Although volcanic soil is known for its fertile properties, surely cultivating grapes in a region renowned for its frequent rumbling earth and flowing lava is tempting fate. Yet, that’s what the Benanti family has been doing on Sicily’s Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, for several generations.
The family has seen its vineyards through the major spews, which happen about once every decade. In between, life and winemaking go on, on the southern Italian island. Says Antonio Benanti, who was in town in September to showcase bottles bearing his family name: “There are constant small eruptions. We are used to having ashes on our grapes.”
Those very same fruit are earning distinctions for the Benanti label in the industry. Of the 90 wine producers on Etna, Benanti was first to score Winery of the Year from the Gambero Rosso Guide, Italy’s leading wine publication. That was in 2007.
Last year, it clinched international renown when it was named one of the world’s top 100 wineries in Wine & Spirits Magazine. Four of its labels had garnered the “exceptional” title, with more than 90 points.
The effort that Benanti’s father, Giuseppe, has put into improving the quality of Etna wines has paid off. In 1988, the elder Benanti set out to study the soil, indigenous vines and oenological methods. The results speak for themselves. Says Benanti: “Although wine production in Sicily dates back centuries, quality and professional winemaking goes back only 25 years. We are among the pioneers.”
The family adheres to indigenous varietals, using 100 per cent Carricante in its Pietramarina, an awards darling. Its Serra della Contessa, top of its red selection, is made of 80 per cent Nerello Mascalese and 20 per cent Nerello Cappuccio. Both varietals are old – the youngest being 80 years – and are cultivated and manually harvested on the slope of Etna’s southern face. The 2004 vintage clinched 94 points in Wine & Spirits Magazine this year.
The potential of the terroir has drawn a slew of winemakers from outside the area. Among them are Alessio Planeta of the award-winning Planeta winery from central Sicily, another pioneer of quality Sicilian wines, as well as Tuscan winemaker Andrea Franchetti, former high-end wine exporter Marco de Grazia and former Belgian wine trader Frank Cornelissen.
Still, there are barriers to overcome for Asian drinkers. Etna’s volcanic soil, rough terrain and cold climate are expressed in wines with heightened minerality.
“It’s not fruity, which most Asians like,” admits Benanti. “It’s not the type you automatically pick off the shelves. We are a boutique winery that produces 110,000 bottles a year. These are for discerning wine enthusiasts.”
Evidently, he sees a maturation of wine appreciation in this region. “Singapore is a hub to grow and expand into South-east Asia. No one can neglect this place anymore.” We say it’s time to test the palate against the high scores.