Thursday, July 21, 2016

Conversations with Frank Cornelissen of Azienda Agricola Frank Cornelissen (Mt Etna, Sicily)

Very few names are as tightly linked to the emergent Etna quality wine market as is Frank Cornelissen's and it is a testament to Brandon's relationships in the region that his winery was the first scheduled visit on our Sicily tour.

Cornelissen casts a long shadow. According to Roberto Camuto (Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey):
Frank ... had come to Etna because he believed it was the one spot in the world where you could make a wine entirely free of all chemicals, additives and modernity both in the vineyards and in the winery. ... Among fellow winemakers ... Frank is generally respected as a perfectionist. Among hard core enthusiasts in northern Europe and Japan, Frank has developed a fan base for a miniscule production ...
Nesto and di Savino (The World of Sicilian Wine) described Frank as having helped ignite interest in Etna wine. "Since 2008, when he first visited Etna, he has tantalized both locals and wine cognoscienti with his boldly intuitive artisanal wines." And intuition is the key here as he had no formal training or background in winemaking prior to embarking on this venture. His prior relationship to the industry had been as a wine broker.

Prior to heading over to Frank, we paid a walk-in visit to Cantine Russo, a visit which both started and ended later than we had anticipated. Our appointment with Frank was at 11:00 at the winery in Solicchiata so Brandon drove like a bat out of hell between the two locations because Frank does not like people being late for their appointments. We pulled up on the nose and Frank was outside to see that we had done so. Brandon heaved a sigh of relief and then went to look for parking.

The driveway slopes rather steeply from street level to the winery entrance and Frank was down at the bottom conversing with an employee. At the conclusion of that conversation introductions were made and we headed over to the cellar entrance. On the inside of the entrance there was low-walled container semi-filled with some type of liquid and we were asked to douse the soles of our footwear into that liquid in order to "decontaminate " them. This was the very first time I had ever encountered this practice. This guy was definitely different.

Frank and Brandon
Looking around the cellar, I was greeted by unfamiliar sights. In your typical cellar you see stainless steel tanks, or cement tanks, or concrete eggs, or wooden vats. Not so here. Instead I experienced a number of mud-colored, plastic-looking containers (turned out to be fiberglass) and a jarring absence of the expected.

Cellarware
Frank walked over to a large map on one of the cellar walls and embarked on a disquisition of site and grape growing in the Etna region. According to Frank, Etna can be divided into four sides:
  • Western
    • This side has never been planted to vines (too cold)
  • Northern
    • This area gets more sun than the southern slopes
    • In this zone it is all about the vineyard
    • He sees it as the future Côte de Nuit with Nerello Mascalese and vineyard diversity as the vehicles
  • Southern
    • Variety is key here
  • Eastern
    • Variety is key here.


Etna growing zones
The northern zone stretches between the towns of Linguaglossa in the east to Randazzo in the west and it is from within this area that Frank sources the grapes for his wines. He farms between 18.5 and 24 ha, 10 ha of which is owned and the balanced leased. The vines are distributed between 12 red and 6 white vineyard sites in Linguaglossa and one red and one white vineyard site in Randazzo. The location of the vineyard sites are shown in the figure below.

Linguaglossa as the right-hand map; Randazzo as the left
 Frank is looking to buy a new property each year up until he gets to 30 ha. His goal currently is to purchase Chiusa Spagnola, a site in Linguglossa that he currently leases. The characteristics that he looks for in a site include exposure and quality/type of subsoil. He sees high-altitude vineyards as "precious" due to their greater access to light.

As it relates to farming practices, Frank is not a big fan of biodynamic farming. He sees it as beneficial if used as a cure rather than as a practice. For example, if a site is "dead," biodynamic farming could be used to regenerate the soil. That was the basis for Steiner's introduction of the method: an attempt to combat beaten-up soils in Europe. Intensive agriculture has not been practiced on Etna so the soils are in good shape. There is no need for biodynamic farming here.

Biodynamic farming as a concept is fine but biodynamic wine does not exist by principle, according to Frank. Steiner had eliminated alcohol from his diet because, he said, it takes away lucidity and reasoning. You can say wine made from biodynamically grown grapes but not biodynamic wine.

As opposed to biodynamic farming, Frank sees benefits to organic farming with homeopathic applications. Cornelissen is certified organic (Frank observed that organic certification had higher standards in the US than it did in Europe.).

