor, seemed to have pleased the group. One of the ladies here told me that she owns a small vineyard…and inquiring, I realized that she actually leases it to a famous winemaker, Frank Cornalissen whose wine I tried a few months ago in Minneapolis and who I had just contacted before leaving for a tasting visit. Small world… An other lady from this party, Lorrie, invited us for a tasting event on Friday with a local « bar tender » who organizes Etna tasting…This was actually going to be another wine event as, before leaving, I had already set 4 meetings with local winemakers, thanks to the precious help of my friend Robert Camuto who just published a remarkable book on Sicilian Wines (Palmento) that I strongly recommend. Besides Frank Cornalissen who I had contacted through our common MN importer Joe, I had set meetings with Albert Aiello Graci, Ciro Biondi and Alice Pappalardo who all who produce fine and elegant Etna wines.
After this wonderful lunch, we went to have a look at one of the historical monument, actually dating from 2000 years ago and which is still…alive : A Chestnut tree ! History, culture are in the air in Sicily.
On Monday, we went back to Taormina, on a nice beach with a small island at a swimming distance where divers enjoy the magnificence of the big blue. We stayed at a tipical «Lido» which comes with mattress and a nice lunch. It was now time fro me to start enjoying my first white local white, made by a newcomer : Doricum made from Catarratto grapes. This 2009 was quite floral, with a bit lack of acidity for my palate but very well made. It paired very well with my Eggplant pasta.
But before that very relaxing time, my wife and I have stopped in the morning to this closed farm surrounded by vines, Etna and Mediterranean since the gate was surprisingly open and as it seemed to have some activity going on…
I met with the farmer who was burning wine shoots on the 360 ° Terrace and managed to get a phone number. Finally, after two missed visits, we met with the owner who took us for what we are, tourists. The beautiful but going to ruins house with the 8 acres of land (only 1 Ha with vines) was offered but at a not a negotiating starting point…but the dream was nice.
Beautiful vineyard "for sale" near our place
The day after, we decided to explore the magnificence of Etna Mountain. We first left the kids to a park and visited Milo, a small town on the slopes of South Etna. From there, I realized that there was a very old traditional vineyard (Barone di Villagrande) to visit and we decided to pay a visit. The place is absolutely gorgeous with vine steep slopes, a cellar with tradition (old Chestnut barrels) mixed with modern stainless tanks and we had the honor to be greeted by the owner of the place who took time to pour all beautiful wines, especially the regular Etna red and their passito. Since there was a reception group going on, I asked if it was possible to eat there, which we did and enjoyed it very much.
That same day, I had set a meeting with Alberto Aiello Graci, a Young man who decided to sort the family's vineyard to only keep the interesting ones, in other words, the old vines and the one planted on High Altitude slopes. Alberto took me to this unreachable parcel niched at 1000 Meters, mostly planted with Nerello Mascalese but also, as always with old vines, a bunch of other varietals :
The tasting of his wines was on the same quality level even if it was hard to really tell as we only tried the 09 wines. But I could tell that there is potential here. Then, Alberto took me for a drink and I followed him in a bar where no one, except the local people would go for good wines. I quickly noticed some empty bottles displayed which to told me that the owner know his stuff…Well, guess what, that was the famous guy I was going to meet on Friday. And then, a man with his small 1 year old baby shows up…and I realized that this man is Frank Cornalissen who I was also supposed to meet later during my Sicilian trip…When it is meant to be, it is meant to be; The rest of the evening is history but I can already tell you that we tried some very good wines, mostly natural as it is Sandro’s orientation. And when I found a « Mémé » 2003 (a wine made a couple Kms from our farm), I could not resist sharing this with those local farmers who actually knew this vineyard better than I do !
When I came back home, I had some very good feelings in mind. This Island has all I like, from Sea to Mountains with vines and great «terroir » in Southern Europe and, to make it so special, millennium of history. It was quite late then and I saw the moon, so bright and lighted by the billions of stars on an August evening. With my camera, I managed to take this picture which will forever engrave that special day.
I thought I had already experienced the highlight of our trip when, the day after, we went to Isola Bella beach, featured in all the brochures. Thank God, we arrived there not too late and got a front beach space. This area is a natural park reserve and the water was so clear that I must have spent most of the time snorkling in this huge aquarium.
On that evening, Ciro Biondi has invited us to visit his vineyard, old "Palmento", cellar and for a memorable dinner in his kitchen garden situated in the middle of his vines planted on an old volcano crater and overlooking the Mediterranean... Ciro makes very elegant wines, with both freshness and beautiful texture. He is totally dedicated to his vineyard that he got from his family and re-structured. No need to say that this dinner was also a great one but at this point, "great" now seems to be quite normal since all we see, do, are awesome.
