Today I’m writing up notes for a wine I tasted a week and a half ago at the Sicilian Tasting. Every time I look back at the original notes from the day, I find something I’ve managed to misspell, and this time it was the name of today’s producer. So there is value in going back again and again, even if it makes me feel like more and more of an idiot each time I do so. A thorough idiot though, I’m hoping.
This is a good day in terms of being both timely/topical, and productive in my quest for a century of varietal wines. This is topical because of Eric Asimov’s New York Time article this week on the wines of Etna (even if he’s talking about reds and this is a white wine). And after yesterday’s excellent wine that disappointed only because it turned out to be a blend, thus not incrementing my count, I can certainly use this wine to make up for it.
Today we have the Etna DOC Pietramarina Bianco Superiore Benanti 2007. As I mentioned, this is from Italy, in particular Sicily, and specifically Etna, the region in the vicinity of the volcano that towers over the east of the island. Also, this is a varietal wine of the white grape Carricante, which is where I’ll start.
Carricante is a new grape to me, but it’s been cultivated in Sicily for over 1,000 years. It’s apparently grown nowhere else, but given the number of interesting Italian grape varieties that have been turning up even in South Australia, I can’t imagine that will be the case forever. The berries are a greenish yellow in relatively loose bunches, it matures late, and the vines themselves are typically pruned into what’s called arberello. Meaning little tree, these are a southern Italian take on bush vines, densely planted, low to the ground and severely pruned. It’s grown in Etna at high altitude, on the order of 1,000 metres, and is noted for high levels of acidity, both in terms of pH and malic acid.
As I mentioned, Mount Etna is a huge volcano in the east of Sicily that geographically dominates the whole island, and geologically defines the Etna DOC as a crescent going clockwise from the north of the peak around to the southwest . The soils are, wait for it, volcanic. As far as the cultivation of wine grapes, they’re well suited, being rocky, readily draining, and poor in nutrients.
I haven’t written much generally about soils and vines, but there is a sadistic notion that the more a vine has to struggle, the higher quality the grapes are. Likewise with yields – lower yields typically mean greater concentration, and therefore better wines. So if you were growing anything else, you might want rich, fertile soil and high yields, but it’s just the opposite for wine grapes. As to drainage, soils that don’t drain well can be damp, which means roots don’t have to struggle to find water, and also there’s higher disease pressure. So good drainage is something that’s possibly counter-intuitive as being something that’s desirable, but it is.
But back to Etna. Like the rest of Sicily, it defines what it is to have a Mediterranean climate. Etna DOC itself is a series of microclimates, depending on where the area is with regard to the peak, and aspects vary widely. The volcano is what sets the DOC apart from the rest of Sicily, not just in soil type, but also in altitude. Vines are cultivated from 450m to 1100m, which contributes to great diurnal temperature variation.
Within the rules of the DOC, a relatively small number of grapes make up the bulk of wines, with Carricante, Catarratto and Minnella though other non-aromatic grapes may contribute as well in small quantities. Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio are the red grapes of the region, with the former making up the bulk of DOC wines, and other varieties being permitted in very small amounts. That said, as I mentioned in another article, most wine produced within Sicily is not DOC, and so the requirements for IGT wines are less stringent.
Vinicola Benanti is one of Sicily’s premier producers, having been established toward the end of the 19th century by Giuseppe Benanti, and now under the leadership of his grandson, Dr. Giuseppe Benanti. They produce eleven wines in the Etna area, as well as one from the island of Pantelleria and three in Pachino in the area near Syracuse. They range from classic DOC reds and whites of Etna to varietal IGT wines as well as a Spumante from 100% Carricante.
This wine is off an 80 year old vineyard situated at 950m, and is 100% Carricante. It’s fermented in stainless steel and doesn’t have any oak influence.
There’s no mention of malolactic fermentation in the winery notes, and I didn’t detect any sign of it.
[Update - I had a tweet from Benanti letting me know that this wine does in fact undergo malolactic fermentation, which is the conversion of malic acid which can be very harsh to lactic acid which is a bit gentler. The reason I mentioned it at all is that Carricante is known for high malic acid, which makes it a good candidate for malolactic fermentation, and so I was on the lookout for it. The fact that I wasn't able to detect it is a clear sign that my tasting skills need more practice.]
In the glass it’s pale lemon green, with slow legs. Clean on the nose, it’s developing, with medium plus intensity of honey and patisserie. On the palate it’s dry, with high acidity and a medium minus body. I tasted lemon, honeycomb, white flower and sweet spices, as well as good minerality. Good complexity and concentration, and an elegant finish.
This is a very good wine. It was very refreshing when we tasted it, but showed signs of being able to take a few more years in bottle, a quality I don’t normally associate with Italian whites.