As regards the future, if Etna producers have the will to clean up the mess (define and adhere to growing-region constraints), they will become like Barolo; if not, they will become like Brunello di Montalcino. Today there are similarities between Brunello and Etna. In his view, Etna will be the next Barolo.

There has been rapid change in the last 15 years (unusual for an agricultural area and for Italy) but the region is suffereing from a lack of artisanal producers. There is no shortage of investors but what is really needed is more medium-sized wineries with hands-on winemakers.

Etna has great potential, says Frank. He sees very few wine areas with similar diversity from vineyard to vineyard. Did someone say Burgundy?

I will cover Cornilissen winemaking and the tasting of his wines in a follow-up post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Barone di Villagrande (Milo, Sicily): slaking Mt Etna wine thirsts since 1727

On our return to Mt Etna (after a number of estate visits in the broader East Sicily), I spent the night at the Barone di Villagrande Resort -- co-located with the winery -- to facilitate an early morning cellar visit and tasting.

Pin indicates approximate location of estate in
Milo

Due to a very late arrival, I had not seen the property layout. I was floored when I went outside the following morning. The Resort provided a perfect vantage point from which to view the beauty of the multi-level amphitheater that was the vineyard.


Brandon was waiting in the courtyard so we stepped into the dining room for breakfast; and were immediately greeted by the warm, welcoming smiles of the office staff, a scene which was repeated every time I came into contact with a different member of the staff.

Marco Nicolosi (the owner and winemaker) was not in town so the visit was led by his wife, Barbara Liuzzo. She was ably assisted in this effort by Sebastiano Nolasco (Assistant Winemaker) and Giuseppe Rapisarda. We began the visit in the cellar but my initial line of questioning dictated a shift back outside to contextualize the source of the grapes.

The Barone di Villagrande estate has been growing grapes and making wine at the same location in Milo since 1727. The estate farms 14 ha there for its red, white, and Rosato wines and a smaller vineyard on the Island of Salina for the production of its Ripasso Malvasia (2400 bottles).

Because of its elevation -- 700 m on average -- maturation periods are lengthy with a relatively late harvest. The lengthy maturation period increases the complexity of the fermented wine. The altitude also contributes to a 30-degree differential in day-night temperatures in the spring and summer, aiding aroma and acidity retention. The area is subject to significant rainfall with an average of 1500 mm/yr. A steady wind aids in drying out the crop post rainfall vents.

In describing the soils upon which the Villagrande vines are planted, the staff mentioned that they were the beneficiary of the formation of the valle del bove. According to their understanding, and supported largely by at least one scholarly reference, the valle del bove was formed by the collapse of a dormant volcano. The collapse of the dormant volcano resulted in landslides which carried debris as far as the coat. The Villagrande location benefited from deposits of some of this complex soil as it worked its way towards the sea. The Villagrande soil is rich in iron and copper and has adequate amounts of potassium, phosphorous and magnesium. It is poor in nitrogen and calcium-free.

Varieties planted in Milo are the white indigenous grape Carricante as well as Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Capuccio, and Nerello Mantellato. The international varieties Merlot and Chardonnay are planted to support what Barbara calls family wines: Sciara (80% Merlot and 20% Nerello Mascalese) and Fiora (90% Carricante and 10% Chardonnay). The average vine age is 40 years with the vines trained, for the most part, Guyot, cordon-spurred, and the scion resting on 1103 Paulson rootstock.

The estate was certified biologic in 1989 and uses nature to combat vineyard pests and diseases. Strategically positioned bushes on the margins and at transition points in the vineyard provide a natural habitat for flora and fauna. Forests to the southeast and east provide protection from offshore winds. Trees from these forests are used as sources for chestnut barrels with the wood dried for 4 to 5 years at Villagrande before being sent off to Trapani in Marsala to be finished. Some sulfur is used from time to time to combat mildew.


Villagrande plants 3 ha of Malvasia delle Ripari on Salina Island for the production of a passito style wine from sun-dried grapes.

The cellar was built in 1858 to help realize a vision of dual production lines. Prior to its construction, everyone made a Rosato by blending red and white wines. Barone di Villagrande knew that it made a great white wine so decided to build this cellar to allow two production lines. The vats were built in place and the cellar built around it. The vats are made of chestnut and are either 22,000L, 18,000L, or 500L.

Vats built in the 1850s
Memories
Harvesting is done by hand and the appropriate date is set based on sugar:acid ratios (the estate seeks a 2:1 ratio). Selection is done in the field. The wines produced by the estate is shown in the table below.

