On the 11th of February this year I attended an interesting tasting of the wines of Cantina Benanti held by “Munskänkarna i Lund”, at the Grand Hotel in Lund, Sweden. It was a producer that I new about, but not in person and I had never visited them either. However, back in 2011, I stayed two weeks on the east coast of Sicily up on the cliff in the town of Taormina with its fantastic view. After a day up at the Etna mountain just after an eruption, we found a very good restaurant, Le Naumachie, a little hidden from the tourist main street in Taormina. They served fantastic seafood and probably the best grilled fresh tuna I have ever had. Anyway, the owner insisted we try an etna bianco from Benanti, the Pietra Marina. It was perfect with that dish and I remember buying two bottles with me home thinking it was truly special.
And here we are in 2016 listening to one of the twins of the Benanti family; Salvino Benanti. Salvino explains that his father conducted several studies of the soil around the volcano back in 1988 and they were part of the renaissance of Etna that really made a showcase of the potential of the area. Their first vintage was 1990. They own 24 ha and production is about 145,000 bottles a year. Enzo Cali is the enologist since 2004. In 2013, the business was passed on to the next generation as the twins, Salvino and his brother Antonio, took over the business from their father.
Even though they use barriques, they consider themselves traditionalists focusing on the specific terroir of Etna. However, they are not as extreme as those terroir-fanatics who use terracotta vats or plastic containers to affect the wine’s origins to an absolute minimum like e.g. Frank Cornelissen. Anyway, four things are important in their wine making according to Salvino; they want to reflect authenticity, minimal intervention in the wine making, cautious use of wood and use their own selection of patented yeast.
Salvino continues with explaining the typicality of Etna’s terroir and its micro climates. Back in the late 80’s, they were a hand full producers, but today there are around 80 on Etna and growing. It is a very hot climate being so close to Africa, but the high altitude offers cold winds that renders fresh acidity during nights when temperatures decrease a lot compared to in the days. 300 days of sun a year is impressive and must be vintners wet dream. Silvano emphasises three things that makes Etna very special. Firstly, obviously the combination of many sun hours and cool nights. Salvino explains that the ventilation is good even though high levels of humidity exist due to the gradients and the proximity to the sea. Around the volcano, the gradients are steep, the sandy soil is very loose, there are no valleys, no irrigation and vineyards are situated in man-made terraces. Except for the somewhat difficult access of the terraces, it surely must be ideal conditions. Secondly, he says, is the volcanic soil that is very rich in deep minerals. Thirdly, the indigenous grape varieties that are only from Etna.
Three important grape varieties exist and all of them are grown as free standing bushes (alberello) that requires a lot of manual work in the vineyards, but in return limits mildew to a minimum and increases its exposure to cooling winds even further. The soil is loose and contains a high level of sand, so roots can easily dig deep down and find water and nutritions. The grape for the whites is Carricante (25% planted) is a green-yellow grape with low alcohol perception, thick skin and high acidity level that often needs to go through malo. It is very sensitive to heat and attacks, so it is planted at the very highest altitudes where it thrives. For the reds, there are two. Nerello cappuccio has soft tannins and is naturally approachable. Its related to sangiovese. The second red grape is nerello mascalese (3% but quickly increasing) is tannic, thick skinned and acidic. The latter is the interesting red one for sure and as is the case with nebbiolo, it is tannic and ripens late in mid October in classic years or later depending on altitude. It combines pinot noir and nebbiolo in a very good way. Now how interesting grape is that!
We are offered three whites and seven reds, so quite a lot of wines to taste really, but very interesting in deed.
2013 D.O.C. Bianco di Caselle, 100% carricante
This is a new d.o.c. wine since a year ago. This is a blend of grapes from the eastern side (Caselle) and southern (Cavaliere) of the volcano at 900-1000 meter altitude. Vines are normal age; 35-50 years. Harveted mid-late October. Handpressed.
Some beeswax, tiny notes of diesel and green apple on the nose. Very pleasant and tasty with an oily texture. Dry apricots. Generous medium bodied.
2010 D.O.C. Etna Bianco, Pietra Marina superiore
It was a very difficult vintage, but balance is obvious. Grapes in this wine are 100% carricante from 80 year-old vines in Caselle, a single area on the eastern side of the volcano. Training is alberello at 850 meters above sea-level. It goes through malo because of the very high level of acidity. 21 days of maceration is really an eyebrow raising thing to do with whites.
