Friday, February 17, 2017

Pre-Phylloxera vines and albarello training in Mt Etna viticulture

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 ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines ( I have previously discussed the unique Etna climate and its volcanic soils and contradas. In this post I discuss these pre-Phylloxera vines and their historic training system.

French vineyards had been decimated by the Phylloxera infestation of the late 1860s, causing French winemakers to cast far afield for sources of supply to fulfill the consumer demand for wine. The French misfortune led to increased demand for wines from Spain, Algeria, and Sicily. According to Eric Asimov, the heyday of demand for Etna wines from France saw a total of 48,562 ha planted to vines on the mountain.

As was the case for Algeria and Spain, Phylloxera did eventually invade Etna but the impact was most felt at altitudes of 400 m and below where sedimentary sols dominated. According to Nesto and di Savino (The World of Sicilian Wine), the decimated vineyards at those altitudes were replaced with citrus fruit trees and new vineyards were planted at higher altitudes where the soils had greater proportions of lava rock and volcanic sand and were resistant to the depradations of the aphid. According to the authors, these new vineyards joined an existing belt of vineyards resident on the northern slope between Solicchiata and Randazzo.

The remnants of that belt of vineyards are today's pre-Phylloxera vineyards of which Ian D'Agata speaks so highly. The picture directly below shows a pre-Phylloxera vine from the Tenuta delle Terre Nere vineyard while the table below that shows a selection of labels from these old vines.

Pre-phylloxra vine. Source:

Table 1: A selection of the pre-Phylloxera vineyards used in wines from Etna.
Producer Label Vineyard Contrada Size (ha) Vineyard Age (yrs) Training System
I Vigneri Vinupetra Calderara Feudo di Mezzo
100 Albarello

Vinudilice Bosco

100+ do.
Tenuta Terre Nere Prephylloxera Don Peppino Calderara Sottano
130 - 140 do.
Graci Quota 1000

100+ do.
Pietradolce Vigna Barbagalli Barbagalli Rampante

80 - 100 do.

Rampante Barbagalli Rampante

80 - 100 do.

Archineri Etna Bianco

100 - 120 do.
Frank Cornelissen Magma Rosso


100+ do.

Munjebel Rosso Chiusa Zottorinoto Chiusa Spagnolo

90+ do.

Munjebel Rosso Vigne Alta

Barbabecchi, Tartaraci, Monte Dolce

90+ do.

Munjebel Bianco Vigne Alta


90+ do.

And these pre-Phylloxera vineyards had all been albarello-trained (As were all vines planted prior to the introduction of the Guyot training system.). Albarello training was well suited to the Etna environment. According to Nesto and di Savinio:
  • Its free-standing configuration aids in withstanding the high winds to which the mountain is prone
  • The 360-degree exposure to light aids in the ripening of the fruit
  • The black soil readily absorbs radiation from the sun and warms up. The low training of the vines allow them to take advantage of that heat and ripen the grapes faster than would other training systems
  • This low training also allows for more rapid evaporation of water through the skin of the ripe fruit, resulting in greater sugar concentration in the fruit (and higher alcohol in the wine)
  • The vine conserves the humidity arising from the ground, a plus in dry growing conditions.
Albarello-trained vines in Etna are planted at densities of 8000 to 10,000 vines/ha dictating costly manual labor for vineyard work. Many of the old vineyards have lost their uniformity due to the practice of replacing damaged vines by sticking one of the branches into the ground where it takes root.

The Albarello system was dominant on the mountain until growers turned first to the Guyot system -- the first half of the 20th century -- and  the cordon-spur system -- beginning in the 1950s -- for new vineyard plantings.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The significance of Contrade in Etna wine production and labeling

The Etna DOC, brought into being by a 1968 Decree, was the first of its type in Sicily and it established wine and labeling requirements as follows:
  • Etna DOC Rosso -- to be made from the indigenous varieties Nerello Mascalese (> 80%) and Nerello Cappuccio (< 20%) plus up to 10% of other non-aromatic grape varieties (red or white)
  • Etna DOC Rosato -- same as for Rosso
  • Etna DOC Bianco -- to be made from Carricante (> 60%), Catarratto (< 40%), and up to 15% of other non-aromatic grapes such as Minella or Trebbiano
  • Etna DOC Bianco Superiore -- to be made from Carricante (> 80%) and Catarratto or Minella (< 20%). All grapes to be sourced exclusively from the area of Milo on the eastern side of the volcano.
The decree also named the 20 communities which would comprise the DOC production zone.

A ministerial decree dated September 27, 2011 has updated the requirements of the 1968 decree as regards production zones and labeling requirements. The decree lists 133 contrade with defined borders within the DOC and allows for placement of contrada names on the label if all the grapes used in the wine were sourced from the subject contrada. In this post I will define the contrada and its significance to winemaking in the Etna region.