Wine
Appellation
   Variet(y)ies
Training System
  Fermentation
Aging
Yield
Etna Bianco Superiore

DOC 
Carricante
Guyot, spurred cordon


50 hl/ha
Etna Rosso
do.
Nerello Mascalese (80%), Nerello Mantellato/Nerello Cappuccio (20%)

do.
On skins 6 - 10 days
12 mos barrel; 24 mos bottle
  do.
Etna Rosato

do.
Nerello Mascalese 90%, Carricante 10%
Guyot
On skins 12-18 hours

  do.
Sciara
IGT
Merlot (80%), Nerello Mascalese (20%)
Guyot, spurred cordon

On skin 20 days
18 - 24 mos 
in barrel; 6 mos in bottle
  do.
Fiore
do.
Carricante (90%), Chardonnay (10%)

do.
In wood
8 - 9 months in wood
  do.
Malvasia
DOC 
Malvasia delle Lipari (95%), Corinto Nero (5%)
Guyot
In sun on racks 8 - 10 days pre-fermentation

Bottled 18 months after harvest
  do.
Legno di Conzo
Etna Bianco Superiore DOC
Carricante
do.
In oak barrels
1 year in wood; 1 year in bottle



At the completion of our cellar tour, we repaired to the courtyard where a table had been set up -- overlooking the vineyard -- for us to taste through the wines. Each wine was paired with a suitable accompaniment.

Barbara Liuzzo preparing to lead us in a tasting
Idyllic setting for a tasting
Wine tasting accompaniments
Lineup of the wines tasted
The first wine tasted was the 2011 Malvasia. It was paired with an aged, honeyed sheep's milk cheese and a potato concoction with olive oil and Sicilian onions. The Malvasia had been sun-dried for 20 days in order to reduce the water content while retaining the natural sugar levels. It was a light golden color and had a slight matchstick nose. Dried herbs, dried figs, and sweet white fruit are recalled. The honey on the cheese complements, while its saltiness contrasts, the Malvasia.Twenty four hundred bottles of this wine are made annually.

The 2015 Etna Bianco Superiore was paired with green olives (grown on the property), olive oil, and bread. The wine exhibited white peach, white pear, white pear skin, and a vegetality. Savoriness and dried herbs also evident. On the palate, clean, lean, and austere with a slight green note. An average of 300,000 bottles of this wine are produced annually.

The Etna Rosato 2015 (3000 bottles) was paired with dried tomatoes plus a cold soup with a crunchy ham topping. Strawberries on the nose of the Rosato. Beautiful texture and taste. Strawberry richness. Lemony-lime acidity, a spiciness, and late-arriving, rear-deposited tannins. The acidity bursts on the palate. A mineral, clayey, chalky finish.

The Salina Bianco is made from a blend of Malvasia delle Lipari (40%), Ruxignola, Cattaratto, and Insolia. Aromatic with rosemary and green herbs evident. Thick and rich on the palate but dry. A grapefruit tanginess.

The Etna Bianco 2014 has sweet white fruits on the nose along with white fruit skins and golden apples. Layered. Citrus reigns on the palate. Good acidity. Juicy.

The 2012 Etna Rosso was unctuous with faded sweet strawberries, red plum, nutmeg, dried herbs, dried bark, and mahogany on the nose. Great weight on the palate along with strawberry, raspberry, and spice notes. Great acidity. Long, dried herb, spicy finish. The tannins and acidity tell of a long life to come.

Brandon, Barbara and Giuseppe
This was an extremely pleasurable morning. Barbara and her staff were unequalled. The estate has a story to tell and the wines are telling it. Oh, by the way, Brandon had a great time.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Landscapes and soils of the Mt Etna grape-growing region

"All Etna soil rests on, or directly derives from, lava that flowed and hardened for thousands of years, along with ejected pumice, lapilli, and windblown volcanic ash" (Nesto and di Savino). I explore the origins, composition and deployment of the region's soils in this post.

Historically, eruptive events at Mt Etna have been of the Strombolian style but occasional Hawaiian-style eruptions generate considerable lapilli fall on the flanks (The Strombolian and Hawaiian styles are described in the table below.). Large active volcanoes with the Etna eruptive style present some of the most complex soil-forming environments on earth (James, et al.).

