Mt. Etna -Volcanoes, Vines, and the Holy Spirit is a 3 part series on how I came to meet Salvo Foti, the preeminent voice on traditional (ancient) winemaking on Mt Etna. I am releasing my post now to celebrate Salvo’s visit to San Francisco this week. Tune in tomorrow to learn where you can meet Salvo and taste his wines.
New roads in Sicily wreak havoc upon GPS systems. As a matter of fact, old roads do as well. In the 5 hours it took to reach Randazzo on the north slope of Mt. Etna from the southwestern town of Menfi there were no less than 5 dead ends due to construction of new highways and from old thoroughfares that simply ceased to exist. This was Sicily after all and if invading armies with the latest technology over the centuries failed to tame the roads of the Mediterranean’s largest island then what kind of chance did I expect with my discount Fiat Punto and a 2009 Garmin?
One island does not equal one place and on the slopes of Europe’s most active volcano a sense of place and belonging to it are the driving factors behind perhaps the most exciting wine scene since Thomas Jefferson wrote his supplier in Marseilles seeking a fine white Hermitage. Mt. Etna is home to some of Europe’s oldest grapevines, many predating the devastating phylloxera outbreak that ravaged the wines of France and Northern Italy over 100 years ago. It is these ancient vines buried in the mineral rich volcanic slopes of a fiery giant that have inspired a pilgrimage to create the next great wine.
Tasting the wines of longtime producers Gulfi and Benanti as well as newcomer Tenute delle Terre Nere I knew there was something brewing on the mountain as well as under it. I needed to see for myself what was truly happening on Etna and if wine could be produced from the light bodied and pale colored Nerello Mascalese that was ageable, with a sense of place, and flavors that did not mirror or intend to mirror those of France’s burgundy as they have so often been compared.
I had worked in Sicily 6 years ago based in Taormina with Etna always looming in the distance. After my works and studies here I knew I would return. I did not know it would be for wine. I had lived with an amazing family in Taormina and my host father, Aurelio, would routinely open a plastic bottle of Etna Rosso he kept stored in the fridge to serve with dinner each night. The wine, while foxy (not tasting like wine made from wine grapes) cold, and not of high quality, somehow grew on me over nights of watching Italian “Who wants to be a Millionaire” and eating the most exquisite meals I remember vividly.
Every two or three days during my time in Taormina I would go out shopping and bring home some fine bottle of famous Sicilian wine to share with the family at dinner. Each time I would, Aurelio would drink a quarter of a glass of my selection to be polite, then open the Etna Rosso made entirely from Nerello Mascalese he filled in bulk from a local co-op. When I began to see evidence of this grape sneaking into wine shops here in America I could not help but be bemused and quite skeptical. Was someone actually importing the moonshine I drank in Sicily to the US and how would they market it?
To my great and happy surprise I learned that Aurelio was simply being a humble and supportive citizen. There were many options for Etna based reds and he just happened to like the cheapest ones. The wines grown near Randazzo are another story altogether and at the end of a very frustrating drive I was ready to know why.
…To be continued