Saturday, June 17, 2017

Andrea Franchetti and Passopisciaro: Early (and continuing) shapers of the Mt Etna wine direction

According to Nesto and di Savino (The World of Sicilian Wine):
Giuseppe Benanti, guided by the enologist Salvo Foti, had tried in the 1990s to bring Etna and his estate, Benanti, to the attention of greater Italy and the world. But this was not enough. As is so often in history, and particularly the history of Sicily, it took outsiders to bring attention and value to local realities. ... In 2000 Etna's wine industry awakened suddenly. Foreign attention and capital arrived. The newcomers Frank Cornelisen from Belgium, Marc de Grazia from Florence, and Andrea Franchetti from Rome bought vineyards on Etna and became evangelists of its potential (Ed. note: Andrea stipulates that Marc de Grazia came to Etna a little after Frank and him.).
Franchetti comes from a famous and wealthy Roman family that is linked to the Frankfurt Rothschilds. He came to Etna (from his Tuscan estate called Tenuta di Trinoro) looking for high-altitude vineyards where the grapes would mature in the cool of autumn and settled on Passopisciaro on Etna's north face. Franchetti's first wine was a Nerello (Passapisciaro 2001) but, as he states in a personal communication, "I tried to make a Nerello that I liked right away, but wasn't able, until 2005 when I finally started getting it. Since then our Nerello has been, I think, getting better because of new touches in the winemaking." He began planting Petit Verdot which he blended with Cesanese d' Affile to make a wine he called Franchetti.

In 2008 Franchetti created and sponsored a wine fair called Le Contrade dell 'Etna where the region's producers showcase their wines -- within the contrada context -- to the wine press and enthusiasts. This fair was held at Franchetti's estate for a while and then moved to the Graci estate. This year it was held in the open at Castello Romeo Randazzo in Montelaguardia.

Carlo Franchetti, Andrea's cousin, began growing Pinot Noir grapes on a 45-ha estate called Sancaba located on the borderlands of Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio. Andrea became involved in the project and, in 2014, they combined the two Tuscan estates and the Etna holding under a single umbrella called Vini Franchetti.

I had become friendly with Carlo on Instagram and when he discovered that I was going to this year's Contrada, he invited me to lunch at the estate with their other guests on the day of. When Letizia Patanè, Vini Franchetti Export Manager US and Asia, reached out to me with the formal invite, I asked about visiting both the Passopisciaro and Tenuta di Trinoro estates (Brandon Tokash had already been working on setting up a visit to the former but the date and time had not yet been finalized.). Shortly after that initial contact Letizia came back with two potential dates for the Etna visit and indicated that Carlo would be leading me on the tasting in Tuscany on the Friday of Contrada week.

Brandon, Lidia, and I attended the lunch at Passopisciaro and all met Carlo for the first time. We had to dodge a few raindrops (we were sitting outside) but a great time was had by all. It was at lunch that I met Sarah Bray, Vini Franchetti US Brand Ambassador, and found out that she would be the one leading us on the Wednesday tour.

Carlo Franchetti, author, Brandon Tokash, and Lidia Rizzo

Sarah was ready and waiting when we arrived and proposed that we walk up to the higher portions of the vineyard as we conversed. She corroborated the Nesto and di Savino Franchetti Etna origin story. Further, she indicated that 2001 was the first vintage of the Passo Rosso and that Jancis Robinson, after tasting it, thought it was good.

Sarah Bray

Guardiola, a 8-ha property just on the edge of the DOC, was bought in 2002 (Some of the vines are DOC and others are not). Two hectares were planted to Petit Verdot in 2001/2002 at between 800 and 1000 m altitude and another 2 ha to Cesanese d' Affile. These vines were planted at 12,000 vines/ha with 5 bunches/vine. The vines were subjected to green harvests in order to further concentrate their energy. These vines were the source of the Franchetti wine first introduced in 2005. The current configuration of Guardiola is 3 ha split between Chardonnay, Petit Verdot and Cesanese d'Affile and the remainder dedicated to Nerello Mascalese.

Once Franchetti was introduced, Andrea pivoted and sought to make a great white wine from Chardonnay (first bottling in 2007) and Nerello Mascalese wines that reflected their terroir (first bottling of Contrada wines in 2008) . The distribution of vines by contrada, and the individual contrada characteristics, are shown in the figure below.
In pursuing a Chardonnay that rivals Burgundy, Vini Franchetti states thusly: "The harvest is quite fussy, as we pick little portions of the vineyard every day, tasting the berries trailing along the terraces day after day, harvesting only when each individual cluster is ripe."

In order to ensure that any differences in the wines are contrada-specific, the contrada wines are given the same vinification treatment: fermentation in steel vats; malolactic and 18 months aging in large neutral oak barrels; fining with bentonite; and no filtering. The Franchetti is aged in barrique.

At the conclusion of the winery and vineyard tour, we repaired to a conference room where representative wines had been set up for us to taste.

We began with the 2015 Passorosso (Passopisciaro until a few years ago). The grapes for this wine are sourced from 70 - 100-year-old, bush-trained vines grown at altitudes between 550 and 1000 m in the contrade of Malpasso, Guardiola (40% of grapes), Santo Spirito, Favazza, and Arcuria. High-toned red fruit with smoke, leather, and mineral notes. On the palate, bright red fruit, acidity, with drying tannins on the finish.

The 2015 Contrada Rampante was made from 100-year-old-vines which are planted at 8000/vines/ha and yielded 17.6 hl/ha. Herbs. smoke, iron, sweet tar, tobacco, and spices. Good fruit levels but not as focused as I would have liked.

The Contrada Chiappemaccine 2015 was the least complex of the wines I had tasted up to this point. Not very giving on the nose and non-complex on the palate. The 2014 edition of this wine showed fresh red fruit, sweet herbs and spice. Tobacco on the palate.

The 2014 Contrada G was elegant. Smoke, tobacco, leather, and sweet tobacco. Savoriness. Complex, big fruit but balanced by acidity. Silky tannins. Long finish.

The Franchetti 2014 is a blend of 70% Petit Verdot and 30% Cesanese d' Affile. Sarah called this a winemaker-oriented wine. Yields of 17 hl/ha. Fermented with selected yeasts in stainless steel tanks for 10 - 15 days.  Malolactic and 8 months aging in barriques, followed by 10 months in cement and 2 months in bottle. Bentonite fining. Rich, inky, with herbs and smoky barrel notes. Powerful. Not a classic Etna wine but I loved.
This was a lengthy visit and I would like to thank Sarah for the patience she exhibited in the face of interminable questions. Her grace under fire and knowledge of the estate, viticulture, and viniculture contributed significantly to the feeling of completeness we had at the end of the tour. Thanks also to Vini Franchetti management for making staff available, without restrictions, to enlighten us about the operations. And, of course, thanks to Brandon and Lidia for continuing to make my trips to Etna more than worthwhile and for being high-quality friends.

How has Franchetti contributed to the shaping of the wine direction on Etna? First, he was part of the initial group of outside investors who brought the potential of this region to the eyes of the wider world. Second, he showed that a Bordeaux cultivar (Petit Verdot) could be blended with an almost extinct cultivar (Cesanese d'Affile) to make a world-class, non-indigenous wine on the mountain. Third, his focus on the importance of contrada effects, both in the stable of wines that he produces and in his establishment and continuing support for Contrada dell"Etna.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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