Source: http://www.geology.sdsu.edu/how_volcanoes_work
Factors such as diversity in age and characteristics of volcanic materials, land surface morphology, local climate, vegetation, and land-use history all contribute to complex soil spatial patterns. In the profile dimension, complex soils result from intermittent tephra deposition, anthropogenic disturbance (in the case of Mt Etna, over 70% of the vineyards are terraced), erosion and subsequent deposition. According to James, et al., "soil profiles may reflect the amount and frequency of tephra deposition as much as 'normal' profile-forming soil processes operating on stable surfaces."

Landscape Formation
Volcanism in the Etna region began during the middle Pleistocene, at around 600 ka. The peak today stands at 3350 m elevation and the base is 40 km across. At elevations below 1100 m, lava varies in age from the 2014/2015 flow to the 500,000-year-old tholeitic basalts of a small area on the lower part of the southern flank (James, et al.). The terrain of historical (12th century to today) flows, as well as some pre-historic flows, is dominated by aa lava (basaltic lava with a rough surface, pahoehoe (basaltic lava with a smooth or billowy surface), and toothpaste (transition between aa and pahoehoe) morphology (James, et al.).

On Etna, depositive explosive activity from the summit crater is frequent with less frequent eruptions, often with higher effusive rates, from the flank vents and Strombolian activity from vents high on the volcano. The tephra varies in deposition rate and particle size with distance and direction from the source and accumulates unevenly on rugged lava surfaces. As an example, areas on the western and northwestern slopes of Mt Etna are barren rockscapes due to insufficient topsoil for significant vineyard development.

Soil Formation
As described above, volcanic activity of Mt Etna is both effusive (lava flows) and explosive (airborne ejection of pyroclastics). According to Nesto and di Savino, the lava flows create a patchwork of terroirs that is pertinent to any discussion of Etna contradas. Initial flows are barren rock pasteurized by heat which, after cooling, require hundreds of years to erode into soil and develop hummus, and, in so doing, become suitable for vines. The erosion product is sand rich in potassium and other minerals. Organic matter, created initially by the growth of micro-organisms (and later by plants and animals), results in rich, fertile soil.

But, according to Marco Perciabobco (Department of Agriculture, Sicily Region), soil parent material in the Etna environment is primarily pyroclastic material (My prior post on volcanic soils detail the weathering of these materials). Weathering of this coarse-textured parent material, according to Marco, produces soils with an "aerated hypogeal (underground) environment and the following characteristics:
  • Extremely well suited for the growth and development of vine roots
  • Soil water stagnations are rare
  • They warm easily (this generates stable conditions for the occurrence of the chemical reactions required for the weathering of the finest materials.


Soil Distribution
According to Perciabobco, the Department of Agriculture's soil survey dataset shows five different landscape systems in Etna: northern; northwestern; eastern; southeastern; and southern. The soils of these environments differ in the degree of weathering of the primary clay minerals. From north to south wetness decreases and so does weathering of the volcanic constituents. The soils of the northern landscape, when compared to the soils of the south, are finer textured, have a higher organic matter content, and a have a higher value of cation-exchange capability.

Bibliography
Bill Nesto MW and Frances di Savino, The World of Sicilian Wine.
James, et al., Development and spatial distribution of soils on an active volcano: Mt Etna, Sicily.
Sonia Calvari and Harry Pinkerton, Lava Tube Morphology on Etna and evidence for lava flow emplacement mechanisms, J Volcanol Geotherm Res 90 (3-4) 1999.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, July 11, 2016

Climate in the Mt. Etna grape-growing region

In a recent Mt. Etna wine masterclass held in London, Ian D'Agata pronounced that a combination of three factors contribute to the "special" nature of the region's wines: (i) an alpine climate in a Mediterranean land; (ii) volcanic soils: and (iii) the predominance of of ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines (http://www.decanter.com/wine-news/opinion/the-editors-blog/etna-wines-volcanic-soil-306217/). In this post I will explore the first of the mentioned factors.

At 3,350 m (10, 991 feet), Mt. Etna is the highest mountain in Sicily. Marco Perciabobco of the Department of Agriculture, Sicily Region, describes the region's climate as "mesotermic humid sub-tropical with dry summers." He sees it as a typical Mediterranean climate characterized by an average temperature (coldest month < 18℃, in warmest month > 22℃) and a rainy period mostly concentrated in the autumn and winter months. Rainfall in the region is distributed as follows: between 1.000 and 1.200 mm/yr on the northern, eastern, and southeastern slopes and 500 mm/yr on the southwest slopes.