Very subtle with a very deep nose of primarily white flowers. Dense, thick and pliant. Very elegant and with impressive balance. Very high quality acidity that stays in the background wrapping sea salt and balsamic oils. Aromatic with aromas of apricot, dried honey, sea grass and complex flavours. Persistent with a slender body.
2008 D.O.C. Etna Bianco, Pietra Marina superiore
This is a perfect vintage vintage without issues on Etna.
Yellowish pale core colour with tiny green tints.
A little more mature than 2010 now, but the same notes of dried honey and green apple, but also a subtle inner perfume. More generous and even denser and more concentrated than the 2010 vintage, but less balanced. Dominated by apricot, but also some gooseberries, notes of dried honey, salt, green apple and maybe sea grass.
2012 I.G.T. Nerello Cappuccio
A hot vintage even on Etna that stressed the plants.
This is from a northern part of the volcano with only 10 to 30-year-old vines at 900 m altitude. Extraction is 21 days in steel.
Nice nose, but lacks complexity. Notes of barn, earth cellar. Very berry taste; red currant, sourish wild strawberries coated in earthy minerals. Soft and without edges. Yes, simple, but generous and with some finesse.
2012 Nerello Mascalese
This is from the vineyard Guardiola on the northern-east side at 450-900 m altitude from 60 year-old vines. A difficult warm year with intense heat.
Ruby, opaque red core with pink tints. Incredibly subtle sensual perfume and complexity that captivate my attention.
Well balanced with marking and juvenile tannins at this point. Thin with a clear direction. Racy with tiny and dry red berries. Asian spices. Some anise. Persistent, young, slender and pretty. Pliant and without edges.
2009 Nerello Mascalese
This is a blend with 10-20% nerello cappuccio from 15-60 years old vines raised with 30% of the grapes in new wood.
Ruby red half opaque colour.
A little bit more modern nose here with dried raisins, chess nut and flowers.
Textur is still a little lightly sandy and overall thicker compared to its younger counterpart. Clear red fruit fruit but also notes of black berry. Nice and generous.
2013 D.O.C. Rosso di Verzella
Younger vines of max 40 years from the northern side of the volcano raised in barriques for about 8 months. A good vintage with low yields. Late ripening in mid October.
Colour is blood orange with orange edge and a ruby red core.
Scent starts off with white lilies, diesel and maybe chess nut. Not the obvious red wine nose.
Medium-bodied and with good concentration as well as spine. Racy with red small berries coated by freshly cut ginger and aromatics. Generous but with the acidity in the very background, but still pleasant and dominated by fresh, ripe red fruit.
2011 D.O.C. Rovitello Etna rosso
From the northern side at 750 m altitude and I think he said there was more sand and from what I’ve learned, that would give way for it to be affected with stress by hot temperatures. Vines are about 80 years old. This is a blend of 90% nerello mascalese and the rest nerello capuccio. 12-15 months in barrique. 13.5% in alcohol. A top vintage with very ripe fruit and balance. Late ripening in late October.
Somewhat darker ruby colour than previous wines.
Fine, subtle nose with stylish perfume. Chestnut and notes of wood.
On the palate it has an impressively clean, balsamic and fresh acidity. Fresh, pure and ripe red berries coated in orange-peel. Generous, rounder and fuller body. Super fresh, pretty and silky.
2011 D.O.C. Serra della Contessa Etna rosso
Lower altitude about 500 m and from the eastern side and from 100-year-old vines. This is a blend of 80% nerello mascalese and the rest nerello capuccio. Long extraction on the skins. A top vintage with very ripe fruit and balance.
Dark ruby red colour.
Very fresh, slow and subtle perfume with peach.
Packed with fresh, pure and cool red fruit dominated by wild strawberries but notes of dark plum and red currant. All coated in fine minerals. Notes of newly cut ginger, Asian spices and anise seeds. Impressive balance and fine depth. It is persistent and elegant too.
2004 D.O.C. Serra della Contessa Etna rosso
Dark ruby red colour with very dark core and brown-orange edges.
A more aristocratic, deeper but less seductive than its much younger counterpart. Pretty and mature Burgundian-like nose.
Cool, pure and impressively balanced wine. No edges and pliant. Super-silky texture and well integrated with high precision. Full of overripe and earthy strawberries coated in orange-peel.