8th Dec 2011

Our team recently attended the World Wine Symposium on Lake Como, where we shared a glass with Italy's most daring winemaker!

Giuseppe Benanti is a brave man. Not because he is a part time bull-fighter or regularly attempts to hand-glide naked but because he makes wine near a Volcano and an active one at that!

We were introduced to Giuseppe on the last day of the World Wine Symposium last month, a now annual event at Villa D'Este on Lake Como that was started in 2009 in a bid to bring the great and the good of the wine world together to discuss the future of the wine industry. After interviewing many a delegate during the course of the three days, some more interesting than others, it was a pleasure to chat with Giuseppe, Sicily's greatest advocate and a passionate believer that his vineyards have the potential to become Italy's Burgundy.

That is quite a claim, we thought to ourself, until Giuseppe explained the history and totally unique location of his estate. The Benanti vineyards, all 320 acres of them, are found on the lower slopes of Mount Etna, on the east coast of Sicily. Shadowing the towns of Messina and Catania, the volcano is still very much alive and kicking, it last erupted in November 2011. The tallest active volcano in Europe is over 3000 M high, covering an area of over 1000 KM. Despite the obvious danger of being roasted, the agricultural industry in Sicily has benefited enormously from its very fertile soils, which support orchards and of course, vineyards. So, not exactly a typical vineyard location then.

Benanti's ancestors have been producing wine since 1734, on land that was donated by the King Victor Amedeos II I return for being loyal subjects. In around 1850, Giuseppe’s grandfather, Giuseppe Senior began producing wine on a larger scale on vineyards in front of his house, in the hamlet of Viagrande at the foot of Mt Etna. This picturesque village is today the base for the Benanti head-office. In the well-known Sicilian law that fathers follow their fathers, Guieppe's son Antonio started to continue his father’s work of making wine until 1958, after which the lure of big bucks in the pharmaceutical industry was too much to ignore. The estate went into hibernation, not producing wine with any serious quality aspirations.

Enter Giuseppe Jr. In 1998, he decided to revitalize the property and, to use his own words, make up for his father’s lack of interest in the special terroir of Mt Etna. Consulting an assortment of Oenologists (winemakers), Professors, wine growers and even a Wise old fortune teller, they produced their first white wine, Etna Bianco Superiore, followed by red, Rovitello. Benanti only use varieties indigenous on the Etna slopes - Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Carricante, Catarratto and Minnella respectively. Giuseppe reacted with horror, when we enquired whether he would experiment with a bit of Pinot Noir in volcanic ash soil? “Don't be ridiculous”, he exclaimed. We can't repeat the rest.

He is justifiably very proud, awed even, of his terroir and we continued talking about the unique Mt Etna growing conditions through lunch, dinner and we are sure he would have followed us to bed. His passion is infectious though, we must admit. He waxed lyrical: “Etna is an Island within an Island, the volcano has a D.O.C. wine area (wine region), which is the oldest in Sicily dating back to 1968. This area begins about 400 meters above sea level in the South, South-West and reaches over 1000 meters above sea level on the North. The temperature, due to the proximity of the sea, is very strong and in some periods of the year the difference between day and night can be up to 20 degrees. The volcanic sand, which is the result of the disintegration from the biggest lava-rocks in the course of millennia, has a composition one different from the other. Therefore, in that area is growing that particular grape, which produces a wine with unique nuances and distinguishable minerals.”

He also proudly boasts that his vineyards are some of the few in Europe to pre-date phylloxera, the other being the Assyritko grape which grows in the Greek Island of Santorini. This pest loves to feed on vine roots and ravished vineyards in Europe in the late 19th century but never reached the volcanic soils of Mt-Etna, Giuseppe claims. The majority of his vines were never grated on resistant American rootstock, which took place over all Europe as the only method of preventing the disease.

And what of the wines? We sampled a selection of his best wines from the Etna Doc (appellation) with his super blend, Serra Della Contessa being the stand out star. Benanti produce a wide range of whites, reds and even a sparkling in vineyards in Sicily as well as the famed Etna. All impress but the top flight stuff really is remarkable.

The first quality they pronounced during the tasting was a powerful mineral note which seemed to emanate from the bowels of the earth. Not even Chablis offers such potency. The Serra Della Contessa showcased this in particular, with a flamboyant nose of red fruits, subtle vanilla and we got a whiff of Farmyard. On tasting we knew instantly that Giuseppe Burgundy comparison was not an unrealistic one. His wines are ripe, flavorsome full bodied offering but in no way are they thick or dense. Their texture and weight invoked a Barolo or a Chambertin. A gentle astringency and transparency of flavour was the last bit of evidence we needed, Mount Etna was as close as you can get to Burgundy in Italy. We sincerely hope the Burgundy community doesn’t take offence at that!

Let us hope then, that the volcano doesn't blow up any time soon, because to lose this unique and wonderful bit of vineyard would be awful. Perhaps Giuseppe should relocate the office, just to be safe?

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