According to Nesto and di Savino (The World of Sicilian Wine), at the highest elevations for viticulture, the climate is similar to North Italy's, becoming more Sicilian as you proceed downslope. As a result, growing environments differ depending on altitude and aspect.

Etna elevation map. Source: mmsolucoesweb.com.br
The chart below shows the impact of altitude on the grape-growing environment. According to Nesto and di Savino, conditions at the highest elevations are particularly helpful for white and rosato wines and grapes used in their production can be found growing as high as 1300 m (4265 feet). These high-elevation climatic conditions also reduce the incidence of vine pests and diseases and naturally limits vine yield. Below 900 m, conditions become more suitable for red wine production.


As shown on the below chart, growing conditions are also significantly impacted by aspect.

Data from Nesto and di Savino

The Nebrodi Mountains offer some protection to the north slope of Mt Etna but some wind does make it over the top, bringing rain in the autumn and winter and moisture year-round. There are some benefits to this moisture though. The runoff, unlike the case for the runoff on the eastern and southeastern slopes, proceeds downhill at a moderate pace and is absorbed by the lava beneath the soil, This water store then becomes available to the vine roots during the growing season. The major beneficiary of this process is the area between the towns of Solicchiata and Randazzo. The wind from the northeast blows steam from the vents to the southeast creating a shadow which serves to reduce evaporation.

The southeast and eastern slopes are unprotected form the autumn and winter rains but the combination of rapid runoff and early morning sun contribute to their attractiveness as growing regions (especially for whites).

The west slopes are generally the worst for quality wine production because of the late arriving sun.

I will cover the Mt Etna soils in my next post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Volcanic soils

During my recent visit to Sicily, I was able, thanks to the connectedness of my good friend Brandon Tokash, to spend three days in the Mt Etna region visiting producers and tasting a broad selection of wines. A key determinant of the character of those wines is the volcanic soil on which the vines are grown. I would, therefore, like to spend some time reviewing volcanic soils, in general, and Mt. Etna soils, specifically, prior to sharing my actual experiences in the region. I begin with the following mini review of volcanic soils.

According to V. E. Neall, volcanic soils cover only 1% of the earth's surface but supports approximately 10% of the world's population, the latter fact attributable to its high natural fertility. Volcanic soils are wholly derived from volcanic parent material and are distributed globally as shown in the map below.


Parent material escapes the volcano either as a result of lava flows or volcaniclastic events. According to Neall, only strong tropical weathering will reduce lavas to finer-grained volcanic soils and soils formed from this source are usually of low fertility. Further, of soils formed from lava, basaltic lavas (low viscosity, ability to flow large distances on low gradients) are the most significant source of parent material.

Soils from volcaniclastic parent material are, on the other hand, very productive. Volcaniclastics are usually classified as of pyroclastic (explosive) or epiclastic (erosional) origin. The figure directly below shows the origin and components of these two classes while the figure following shows the grain-size classification of volcanic fragments and rocks.


Source: http://www.virtual-geology.info/sediments-and-
strata/volcgs.html
Formation of volcanic soils from parent material is effected through a combination of two processes: (i) the formation of non-crystalline materials (active Al and Fe compounds) and (ii) the accumulation of organic matter (Neall). This combination of processes is termed "andosolization" and its extent is affected by time, climate, the proportion of volcanic glass in the parent material, and grain size and vesicularity of the parent material (Neall; Ugolini and Dahlgren):
  • Andisols form rapidly in humid climates and alter to other soil orders as soil age and degree of weathering increases
  • Volcanic soils contain differing levels of volcanic glass
    • The lower-silica, higher mafic (high magnesium and iron) volcanics weather more rapidly than higher silica, lower mafic (high sodium and potassium) volcanics
  • A dense, high-silica, igneous volcanic rock will weather more slowly than a less dense and highly vesicular pumice (rocks containing holes made by gas escaping from cooling lava) of identical composition.
The first component of volcanic rocks to undergo weathering is volcanic glass and, as shown in the figure below, it weathers to a clay type called a short range order clay (SROC) which is characterized by a weak degree of crystallinity. The allophane and imogolite clays differ primarily in their shapes, with the allophane presenting as hollow spherules and the imogolite as a "tubular, thread-like material."


Selected characteristics of Andisols are presented in the figure below while the development of volcanic soils in varying climatic environments are presented in the figure following.