5 days have already passed since we arrived and I am already sure of one thing. I like the wines and there is potential to make beautiful wines in Etna. I actually have the same feeling as when we started our venture at Rouge-Bleu. Potential is here but to reach this, you have to work the right way. Of course, I am already tempted to start a venture with a local Producer who Works well and I decided to meet with Ciro another time to discuss this.
Our visit here is with our kids and since they saw some signs for "Etna Land", a water park, we decided to go for it. It was not the most exciting day of our trip but we did have fun. On t way back, I cooked some fish on the BBQ and with some dead of vines found in the previous visited vineyard who, as I use to day, give us another last pleasure with the unique smoke taste they bring to the food.
The natural slides of the day after were much more authentic. As Mediterranean and Mountain seem not enough to fulfill our eyes with beautiful, this island also has canyons and we did enjoy the purity and Freshness of the Alcantara river. Before that, we went to visit the beautiful village of Castiglione di Sicilia. When we came back, we had just enough time to get ready for this so expected tasting with Sandro Dibella. Actually, Sandro had decided to open the doors of his new place as, the one I went was a bit small and not fitted for his growing popularity. Sandro is actually educating people with his wine passion and gets more and more adepts to his natural wine selections. That evening was another fantastic one, meeting with people from so many different horizons and trying incredible wines. Sandro, who is also making his wine (sorry no picture since no label on his wine) was probably my preferred one even if I did enjoy one made by…a French-Italian venture, a guy who actually imports natural wines in London. Eclecticity is the key word in this island.
The area we stay is blessed with nice beaches but mostly with pebbles. Since Syracusa is also know for its white sand beaches, we decided to driver a bit (1 ½ hours to visit this area of the Island). No more Etna influence here and not so much vines since the land looks quite rich. Mostly fruit trees are grown there. As we were expected the beach was white sandy and the water so clear. We had a nice relaxing day, found a decent restaurant where the « sommelier » was actually a real one and he poured me this regular Etna white and for the first time, a red coming from another appellation. I could immediately tell about the little more concentration of this wine coming from some richer soils even if I did enjoy the little acidity. Then, we went to Syracuse and visited some great monuments and the beautiful old port.
A week has passed and we are back at the same restaurant in Saint Alfio offering dozens of antipastis, all different from last week but filling our stomach for the whole day. This time, I spent most of my time talking with Brandon, a US ex navy retired guy who also fell in love with Sicily and their marvelous wines. Brandon seems to really know the good people here and I look forward to going to his place where he has invited over next time we pass by Milo which is also where we met with Barone di Villagrande. Small island…
Next day and another beautiful one. It was high time for us that we discover the beauty of the Mountain. We took the North drive and parked the car as High as we could. On the way, we saw some lava from passed eruptions, and this, mixed with forest pine trees. What incredible aromas you get there, just a few minutes away from the sea. After some good pasta meal, my Daughter and I took a digestive horse ride on the forest trees at 5,000 feet and then a great siesta Under giant mountain trees with a view on…Etna.
Another morning, another red-blue sky with sunrise on the Calabrian Mountains that face us. Time to catch up with the big blue where we have not been for 2 days now. Resting day at the beach before my last vineyard visit scheduled with Alice and Rosario at Val Cerase. There again, I hear some similar stories with vineyards belonging to the family but without real real commitment behind before Alice decides to embrace the project and creates her own cellar place. Old vines planted on terrace is the base of her vineyard planted on the North slopes of Etna. Nerello Mascalese is predominant with as often, some other Co-planted varietals which bring little in volume but a lot in aromas. Rosario and Alice take us (Gianmarco and the other «Gianmarco») for a tour in the vineyards planted on terrace. We also take a look at the old Palmento and say « Hi » to "Michelangelo the donkey" before we head back to the cellars for an unforgettable tasting.
Under the pure light of the beautiful Sunset, Rosario and Alice open 2 white and a « rosé » which can be compared to a light red but this « relativo » rosé fits well its name and is actually very nice. To compete with such nice wines, Mozzarella, bread and sausages are also part of the feast. Then come the two reds. Ii had heard about the famous 2006 vintage but it was the first time I got to try them. The « regular » Etna was already quite well Evolved, with lots of elegance. But how to describe the other, coming from the oldest vines and vinified in an 1,000 liters oak cast. Just a beautiful wine, actually still a bit Young a the first sip but which opened up nicely with time…And as it was dark and after a memorable basketball game with Rosario and my son max, we finally header back home :
On this day, Kristi and I decided to go visit a few local villages to get impregnated with local life. We drove up to Calatabiano and walked around the city. After lots of picturesque pictures, we sit down in the bar, order « gelato » and I read the local newspaper. I could not understand all I read but could relate on past things we day see…fires, fireworks and fight against littering which is unfortunately a deep issue here.
Back home, I decide to do a bit of exercise with a 9 wholes golf walk. I play very poorly but what I like most with golf is the beauty of the crossed landscapes. Etna, again, is our major scenic view and Under the mountain trees of this mount, I spend another few hours of true pleasure.
Today, we were supposed to head back to Syracuse and spend the whole day in a turtle natural reserve but I thought that since we WILL come back here, I would rather not drive 4 hours and enjoy the local beach. We then headed early in Isola Bella which is indeed an incredible place. This time, I snorkeled even more than in our first visit there and I swan all around the island. This natural reserve is a real live aquarium, with clear crystal water. Then, we crossed Taormina to drive up to … Taormina was already crowded when we drove the rough this village but what to say when we came back for a memorable dinner with our friends Stef and Ciro Biondi. We had to leave the car far away and it took us almost one hour to reach Osteria Nero d’Avolla, a place highly recommended by Robert and which kept all its promises. We took the fish menu and enjoyed a very nice white, already turning into minerality and which could easily resist the comparison with a Meursault and then enjoyed Ciro’s 2008 and our Mistral. Awesome place, great people, delicious food and wine…what you ask more on vacation ?
Our last day in Piedimonte consisted in visit the North-Coast part of our area. In the morning, we took a 45 mns drive to reach, a long gravel beach with clear water. After a nice picnic, we drove up to Savoca, another perched village with long historical backgrounds. Kristi and I visited the XII century church and some other architectural monuments and it was time to come back home. Ciro had invited me to visit a couple vineyards more or less on sale… Not that we can afford this but I was just curious…The one who really struck me was a 3 Ha old vines planted on some kind on amphitheater, surrounded by oak trees and, their middle planted with lots of fruit trees. Also and planted in the vineyard, there are lots of wild plants which, when you press then in your hands, are expressing wild fennel aromas that would surely find this in your glass; This place is owned by 3-4 brother and sisters and is official on sale but since they don’t agree on the price, it can remain like this for a long time. The news of the day is that it could be possible to buy some grapes…OK, no more on this but you can imagine that this has not fallen inside a deaf ear…
After this, I header back to Sandro’s bar for my last night wine event in Etna. There, I saw most of the people I had met during my last 2 weeks and surely enjoyed some new local wines I had not tried before. I was almost ready to leave when Fillip and Trente who started Terre di Trente vineyard a few years ago and who had just returned from vacation. Well, I could not resist to their invitation and when, at 1 AM, I got a text message to my family, I knew it was time to go. In the meantime, I enjoyed their wines, listen to their Etna’s crush and continued to feel so good about this place.
Fillip and Trente, like Franck are « foreigners » who fell in love with Sicily; Their dedication to make wine is endless and they contribute, like deep rooted winemakers, to lift Etna wines to the level it should be. At this point, what is sure is that your servitor will do all he can to bring his little stone to this, by any means, at least on the US market where I have a miniscule interaction.
Time to leave and come back to the farm where harvest is shaping. Our last stop before Palermo is Cefalu after having crossed the Island and visited this beautiful place where Normans built a spectacular Cathedral in the XII century. In the little roads of the city, I find a tee shirt shop where it is possible to sow something. A Crush on Etna (expression found by my lovely wife and talented writer) written in red on a blue tee-shirt is quite meaningful and I decide to go for it.
Our boat leaves, I see my island fade away. I can cry but I am happy to have Fallen in Love and I know for sure that I will back sooner or later.
Despite it's rich History where this island has been invaded many times by eclectic civilizations throughout the millenniums, leaving behind incredible pieces of Art and architectural Monuments, Sicily's Etna region has really impressed me with the general quality of its wines.
Terroir, as always, explains everything: Soils are mainly made from poor lava rocks and sand, with enough underground water to permit the vines to survive on those slopes. High altitude plantation on Etna's Volcano allows large temperature differences during the maturation season and develops natural acidity. And, of course, the indigenous varietals like Nerello Mascalese have adapted over the Centuries to express the best of their grapes, especially when vines are old which is thankfully still very common there. Finally, Etna Volcano blows parsimonious amounts of sulfur, also found inside the ground, which naturally protects the vines from disease and allows a very small amount of it during wine making.
But in my understanding, terroir has also a big human face and there again, Etna has a treasured one. Talking with many farmers and producers, I have realized how much they Love their fields which have been transmitted from generations and how big are their expectations for the wines they produce. And even if they are aware of their potential, people are very humble as they might recall their History where they have always been under domination and have surely never been able to take anything for granted.
This human dimension combined with terroir potential explains the high quality of the wines. I was surely not expecting to enjoy such an elegant "Burgundy style" elaborated at the Corner of Southern Europe and Middle East.
If Paradise exists, it is most probably not far from there.