In their explanation of the formation of contrade, Nesto and di Savino (The World of Sicilian Wine) state thusly:
Lava flows radiate down from Etna's summit, more or less, like the spokes of a wheel from a hub ... All Etna soil rests on or directly derives from lava that has flowed and hardened for thousands of years, along with ejected pumice, lapilli, and windblown volcanic ash. There are lava flows upon lava flows upon lava flows. The hardened flows on the surface each have a different age and different soil constituents. describes the same process a little more colorfully and, further, relating it to territories and wine:
Thousands of mouths across a fifty-kilometer diameter on Mount Etna have spit lava from every different depth under the earth, covering the surface of the volcano where vines take root. Flowing lava -- descending sometimes dense and slow, at times fast as water - eventually stops, spreading and hardening at various altitudes. After cooling for many years, these flatter areas over the centuries become established properties, each one producing a different taste of wine because of the different mineral origin of their soils and, more importantly, because of the grain that the lava had broken into during its cooling process: sand, gravel, powder, or rock. Under the same old names the properties became territorial subdivisions called contrade, and, with regards to wine, they represent Etna's own version of a cru.
Contrade as territorial designations have gone the way of the dodo bird but not so its relevance for wine. According to Nesto and di Savino, of the cadre of new winemakers to breach the Etna walls in the early 2000s, Marc de Grazia was the first to "promote the connection between Burgundy Crus and Etna contradas and between contradas and and lava flows." Further, say the authors, "Certain Etna producers support contrada labeling because it connects Etna to the concept of terroir and, from a marketing standpoint, models Etna on Burgundy, the wine zone with which the concept of terroir is most associated."

But de Gracia sees the new Minesterial decree in an even more brilliant light (
I have no hesitation in defining the achievement of historic significance for the appellation. Not only has it reinstated and classified identities that had traditionally been accepted for centuries. It has laid the foundations upon which future generations, strong of a deeper experience, may define and circumscribe still more complex subdivisions, breaking down the just established crus into fractions whose boundaries we can sometimes already gleam ... Just as Burgundy can proudly display its tantalizing variations of Pinot Noir, so Etna will now be able to offer the subtle nuances of its Nerello Mascalese.
Salvatore Giuffrida, the consulting agronomist for Valentini, Gambino and the IRW, cautions against this focus on the mineral content in the lava flows. Speaking to Nesto and di Savino, he indicated that exposure, soil depth, and elevation had greater impacts on vines and wine flavor than did the mineral differences between lava flows.

Winemakers across the region have hearkened to the practice and advice of early adapters such as de Graci and Franchetti and are producing contrada/cru wines in greater numbers. The table below shows a small sampling of the contrade that can be found on Etna wine labels today.

Frank Cornelissen ID of his contrada grape sources.

Table 1: A Selection of Etna Contrade.
Cru Estate # of Parcels Size (ha) Elevation (m) Soil Notes
Calderara Sottano Delle Terre Nere

600 - 700 Rockiest cru in the appellation; black volcanic pumice carpets vineyard

Guardiola Delle Terre Nere

800 - 900 Very poor soil; volcanic sand mixed with basaltic pebbles and traces of ash Both vineyards steeply sloped and slightly terraced


800 - 1000 On the edge of the flow from the 1947 eruption

Feudo di Mezzo Delle Terre Nere

Loose, deep volcanic ash with small volcanic pebbles Terraced, traditional albarello plantings

Frank Cornelissen


Porcaria Vineyard

Girolamo Russo


Santo Spirito Delle Terre Nere

Loose, deep, fine, jet-black volcanic ash

Arcuria Graci
600 - 660 Brown rich texture of volcanic origin; pH-neutral; non-calcareous; from rich to very rich in iron; high nitrogen content NM (15 ha), Carricante (1.5 ha), Catarratto (1 ha)
Barbabecchi Graci

1000 - 1100
2 ha of pre-Phylloxera NM
Monte Serra Benanti

Sandy, volcanic, very rich in minerals with subacid reaction.

Ronzini Biondi

640 - 700 Volcanic soil, red pumice Parcels are named Chianta and Cisterna Fuori
San Nicolo’ Biondi


Barbabechi Frank Cornelissen


Chiusa Spagnola Frank Cornelissen


Monte Colla Frank Cornelissen


San Lorenzo Girolamo Russo

700 - 800 Young, porous, rich volcanic rock with outcropping of older bedrock

Feudo Girolamo Russo


Chiappemacine Passopisciaro

Lies on the last outreach of Mount Etna’s lava; limestone bed beneath

Porcaria Passopisciaro

Frail sheet of lava that splinters underfoot Considered Mt Etna’s most famous and sought after contra
Sciaranuova Passopisciaro

On relatively new, 200-yr-old lava flow that has turned into thick gravel

Rampante Passopisciaro

Sandy character


A few points of note:
  • As is the case for Burgundy, many of the crus are farmed by multiple estates. In the table above, both Delle Terre Nere and Passopisciaro farm on Contrada Guardiola while three estates farm on Feudo di Mezzo.
  • The label on a vineyard may not always be at the contrada level. It could be a vineyard within a cru or a brand name. In the table above Ciro Biondi has two wines named Chianta and Cisterna but these both happen to be vineyard names of plots within the Ronzini Contrada. Further, while not shown here, there is an area called Pietramarina but the Benanti-labeled Pietra Marina is made from grapes sourced from Milo on the east side of the volcano.
  • There are still some gaps in the interpretations of these conventions. For example, Cornelissen refers to a Porcaria Vineyard in the Feudo di Mezzo contrada while Passopisciaro speaks of a Contrada Porcaria. 
We will be especially vigilant in seeking out these contrada-related differences in the wines we taste later this week.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme