We were travelling north on the autostrada on the eastern side of Sicily, when Vinnie pointed out the jet black, twisted and strangely folded rock formations either side of the road. That, I explained, is a 300-year-old lava flow that resulted from an eruption of Mount Etna. Etna dominates this part of the island and is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The eruption of 1669 was the largest ever recorded for the mountain. The lava actually made it all the way to the coastal port of Catania, a distance of around 15 kilometres, but, fortunately, no one was killed. Unsurprisingly, myths and legends surround the volcano. In ancient times it was an entrance to the underworld as well as being the site of the smithy of Vulcan, the god of fire. Here, amongst other things, he forged the thunderbolts hurled by Jupiter, that most cantankerous king of the gods. Today, at nearly 11,000 feet, it is the highest peak in Italy, south of the Alps.
We were heading to a small winery, Azienda Agricola Biondi, close to Monti Rossi, a volcanic cone that grew around the source of the 1669 eruption. The slopes of the mountain are peppered with these small craters, the remnants of earlier eruptions. As we drive through the narrow country lanes the predominant colour is black, the colour of the volcanic basalt that provides plentiful building material, in sharp contrast to the honey-coloured sandstone common on the rest of the island.
The Biondi family have owned vineyards here since the 17th century but much has changed over the years. The winery was established at the end of the 19th century and, under the stewardship of Cirino and his brother, Salvatore, saw considerable success, particularly in the period between the First and Second World Wars, when they were exporting their wine to the United States. However, after the war with the death of Salvatore and a failure to adapt to changing conditions the business went into decline. Since 1999 Cirino’s grandson, Ciro, and his English wife, Stephanie, have taken charge and have been rebuilding the business. From three small terraced vineyards totalling just over six hectares they produce around 22,000 bottles of wine per year.
The estate is on Via Ronzini, just north of the charming village of Trecastagni and here the couple produce three versions of the DOC wine, Etna Rosso. They are all blends of two local vines, 80% Nerello Mascalese and 20% Nerello Cappuccio and so the obvious question is why? The answer is in the ‘terroir’ or the soil. Here the vines grow in a sandy mixture of volcanic ash that can change composition in the space of a few metres. The ash and rocky lava that constitutes the soil on the mountain is very free-draining and high in minerals but to look at it you could not imagine anything growing in it. This is extreme viticulture but it is these qualities that make the wine so desirable.
The entry level wine is called Outis and it spends 11 days on the skins before fermenting in steel and maturing in 500l oak tonneau and 225l barrique for 10 months. The colour is ruby red with a bouquet of red fruits. On the palate it is very fresh with sour cherries, raspberries, and black tea. The volcanic soil lends the wine some minerality that balances with an acidity. This is a well-balanced wine with a long finish. Try it with a hearty pasta dish like a Pasta alla Norma.
In one corner of the Via Ronzini there are two vineyards on the sides of a volcanic crater which dates from around 125 BC; from the Cisterna Fuori vineyard, planted with 40-year-old vines comes the wine of the same name. This wine again spends 11 days on the skins before being matured for 18 months in tonneau and barrique. This wine is, again, a ruby colour with a more intense fruity bouquet of cherry, raspberry, and cranberry, with underlying notes of volcanic rock and minerality. In the mouth there is the flavour of wild berries with an almost saline minerality and good acidity. Try pairing it with the strong flavours of caponata.
On the other side of the road, the smallest of the three vineyards – at half a hectare – is called San Nicolo and sits on the side of a crater estimated to be 12,000 years old. Here Ciro and Steph have planted Nerello Mascalese and Cappuccio and produce around 1,000 bottles of San Nicolo wine annually. As with the Cisterna Fuori, there is a maceration for around 11 days followed by 18 months in oak. Once again, the bouquet is of red flowers with berries and on the palate pomegranates, cherries, tobacco, the minerality that is associated with volcanic soil, together with good acidity. Pair this well-balanced wine with grilled steak or carne arrostita.
These are great wines and as well as red Ciro and Stephanie also include two white wines in their range made with local varieties Carricante, Cataratto, and Minnella, but I will save that story for another visit.