According to Neall, volcanic soils are usually the dominant soil in young volcanic landscapes. "Surrounding the volcano, and for large distances downwind, there may be a wide variety of landscapes upon which fine ash has accumulated over thousands of years by tephra accretion."On lowlands, that tephra could have accumulated to great thickness, providing deep, fertile volcanic soils. In hilly landscapes, erosional activity may have resulted in relatively thin soil profiles.

Shoji and Takahashi view the significance of volcanic ash soils thusly:
  • The periodic additions of volcanic ash generally improve the soil physical and chemical properties and renew the soil productivity
  • They accumulate a large amount of organic carbon and nitrogen as important components of soil organic matter that are the main source of nitrogen for plants and various nutrients and energy for soil organisms
  • The accumulation of carbon is important in the sequestration of atmospherreic carbon dioxode, one of the most important greenhouse gases
  • Soils with well-developed structure can hold a large amount of plant-available water.
Giovanni Ponchia, lead oenologist for the Soave Consorzio, identifies volcanic rocks as having a high level of macro-porosity in soils and "these pores allow the rocks to store water up to 100% of their weight and then release it very slowly thanks to their high water retention coefficient." This quality renders the rocks a very important source of water for vine root systems, "especially in years with little rainfall or even drought."

Bibliography
Fiorenzo C. Ugolini and Randy A. Dahlgren, Soil Development in Volcanic Ash.
Daniel Scheffer, Volcanic Soils produce unique wines, Style, South China Morning Post, March 2015.
McDaniel, P.A., Lowe, D.J., Arnalds, O., Ping, C.-L., 2012. Andisols. In: Huang, P.M., Li, Y,  Sumner, M.E. (editors) “Handbook of Soil Sciences. 2nd edition. Vol. 1: Properties and Processes”. CRC Press (Taylor & Francis), Boca Raton, FL, pp.33.29-33.48. 
Murcia et al., Volcaniclastic deposits: terminology and concepts for a classification in Spanish, Rev. Geol. Amér. Central n.48 San Pedro de Montes de Oca Jun. 2013.
Sadao Shoji and Tadashi Takahashi, Agricultural and Agricultural Significance of Volcanic Ash Soils
V. E. Neall,Volcanic Soils, Land Use, Land Cover, and Soil Sciences -- Vol III, Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems.
http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/soils/survey/class/maps/?cid=nrcs142p2_053592, Andisols.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cantine Paolo Cali (Vittoria, Sicily): Vineyard tour and tasting

After an appetizing early breakfast at Locando Cos, we drove over to Cantine Paolo Cali for the second phase of our visit.

Breakfast at Locando Cos on the COS estate
Paolo welcomed us, indicating that we would begin the day with a drive into one of the estate's vineyards. Before, during, and after that vineyard tour, Paolo sought to shed light on the estate's origins, philosophy and practices. That dialog is weaved in with my observations and perceptions.

According to Paolo, the estate has been in his family since 1780. There were vineyards here when he was a kid and coming here to play. Those vineyards had apparently been abandoned because, according to the estate's website, there was a replanting in 1990. The estate was turned over to Paolo by his father in 2008.

Cantine Paolo Cali is located in the Salmé district of Vittorio in the heart of the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG and Vittoria DOC regions. Within the larger estate, 15 ha of organic vineyards are planted on pre-historic marine dunes at elevations of 180 m. Two of plots -- Forfice and Frappato -- are planted on these beach sands.

As we drove between the rows, Paolo pointed out the sandy portions, which stood in sharp contrast to the redder soils in other portions of the same vineyard. The sand is approximately 8 m thick and is undergirded by a limestone bedrock. These dunes were under the sea at sometime in the distant past, a sea which is currently 10 km away from these vineyards.

The vineyards are planted to the indigenous red varieties Frappato and Nero d'Avola. The Nero d'Avolo vines are between 10 and 15 years old, planted on 114RUG rootstocks, and are cordon-trained. Planting density is 5000 vines/ha. The white wines are made from Grillo grapes grown in Bulera at 350 m on limestone-rich clay with many rocky outcroppings.

As he reached down and threaded the soil through his fingers, Paolo began a discourse on its impact on the wines. "Because of the soil, there are no muscular wines here. The wines, instead, are fine, elegant, and possess some salinity."

All vineyard operations are manual in nature to include hoeing, planting, dry and green pruning, and green harvesting. The estate utilizes canopy management in order to extend the growing season for up to three weeks.

No chemicals or fertilizers are used in the vineyard but the vines are subjected to copper sulfate spraying four to five times per year. In terms of pests, the vineyard hosts crickets that burrow down and eat the root structure. There is no defense other than to turn the soil over, moving the crickets temporarily away from the vulnerable deeper roots.

The arid conditions dictate (deficit) irrigation two to three times per year.

Grapes are harvested by hand with the pick-decision based on taste. There is rigorous selection during harvesting. Fermentation is conducted in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks with natural yeasts.

Paoli Cali explaining the vines and training system
Vineyard pruning in background; Paoli and Vineyard Labor
Supervisor in foreground
Vineyard and soils. Note Albarello end-cap
As we worked our way back to the tasting room Paolo reflected on the perception of the wines of the region: "People think of Sicilian wines as powerful but in the eastern part, the wines are fine, elegant, light in color, and more perfumed. The soil and the climate dictate the wine style in this area. The soil is sandy so you are not going to be able to get concentration. The Cerasuolo style here is perfumed, fine, no big structure, and easy to drink."

Our tasting started out with a 2015 Grillo. Paolo said that that had not been a great vintage in the region. The wine exhibited pineapple, grapefruit, and a florality on the nose. On the palate, sapid and mineral with great texture and weight. A ferrous character. This wine was fermented with selected yeasts. Paolo was very happy with this particular Grillo.

The second wine tasted was a 2015 Frappato Rosata (IGT Siciliana). For Paolo, this was one of the estate's most important wine. They were the first company to produce a rosé in Sicily. They have since changed the way they make this wine. Previously it had more color and alcohol but, since 2015, they changed to a Provence style. In his thoughts, a Rosé must be a wine with its own intensity. "If you make a Rosé, you make a Rosé as a Rosé, rather than a Rosé as a second wine."

They select the grapes specifically for this wine. In 2015 they harvested pre-ripeness and got a fresh Rosé with light color and more acidity. After harvest, the grapes are cooled down to 8℃. When he likes the color, after four to five days, he de-stems and removes the seeds. The juice is then warmed to 60 degrees and fermented with selected yeasts. 4g/L of sugar is added and the wine chilled to 0℃ in order to arrest fermentation, resulting in CO₂ petillance. It is held at 0℃ until bottling and is clarified naturally.

This wine was salmon-colored. Strawberry and cherry on nose. Unctuous with a richness. Bright acidity and spiciness. Rust character.

The next wine tasted was the 2014 Mandragola, a 100% Frappato wine. This wine was aromatic with red fruit, dried herbs, chalk and carob on the nose. Good weight and full on the mouth. Red cherries. Good acidity. Bitter finish. From 2015 on this wine will be vinified in barriques.

Paolo sees Nero d'Avola as an important wine for Eastern Sicily and his estate's contribution in this area is a 100% variety named Violino. On the nose savory, kerosene, phenolic, with plum and carob notes. The kerosene character carries through to the palate. Broad-based fruit with good acidity and late-arriving tannins

Jazz is a Frappato (55%)-Nero d'Avola (45%) blend. We tasted the 2015 vintage of this wine. Paolo chose this blend as a friendlier, easier-drinking wine. It is cleaner because of the high levels of Frappato. Fruit very evident but with high levels of acidity.

Manene is classed as a Cerasuolo di Vittorio Classico and was the winery's first entry in the class. The wine is named after his son. The blend in this wine is 60% Nero d'Avola and 40% Frappato. The 2012 version that we tasted exhibited nuttiness on nose and a savoriness, dried herbs, earth, dust, red cherries, bright acidity, and liveliness on the palate.

Forfice is also a Classico DOCG but is made from grapes sourced from a specific plot of the same name. The Frappato and Nero d'Avola are macerated together for 100 days before being co-vinified. The wine is aged for 36 months in 30 hL oak barrels and then spend another 6 months in bottle. Nuttiness, savoriness, dried herbs and sawdust on the nose along with cherries and strawberries.

Lineup of wines tasted

As a capper to the morning Paolo brought out a bottle of 1932 Cerasuolo. As he explained it, this was a family wine that has been stored in a 250 L chestnut vat and is only tapped for special events like holidays, festivals, and family occasions. He was somewhat sheepish in offering it, apologizing ahead of time for any injury that it might cause. He had nothing to apologize about.

The wine was golden in color, providing a visual clue to the presence of oxidative notes (or oxidation). On the nose, an elegant tawny port, figs, dates, walnuts, coffee, dried cocoa, and burnt orange. On the palate smooth, balanced with a surprising amount of acid still present after all these years. Oxidative notes that struck the right tones. Surprisingly different than what I was expecting. Still a lot of life left in this baby. Long, smooth tropical finish. I luxuriated in this wine and rued the fact that we had to leave abruptly -- with most of the bottle still intact -- in order to get to another appointment.


This was an excellent visit. Paolo was the perfect host throughout and his estate is producing wines of very high quality. One other intangible: he has a story to tell about his estate and he does so with enthusiasm and great emotion.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Visit with Paolo Cali (Cantine Paolo Cali, Vittoria, Sicily): Dinner at Quattro Quarti

After a scintillating and thought-provoking session with Frank Cornelissen at his winery (details in a future post), Brandon Tokash and I headed out on a 2.5-hour jaunt from Castiglione di Sicilia to Vittoria. Our home base for the two days we were spending in the area was Locando Cos, the Inn on the grounds of the COS estate so we headed there first to deposit our luggage and to compose ourselves for our late afternoon visit to Cantine Paolo Cali.

We were neither of us very familiar with the roads in the area so Brandon drove and I had navigation duty (an especially daunting task when you ran into coverage dark spots).

When we pulled into Cantine Paolo Cali (after listening to Brandon's lengthy story of how he had spent two hours lost and driving around this area sometime in the past) twilight was setting in. Brandon called Paolo on the telephone so that he could open the gate and it was with some relief that I saw the gate begin to slowly open. It was then that I realized how much I had been traumatized by Brandon's "lost-in-the-Sicilian-hinterlands" story.


The winery sat within a walled enclosure with buildings on both sides of a courtyard and a small, glass-fronted building in the center of the courtyard, directly opposite the main entrance. Within that small building there was a central table with accompanying chairs; and almost every inch of the table was covered with partly filled wine bottles. The building was occupied by two adult males and a boy.

Brandon introduced us. One of the men was Paolo Cali, the proprietor, and the kid was his son. The other adult male was Emiliano Falsini, the estate's consulting Enologist who was visiting from Tuscany. We had walked in on a blending session.

After shooting the breeze for a while, and informally tasting  a few wines, we headed out to dinner. The restaurant where we were dining is called Quattro Quarti and is located on the main promenade of Marina di Ragusa, a seaside town in Southern Sicily. The setting was welcoming with banks of seating stretching away from the entrance both straight ahead as well as along the restaurant's sea-facing flank.



During the time we had spent at the tasting room, I had been intrigued by the sight of Paolo's son -- his name is Emanuele -- scurrying about opening bottles, translating for his dad, and explaining some aspects of the estate's operations. While we were waiting for our drinks, I engaged him in a discussion about his role and objectives. He is 17 years old, is a wine fanatic, and fully expects to come into his father's business sometime in the near future. He has been to Vinitaly for 12 years in a row to promote the estate's wines. I have yet to make my inaugural trip to Vinitaly.

Emanuele Cali
Brandon Tokash and Cantine Paolo Cali
oenologist Emiliano Falsini
Paolo Cali of Cantine Paolo Cali and oenologist Emiliano Falsini
We ordered a bottle of Il Grillo di Santa Tresa Spumante Brut and followed up with a Billecart Salmon Brut Reserve. During the course of our discussion and drinks, the proprietor brought over his suggestion for dinner: a barely dead giant fish surrounded by a brace of only slightly smaller shellfish. The guys in the know nodded their approval and he took it away to begin the preparation. If I had only known.


The first course to hit our table was an antipasti, a cornucopia of colors, textures and flavors that teased the eyes and then the palate. I tried to go light on this but even taking a small portion of each offering meant that you ended up with a bunch of stuff on your plate. And I was cognizant that there was still other food in the offing.



Then the shellfish that I had seen bracketing the giant fish earlier showed up, this time the stars of their own show. And the five of us had to wade through this mound. I took a few pieces but once I had cleared my plate Paolo was ready with another serving.


By this time the night was becoming long in the tooth and I was hoping that they had forgotten about the fish. No such luck. It showed up drowned in a butter sauce garnished with olives and potato slices. Beautifully presented and tasty. A shame that I could not acquit myself in an honorable manner.



After closing the restaurant down we headed back to our cars. We followed Paolo until we got to our turn off and made our way back to our residence without any problems. No two hours driving around for Brandon on this trip.

The plan was to meet Paolo for a vineyard tour and full tasting on the morrow. I was excited. I liked Paolo and his kid.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme