Monday, August 1, 2016

Cantina Benanti: A Mt Etna quality-wine marker

I first encountered a Benanti wine when I had a bottle of 2011 Pietra Marina at A16 in San Francisco in June of last year. 

I was blown away by the wine and described it thusly:
After having had a couple of days to think about it, I would describe this wine as "Neanderthal Assyrtiko" -- or "Caveman Assyrtiko" -- due to the brawn and heft accompanying the saline minerality and acidity. It was nutty and saline, with tar, florality, minerality (as much as I dislike that word), walnut, and a green herb. On the palate, lemony-lime, citrus rind, and blackpepper towards the rear. Balanced and consistent through all the tasting zones. Rustic (The combination of the rusticity, minerality, and tar being the neanderthal markers).
My next Benanti encounter took place at last year's Digital Wine Communications Conference (DWCC) in Plovdiv (Bulgaria) where Antonio Benanti participated in a panel on Mt Etna and led attendees in a tasting of two of the estate's wines. The session was very informative and reinforced my resolve to get to Mt Etna as soon as I could to further explore the wines of the region.

So it was with great anticipation that I set out on the visit that Brandon had arranged to the Benanti estate. Antonio was not going to be there (he was out of the country) but his twin brother Salvino and his dad would both be at the estate. We were also told that Benjamin Spencer, Director of Education for The Etna Wine School, would be visiting the estate around the same time with some clients.  I was excited because I had not seen Benjamin since the DWCC at Rioja two years previous.

The Benanti estate was founded in 1988 by Guiseppe Benanti, a Catania businessman who had conducted an extensive study of the soils of Mt. Etna with an eye to re-invigorating its moribund wine industry. The estate's initial vintage -- 1991 -- yielded 20,000 bottles, a figure that has grown to 130,000 annually (Etna Wine Lab). According to Nesto and di Savino, Salvo Foti, a man who brought with him "... a love of the mountain and a respect for the Etna culture of family production" was Benanti's "pioneering enologist" until 2011.

After the introductions were made, Salvino poured us the 2012 Benanti Pietra Marina. This was a very civilized way to begin a visit. The wine showed petrol, dried herbs, rosemary, thyme, and sawdust on the nose. On the palate it was bright, with lime, saline minerality and some drying characteristics. After that initial taste, Salvino took me for a walk up the hill to the Monte Serra vineyard.

I have previously described the climate and soils of Etna. As the estate sources grapes from all of the major slopes (see figure below), all of the characteristics discussed in the climate and soils posts apply.

Sources: Underlying map -- Wikipedia;
data --
The Monte Serra vineyard is on the southeast slope of the volcano and, according to Salvino, is planted to 6 ha of Nerello Mascalese and some Nerello Cappuccio. This vineyard was purchased in 1970. Some of the Nerello Mascalese vines are pre-phylloxera, ungrafted old vines. They are replaced with grafted vines upon death. The Sierra della Contessa single-vineyard wine is produced from a 1.7 ha plot of these old vines. Benanti recently purchased 2 ha of local orange groves which will be planted to vines in the near future. Two hectares of international varieties are also planted in this vineyard.

At the conclusion of the walk through we rejoined Brandon and began tasting a broader range of the Benanti wines. The first wine tasted was was a 2013 Etna Biancodicaselle. This wine is made fron Carricante grapes sourced from the villages of Caselle and Cavaliere. Lemon rind and minerality were the key characteristics of this wine.

We next tasted a 1995 Pietra Marina. Characteristics included petrol, orange, orange rind, burnt orange and some tropical notes to include sapodilla skin and pulp. A textured wine with orange notes on the palate giving away to to a long, spicy, drying finish.

The Etna Rosso 2014 is, according to Salvino, intended for restaurants by-the-glass programs. The wine is made from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capppuccio (20%) grapes and is aged in steel tanks. This wine is meant to be an introduction to Etna at an affordable price. Every importer (according to Salvino) buys this wine.

We also tasted 2011 and 2012 Rovitellos. This is a Nerello Mascalese-Nerello Cappuccio (10%), single-vineyard blend which has been aged for 12 months in barrique and an additional 12 months in bottle. Savory dried-herb note overlaying tobacco, cigar box (more prevalent in the 2011), mahogony, spice and fig. On the palate raisin, fig, dried and green herbs, spiciness, and an oily finish. Raisiny character more prevalent in 2011 but beautiful fruit character on both wines. The fruit masks some of the complexity of the 2011.

The Serra della Contessa is an old-vine, NM-NC (20%) blend from the Monte Serra vineyard. We tasted 2002 and 2012 vintages of this wine. Red fruit and tar along with a spiciness. Elegant and restrained with good acid levels. Sour finish with a hint of spice. The 2012 exhibited dark stewed fruit, spice, cigar box, tobacco leaf, and tar. On the palate big dark fruit, stemminess, and some structure. According to Salvino, they sell 1000 bottles of this wine a month out of the tasting room.

From left to right: Brandon Tokash, EWS Client1, Benjamin
Spencer, EWS Client2, Salvino Benanti, and author
Tasting lineup
As a part of our discussion I asked Salvino for his recommendations as to the best recent Etna vintages. For whites he pointed to 2009, 2006, 2001, and 2013. For reds he liked 2006, 2004, 2002, and 2011.

The wines of this estate are well regarded and the fact that the brothers are two of the most savvy social media practitioners in the wine industry aids in the positive perception of the brand.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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