Sicilian Wine Adventures – Part 26; Passopisciaro. Master of Le Contrade dell’Etna

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There was a time when single vineyard wines were the thing and everyone had to be in on the race. But not all wines benefit from being bottled as a unique site; the blend should never be underestimated. Some regions has learned that empirically. Ask Chianti for example. However, if there’s one younger wine region that really is exciting to follow, when it regards single vineyard bottlings, it is Etna. Young you think, how does that correlate with the fact that many of the producers are blessed with vines averaging between 60 and 100 years, some even older?

Wine production goes way back at Etna; it was actually the largest wine production area on Sicily when the Phylloxera were destroying vineyards across Europe. Delayed, it finally reached Etna as well and slowly the production started its decline only to be almost forgotten about. Most grapes were sold to the cooperatives and it was first in the end of the 1990’s a change could be spotted. Nerello Mascalese was rediscovered and new investments started to appear. Foreign investors, people from other parts of Italy and also native Sicilians, started to realize what great a treasure they had in the cool climate vines, some even at more than thousand meters above the sea level.

One of the pioneers were Andrea Franchetti, perhaps better known for his Tenuta di Trinoro property in Toscana. Passopisciaro was established in 2000, in Castiglione di Sicilia. The northern side of Etna, where the best wines emerge from. Starting with the Passopisciaro bottling, he quickly also realized the potential of single sites, Contradas on Etna. Although Nerello Mascalese are mentioned as the Nebbiolo of the south, or as having Bourgogne resemblance, there’s no need for these comparisons. Nerello is Nerello and has such unique attributes, that it can stand on its own feet. However, there’s one feature which it shares with Bourgone Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo from Piemonte; the complexity of single vineyards.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand this; vines cultivated at high altitudes dramatically influences the end result. Every location is a micro climate and the difference of a 1,000 meters located vineyard and one at 700 meters doesn’t need much further explanation. Nerello Mascalese has the structure to work on its own, just like Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, and Andrea Franchetti quickly understood this. Today, Passopisciaro bottles four Contrade dell’Etna: Porcaria, Chiappemacine, Sciaranuova and Rampante. That is besides his Passopisciaro and the Guardiola Chardonnay. Finally, there’s a totally crazy project called Franchetti, a blend of Petit Verdot and Cesanese cultivated at 1,000 meters above sea level! And you thought Petit Verdot was late ripening in Bordeaux….

Andrea Franchetti is one of the Etna top stars. There’s an admirable elegance and definition in his wines, never turning dark in the fruit. Ethereal in style, mostly, they also have something almost reminiscent of a Monforte Barolo in their appearance. Powerful perhaps; at least for a Nerello Mascalese.

Two recent wines shows why Andrea is one of the great when it comes to interpreting the Nerello grape; 2008 Passopisciaro and 2009 Contrada Rampante. Both amazing wines but quite different in style. While 2008 was the great year, 2009 is perhaps expressing more Nerello typicity.

2008 Passopisciaro

Oh, what a beauty! Decanted for hours, it oozes of smoke, red cherries, a touch of bitter almond oil, dried flowers and wet rocks. Ripe berries but even if the alcohol content is 15 per cent, the bouquet never turns jammy or Kirsch like. The complexity is slowly starting to get there, which the wine reveals on the second day, but it’s still a young in its appearance. One of those you just want to sit and sniff. Until you find out that the taste is just as gorgeous…

Ripe red berries, a dash of gentle spice shop, leather, violets, cedar and wet earth. All backed up by a ripe tannin structure and a mouth-watering acidity. Again, 15 per cent alcohol; where are you? I know, one shall not care what the label says; it’s all about the general feeling a wine signals to you. But I can’t help but being impressed by the skill of Andrea, creating such an elegant and yet powerful Nerello. Do I need to say long finish? Give it three or four years to open up fully.

The grapes for the 2008 Passopisciaro were harvested in the end of October and the first days of November. Vines between 60-100 years of age planted with a density of 8,000 vines per hectar. Roughly one and a half year in French oak barrels (30-50 hl sized). If you think the yield, 44 Hl/Ha is low considering the density, wait until you hear about the next one, the:

2009 Contrada Rampante

If the Passopisciaro was an elegant glass, this is a step up when defining beauty. Perhaps due to the fact it has that ethereal feel to it? Again, red ripe cherries, spices and wet rocks. Anise. A bit herbal as well together with subtle violet notes. A touch of smoke, or is it more like tar? Mineral driven and purity itself. I’m in love.

Not as powerful on the palate as the Passopisciaro, more leaning towards complex and elegant all the way. Ripe tannins, cherries, plum skin, sage and violets. Mineral ooze en masse. Orange like acidity and sweet ripe fruit finish. Just drop dead gorgeous. How am I supposed to keep away from this one? Why save something that tastes amazing already? However, something’s telling me this will be even better in five or six years. By the way; aged in big oak casks not to disturb the fruit too much. That’s how a master works…

The vines for the single vineyard wine Rampante are on average 100 years old. With the identical planting density as the Passopisciaro, but on 1,000 meters above sea level and a yield saying 11 Hl/Ha. Low yielding old vines sure; it’s still easy to get impressed considering what risks Andrea’s has taken with this one. Last grapes harvested on the 10th of November!  One of the best Nerello’s I’ve tasted.

Want to buy the wines from Andrea Franchetti? Europeans can find an impressive assortment at Superiore. Outside Europe; check out Wine-Searcher.

PS. Are you following my Sicilian Wine Adventures? If not, check out the 25 previous ones here.

PS.2. I’m still scoring the wines I’m tasting, but will from 2012 stop declaring them. It’s a tool which helps me keeping track on everything. That however, I don’t need to share. When tasting wines like the 2009 Contrada Rampante one realizes how stupid it sounds with a score on such a seducer. I’m struggling to create my very own scale, in words, just to give a hint what the wine does to me. You want the score? Then mail me and I send it personally.

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