John versus the Volcano – Day 3: Passopisciaro

I have a confession to make. I am writing this sober, so I apologise in advance if this post is more coherent than usual.

My third day in Sicily was my first without any major travelling and my first real opportunity to get in amongst the vines of Etna.

With a 10am appointment scheduled at the vineyard of Passopisciaro, I had to set out early. The journey was a good 5 kilometres as the crow flies and unfortunately I’m not a crow.

Crows rarely have to negotiate rough terrain rising over 200 metres, searching for paths that seemingly only exist on the map, or find themselves crawling on their wings and knees through bramble and barbed wire to reach the closest resemblance of a road Etna has to offer.

In the end I hiked 7.5 kilometres through the beautiful yet unforgiving countryside. Reaching my destination a rather sweaty and disheveled being.

As I arrived at Passopisciaro, somewhat behind schedule, my gracious and accommodating host, Letizia, was involved in conversation with clients of the vineyard – a husband and wife team who owned a small wine shop on the Austro-Swiss border, visiting along with their teenage son.

They were settling down for a tasting and, rather than upsetting the apple cart*, I joined them.

*Tastings are normally reserved for the climax of a vineyard visit, not as an opening gambit.

We tasted two wines. First up, a relative newcomer, a delightful 2011 Chardonnay.

In the interest of absolute transparency I must confess that although I mentioned at the start of this post that I was writing sober, I have now taken on board a good half a bottle of said Chardonnay. This is one of perils of distraction and a problem all wine writers must face.

Produced from young (10 year old) vines, this wine had a beautiful shimmering clarity, and a wonderful floral scent with strong notes of orange peel and lemon zest.

It was lovely to see that as we all politely swirled, admired and smelled the wine, the teenage boy had already necked his. Good for you, I told him, enjoy it. For these are the moments that will live with him for many years and help create the next generation of wine obsessives.

On the palate the fresh zest continued, followed by a myriad of tropical fruit flavours that danced playfully across the tongue and, much to my pleasure, there was very little oak at all. More on that later.

Next it was the turn of the red – the foundation on which Passopisciaro has built it’s recent reputation.

100% Nerello Mascalese, a delicate grape that flourishes on the slopes of Etna, harvested from all four of Passopisciaro’s vineyards then expertly blended.

Using one single grape variety to create a blend of flavours goes a long way to explain the importance of terroir (the specific land in which vines are grown). Terroir is term which is thrown around a lot in wine circles, but here at Etna the influence of different growing conditions could not be more evident.

Within the relatively small confines of the Passopisciano vineyards alone, the elevation of planting ranges from 500 to 1100 metres above sea level. The higher you go the more gravelly the soil becomes, whilst the lower growths have their roots embedded in the deep, more oxidised, older lava.

All of these variables have a profound influence on the flavour and acidity of the grape and ultimately the wine.

Back to the tasting and the wine itself was wonderful. We were drinking the latest bottling, 2010, but I believe that you are more likely to find the 2007 available at the moment.

Letizia explained that there is a desire for darker reds in Sicily (presumably from the popularity of the richly dark Nero d’Avola grape) and that they had tried to darken the Passopisciaro without much success.

Personally I found the wine beautifully light, bright and clear. On the nose, wafts of raspberry and bramble – the wine is young and all the fruit is still on display.

On the palate, gracious and refined, displaying a maturity beyond it’s years. Amazingly the high alcohol level of 14% gave off only a little warmth and was perfectly drinkable at 11am.

We said our goodbyes to the Austro-Swiss family (to be honest I’m not too sure which side of the border they hailed from. It could even have been Germany – but they were definitely on the border),
and it was time to take a tour of the vineyard.

First we headed out to the vines themselves. A small plot of tightly planted Petit Verdot primarily used as a blend in the their top wine – Franchetti (named after, and presumably by, the owner Andrea Franchetti).

It was a beautiful sight to see the century old terraced stone walls still housing many of the vines. But I was saddened to see evidence of fire having devastated areas of the crop and gutting a stone barn.

I questioned Letizia about what she believed was the cause of the blaze. Sadly and rather poetically she simply said ‘This was caused by people’.

Moving inside, we passed the large steel vinification vats – the first stop of the pressed wine, where it is given 15 days to ferment.

The wine is then barrelled for ageing in large new oak casks. Using large barrels makes for less of an oaky wine – something I wish more new world Chardonnay producers would consider.

Just as I thought that tour was drawing to an end, Letizia asked if I wanted to see something special and proceeded to open a door onto one of the most incredible views I have ever seen at vineyard.

A drying room. Full, from the recent harvest.

Grapes are dried before the extraction of juice to produce sweet or dessert wine and this is indeed the latest venture at Passopisciaro.

I had one last question before heading back down the volcano. What had changed in the last decade to finally put Etna on the map of fine wine?

Letizia’s answer was simple – ‘The people’.

A strikingly similar response to that of my questioning about the fire, but there was no sadness in this answer, only pride.

Andrea Franchetti came to Etna in the year 2000 and since then has transformed a dying winery into one of the top vineyards of Sicily.

We can talk about century old vines, elevation and terroir. But all these things mean nothing without people making and refining expert winemaking decisions.

It is people who decide that vines should be planted closer together to force their roots deeper into the nutrient rich earth. People who decide that the transfer from vinification vats to barrel must be carried out using gravity alone, as pressure would harm the wine’s structure. And it is people who are now making wine worthy of the heritage of this fine grape and land.

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1 comment

  1. Luca Pitino’s avatar

    Yes I agree. Passopisciaro is one of the best vineyards in Sicily.As well as the wines.

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