I try to avoid getting into discussions about terroir for the same reasons I avoid arguing about religion: no one has any proof, but everyone seems to have strong opinions. I tend to share my own opinions only amongst those whom I have pre-screened as like-minded when it comes to issues of how and whether wines can actually taste of the place from which they come.
Regardless of whether you are a believer or not, and independent of what elements of its origin you truly believe can be expressed in a wine, perhaps you can agree with me that at the very least, wine is capable of evoking a place. Even if its particular flavors cannot be proven to come from the place where it is grown, there are some wines that, when sipped with closed eyes, can perfectly and vividly evoke their home.
I certainly can’t make the sweeping generalization that Italian wines do this better than most, but I can say that many of the wines I have experienced that were so evocative of a particular place have been Italian. So it was no great surprise to me when I opened this bottle and out poured a rocky outcrop perched on the side of an island volcano, buffeted by cool sea breezes.
Grapes have been grown on the flanks of Mount Etna in Sicily probably ever since the first agricultural civilizations set foot on the island, which were certainly no later than the 8th century B.C. As evidenced by seals found on the clay storage vessels called amphorae which litter the ancient shipwrecks on the floor of the Mediterranean, Sicilian viticulture was extremely prosperous by the 2nd century B.C. and many Sicilian grape varieties were exported to the mainland of Italy where they became the basis for thriving winegrowing operations in cities like Pompeii and Etruria.
The slopes of Mount Etna, high above the ocean provide ideal conditions for grape growing — rocky, sandy soils with good drainage; excellent sunlight; low rainfall; and shifts in temperature between day and night that favor slow complex flavor development in grapes. Like many places in Italy, Sicily also boasts several indigenous grape varieties that have been used to make distinctive wines for centuries.
But perhaps one of the most special aspects of the regions viticulture lies in the age of its vines. Very few European vines survived the Phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, but those that did were often in sandy, volcanic soil, which means that the slopes of Mount Etna now contain some of Europe’s oldest grapevines.
The Benanti family has been caring for some of these vines since Giuseppe Benanti took over his father’s farm and began expanding the grape acreage in the late 1890s. Across a century, the family passed both a name and the care of the vineyards from grandfather to father to son. Today, Giuseppe Benanti (the 2nd) and his two sons Antonio and Salvino work the family’s vineyards on the volcano, coaxing tiny amounts of fruit from densely packed rows of vines that are at least 80 years old on average.
Vincola Benanti has the good fortune to farm a particular patch of vines on the Eastern slopes of Mt. Etna that are distinctive enough that they have been awarded the right to be bottled as Etna Bianco Superiore, a quality designation unavailable to similar white wines grown even a few kilometers away.
The grape known as Carricante makes up the entirety of the white wine produced in this section of the Benanti estate. This varietal, indigenous not only to Sicily but to the Etna region itself, is sometimes also known as Catanese Bianco.
The grapes grow on gnarly stumps that poke out from the soil, un-tethered by trellises or other support mechanisms. The grapes are harvested carefully by hand and fermented at very low temperatures in steel vats, where the final wine ages for a time before being bottled. I don’t know much more about the winemaking than that, nor do I know how much they make of this wine, but it can’t be a lot.
The biggest mystery, of course, is how Benanti managed to fit the sweeping vistas of the Mediterranean and the herb scented breezes in every sip. I was transported.
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Pale yellow gold in the glass, this wine has a gorgeous nose of honey, candied nuts, and floral aromas. In the mouth it sings of lemon and yellow flowers dusted with bee pollen. Underlying these high notes that zing with acidity, the wine has mellower flavors of paraffin and wet stones that linger into a beautiful finish.
What wouldn’t this wine go with? If it swims, you can pair it. I’d love to drink this with a plate of freshly seared scallops tossed with olive oil, sea salt, and meyer lemon zest.
Overall Score: 9/9.5
How Much?: $45