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A winemaking revolution on Etna

Etna is an evocative place. As one of the few active volcanoes in Europe it casts an imposing, almost mythical image on the horizon of Eastern Sicily. A constant plume of smoke and ash remind us of the immense power bubbling just beneath the surface. Above ground though, in the mineral rich volcanic soils, something special is happening. An attractive and romantic approach to wine making is consolidating Etna’s already proud reputation as a source of terroir driven, quality wines.

Organic and biodynamic viticulture is the philosophy of choice on these fertile slopes. Many of the zone’s growers cultivate small dispersed holdings, at times overseeing several plots. Ironically though, minimal intervention is hard work. These small vineyards, often old and terraced, require constant supervision. Yet in this UNESCO protected park land, sustainable practices with complete respect for the environment are the principles on which most producers move their businesses forwards.

Take Frank Cornelissen for example. Originally from Belgium, Frank believes in making wines that taste only of the soils in which they are grown. They shouldn’t taste of oak or steel or man made twists, but instead must be a natural, authentic expression of Etna. In most years he doesn’t even use the bare minimum of copper sulphate allowed under the strictest of organic farming regulations. His white wine, ‘Munjabel’, is a blend of Coda di Volpe, Grecanico and the area’s traditional white variety, Carricante. Unfiltered, the wine is a cloudy dark yellow. It shouldn’t be off putting. Fresh scents of orange peel, smoke and crab apple lead to a structured palate of zesty acidity and a firm mouthfeel. There are notions of lemon and lava on the finish.

Tenuta delle Terre Nere, meaning farm of black earth, has been cultivating the D.O.C.’s red varieties Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio since it’s beginnings in 2002. All fertilisation is organic and natural. Cover crops are grown between the vines to ensure that nitrogen-rich nutrients return to the ground and as such the winery became certified organic in 2010. They are by no means the only ones to abandon monoculture.

Expanding on the concept of complete respect for the environment, solar panel units have been installed with sufficient capacity to meet the majority of the winery’s energy needs. The estate’s wine-making facilities are a model of eco-sustainability, an approach seemingly rewarded in the wines; intensely aromatic, the Etna Rosso shows lifted and pronounced red fruits offset by racy acidity and a subtle tannic structure not unlike Beaune Pinot Noir.

Meanwhile, in the commune of Linguaglossa, the small organically farmed Aziedna Agricola Giulemi is producing top wines. Handpicked, the Etna Rosso fruit ferments in wild yeasts before being aged for twelve months in large old wood casks. It boasts a bright, shiny crimson colour which precedes a nose of great elegance, freshness and purity. Aromas of violets and cherries lead to a light Pinot like palate of red fruits and delicate balsam.

There are many more producers on Etna releasing wines that let the fruit and soils speak for themselves. Small quantities mean they are often expensive but when pitching different village wines side by side the varying personalities Nerello Mascalese seems able to assume is striking. With the passing of vintages, it is only a matter of a time before we are able to more accurately define the stylistic idiosyncrasies of Etna’s authentic ‘cru’ villages.

First published on Vino.Rs on 05/07/14


A Bordeaux blend in Serbia’s Fruška Gora region

There are two schools of thought. Balkan wines should be made from Balkan grapes; what is the point of planting more Cabernet and Merlot when there are so many promising varieties indigenous to this corner of south East Europe? The opposing view, and equally strong, is who is anyone to say what to plant and where? If good Cabernet can be made in Vojvodina or Šumadija then why shouldn’t it be made.

Vinarija Belo Brdo, located at the foot of the northern slopes of the Fruska Gora mountain in central Serbia believes just that. On 15 hectares of vineyard facing the Danube, the company cultivates nine varieties of which the majority are red and globally popular. With new technology, a belief in oak and a keen eye on international trends, they are focussed on modern, fruit driven wines.

I got my hands on a 2011 bottle of ‘Alma Mons’. This then, is a blend of Bordeaux’s usual suspects. It’s a well understood style. Enthusiastically extracted and generously hosted in 225 custom toasted oak barrels it also sports a touch of Marselan and Petit Verdot. Nobody can accuse it of being underripe. But, it’s pretty good.

Savoury, smoky aromas complement vivid liquorice, aniseed, morello cherry, bold black currant and the friendly touch of vanilla. How friendly is down to personal preference but on the palate it is well structured, with brambly fruit and warm alcohol. The danger with this style of wine is that it doesn’t take much to be overdone. High sugars and high temperatures can lead to the fruit feeling stewed and the alcohol intimidating.

Not so with this wine. It’s perfectly balanced. If you like your red blends big, round and supple, packed with luscious black fruit wrapped in smoky oak you will absolutely love this wine.

‘Sofia’ Tamjanika by Podrum Braca Rajkovic

It is very rare indeed that the opportunity to taste Serbian wines in the UK emerges. There may be the odd example dotted around but generally exposure is limited. Fortunately Berlin based Samovino, a modern, online focussed startup, is going out of their way to cast light on some of the high end bottlings coming out of this often overlooked enclave of the Balkans. I was able to get hold of a few and find out how they work in a typically confused British summer.

I pulled the cork on the 2012 Tamjanika, labelled exotically as ‘Sofia’. Tamjanika is actually Muscat á Petits Grains but here in South East Europe it is named after Tamjan, the Serbian word for Frankincense. It’s an appropriate clue; the variety’s propensity to yield smoky and spicy aromatics is distinctly characteristic and alongside local cuisine, it’s an attractive stylistic identity.

There was no deviation here. Exotic tertiary fragrances of incense, crab apple and rose petal swirled around a juicy, yet honeyed core of white peach and melon. In the mouth the wine was full, robustly textured and built with subtle layers of lemon and pine oil. A surprising kick of alcohol on the finish might send one to two reaching for the back label and possibly even the odd recoil at 14.5%. Generally though, the wine is balanced and more likely to court attention for its flavour profile than its firm backbone.

Podrum Braca Rajkovic are one of the key players in the central region of Župa, easily one of Serbia’s prettiest wine areas. Although official references to the family’s involvement in wine date back to 1834 there are claims the passion extends a century earlier. Regardless, this prized 10 hectare estate is producing premium wines. Having spent time in Župa earlier in the year, contextualising the mysteriously enticing scents and perfumes of this variety is slightly easier. The gentle undulating hills, a patch work of vineyards and cherry trees are set amidst tranquil, warm, sunny days and cool nights. It is little wonder then that the wines of Župa, Tamjanika in particular, develop powerful aromas and a harmonious balance between fruit and acidity.