Andrea Franchetti: Mountain Wine Between Stone and Cloud

tortuous rural roads along high wooded

Continued from Part 3: Etna Wine

The next morning, I drive farther up the mountain along a narrow, vertiginous lane called Passopisciaro or “fishmonger’s road.”

It was originally named after a seaman who used to sell his catch here on sunny afternoons. He charmed his female customers, generously offering them his services in addition to the seafood. Eventually, their husbands banded together and killed him.

Most of Andrea Franchetti’s wines are labeled Passopisciaro, but his customers are safely scattered around the world. In 2001, having spent ten years in Tuscany making wines that received rave reviews, Andrea decided to buy land here.

His nineteenth-century stone winery sits on a rock terrace as though it’s barely glued to the ledge. His vineyards stretch their long green fingers around the mountain trying to hold it.

When I pull up in front of his villa, Andrea Franchetti strides out to meet me. In his mid-fifties, six-foot-six and looking like a successful Parisian architect, he sports square black glasses, a cashmere sweater tied carelessly around his shoulders, and highly polished Ferragamo loafers. He greets me, encasing my hand in a firm shake and gets right to the point. (I’d heard he hates small talk.)

“I started making wine on Etna just to have an excuse to live here,” he explains unprompted, as we start an almost straight-up ascent of the mountain.

“This is an authoritative land, the Orient of Italy—exotic colors, shapes, seasons, people. I came here not just because it’s the best place for making wine, but also for what it suggests to my imagination.”

andrea franchetti vinesAndrea’s family tree blooms with eccentric imagination on every branch. In 1530, his ancestor Giuditta Franchetti was burned as a heretic after she took to the streets, screaming and railing against the church. (“She was a polemicist and had a collection of books that the Vatican didn’t like.”)

In 1894, his great-grandfather Giorgio Franchetti, bought the famed Ca’ d’Oro (the golden house), considered one of the most beautiful palaces on Venice’s Grand Canal.

The palazzo, with its ornate gothic style and lavish gold finishes, was originally built in 1428 by the Contarini family, which produced eight Venetian doges. Giorgio Franchetti helped to add some dazzling mosaics to the house.

Ca'_d'Oro palaceWhen he was finished, he committed suicide, donating the palace and his vast art collection to the city where it is now displayed in the Museo Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro.

Giorgio’s brother was the composer Alberto Franchetti, who wrote widely acclaimed operas for the Belle Époque, such as Asrael, Cristoforo Colombo, Germania and Notte di Leggenda. Alberto’s mother Luisa had learned to play the piano from Franz Liszt.

Andrea calls Alberto’s son Raimondo Franchetti, “the Italian Lawrence of Arabia,” noting that he explored Borneo, Ethiopia, and the Sudan. “He was a quintessential Italian explorer—he crossed the Abruzzo Park at night alone, when it was full of wolves.”

Raimondo died in 1935 when his small plane crashed in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. He later became the inspiration for the dashing adventurer Corto Maltese in Italian comic books. Raimondo’s son Nanuk was an ichthyologist, mountain climber, speleologist and friend of Ernest Hemingway—Hemingway often hunted ducks in his marshes.

In the early 1950s, the Franchetti family ran a circus that traveled around Europe. Andrea recalls his father’s gypsy soul and his love of dressing in circus clothing. While in the U.S., his father met his American mother, heiress to a South Carolina textile fortune.

She moved to Rome with her new husband, but didn’t trust Italian hospitals, so Andrea was born in New York. She returned to Rome, where Andrea grew up. His mother made him sing in the choir of the Sistine Chapel, until his voice broke at 13.

When he turned 17, he jumped on his bicycle and pedaled from Italy to Afghanistan via Brindisi, Istanbul, Tehran, and Kabul. Then he sold his bike in Afghanistan and went home by train. “It was the best trip of my life,” he says now. “I was fanatical, frightened and alone.”

When Andrea returned to Rome, he started writing for the Italian magazine L’Espresso, made two avant-garde films and acted as an extra in several movies.

When he got restless again, in 1982, he moved to the U.S. to become an importer of Italian wine. That, too, failed to hold his interest after four years. In 1986, he moved back to Italy and bought a Tuscan villa. “When I woke up the first morning, I decided to make wine,” he says. “I could not go back to city life, even with its exuberance of people coming and going.”

As he strides up the mountain and I pant to keep up with him, Andrea sweeps his hand to indicate a broad swath of land. “All this was a tangle of weeds and thorns. I had to use a pickaxe to clear it away. But it was worth it, just for the light. When I arrived, I was struck by it.” He pauses to look around, as I start to sink onto one of the low rock walls.

enta vines hillside“A sash of light lay along the mountainside, through hidden carpets of broom and wild roses, inviting restoration. The sea reflects shadows and light up to the sky, which throws them down into the vineyard.

It’s a saturating light that illuminates my vines on every side. Luminosity, yes but even more: limpidity, a crystalline light that comes from how close we are to the sun” he says, answering the question I haven’t asked, and starts back up the mountain.

“I am inspired by the way the light changes about around me throughout the year with its days of green and red and gold, the white mornings and violet nights. The weather swirls round us.

The powerful process of photosynthesis affects both the vines and the owner. The transformation of berries into wine is a shade of nature’s essence, hidden, then caught by surprise in the turmoil of fermentation, captured in a thick, red mirror.”

While he’s talking, I notice the lava stone terraces encircling Etna, following the slope’s steep decline. They look as though Vulcan had absent-mindedly traced a finger around and around the mountain. The walls were actually built by peasants a thousand years ago, without a bulldozer or drill. I think about how their fingers must have bled.

Today, it’s difficult to hire vineyard workers since climbing the slopes is exhausting. It’s a world of clouds and stones. “I had a team of swearing Frenchmen who were accustomed to the light soils of Médoc,” he tells me. “Still, they came back, year after year. They accept that you’re a foreigner, so you’re already crazy.

We’re standing at 3,300 feet and the deliciously cool air lines my lungs with mint. Andrea’s vines are planted at the highest possible elevation on Etna, where the difference between day and night temperatures can vary greatly.

This diurnal dip extends the growing season a month or so longer than the rest of the island. It also creates polished wines of superb depth, acidity and minerality.

While Giuseppe Benanti and Marco di Grazia are traditionalists, Andrea is a modernist. He plants and blends both international and local varieties, and has little patience for those who scorn this. “The wine itself is more important than the grapes that go into it,” he says.

“What you taste isn’t just an expression of nature, it’s also an expression of thought.” Like many modernists, he thinks that nature is overrated. “Nature buffets the imagination, prods it to create, but we are the greatest mystery.”

Andrea learned how to make wine in Bordeaux and has planted those varieties here: cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and petit verdot. Those vine cuttings came from old parcels of vineyards that had produced some of the best wines in Graves and Saint-Émilion.

entna wine bottles“For the French, making wine is like breathing. They’re generous and will tell you everything you need to know. Bordeaux winemakers have selected and discarded for generations, and have gathered a number of grapes that are exceptional both by themselves, and in their capacity to be blended with others.”

Those plants, Andrea explains, had it too easy in Bordeaux: he had to thin sixty percent of their crop late in their first summer when they started to lose their vigor. He believes that small berries are the secret of good red wines: more concentrated flavor and better air flow between bunches so that mold doesn’t set in.

These small, stressed grapes thicken their skins to protect themselves, and concentrate on maturing their fruit. It’s also best, he believes, to make wine from at least three types of grape, each maturing at a different time. Then, ideally, at least one grape every year will fit its particular cycle to the weather changes of that vintage.

“We interpret this place and create terroir where none existed before,” he says. “Etna wines harness the lush fruitiness of the grapes with the acidity of the volcanic soil in an ineffable combination of contrary impulses.”

This creates a concentrated wine, he says, that is more recognizable and imprints itself in your memory. “Every year that passes, increases the wine’s identity, its ability to become more itself. That is terroir: a taste that says “Ah! There.”

Understanding ‘terroir’ involves understanding the times we live in, he explains. The vineyard changes with changes in taste. When wines meant to be consumed after the softening of long aging are in vogue, a vineyard is starved, production reduced to a quarter to concentrate the wines.

“Our image of wine is as capricious as our views on architecture, fashion and automobile design,” he continues. “Right now, our idea of viticulture is the restoration of nature. That image is stressed. Once we considered ourselves titans ruling over the earth, exaggerating our interventions. So now it’s time for us to be humble and follow nature.”

However, he does listen to nature to time the harvest, the most important and difficult part of what he does: “People get too damn poetic about harvest time. You work your ass off all year long, and then you can lose it all in an hour. It’s wet and cold and discouraging. What’s romantic about that?” his voice growing hard and enameled.

“Viticulture may be the Hollywood of farming, but it’s lost its way and is too caught up in the glamour. We are farmers. Every year, you think you’ve lived through it, but you haven’t: you suffer horribly. You should never talk to me during harvest,” he says tightening his eyes on someone in the past who made that mistake.

Got it.

Once harvest is over, he assembles the wines that have emerged from more than fifty fermentations. Slowly a style forms, he says, from discarding and choosing and mixing. His resulting wine receives the full I-don’t-need-to-earn-a-profit treatment that comes from starting a winery with family wealth: barrels made from the finest French forests and rigorous declassification of any less-than-perfect wine into a second label. His top wine is left on its lees for a year to develop in a crescendo of flavour.

At last we sit down on the rock wall, and Andrea reaches into a tuft of wild grasses behind it and pulls out several bottles and a couple of glasses. The first one he opens is his petit verdot. As he pours me a glass, he observes, “A vein of tar sneaks into the taste of all the wines of this area; we must take care not to loose it.”

As I sip, I’m not getting the tar, but I do taste that lovely Italianate bitter-fresh, dark-savory flavor of chiseled darkness, with two opposing forces holding tension down through its center. I feel as though I’m invading the private history of the grapes in this wine.

As we drink, he continues: “I don’t want to make fruity wine; I’d rather eat fresh fruit. I want to make an earthy wine because I want to taste this place. Vines have such a long vegetative cycle that they really show the territory in their fruit. The ground under our feet was once the ancient ocean floor. The crushed fossils of prehistoric creatures are in the sediment of this wine.”

I nod in agreement, my mind more on the warm Mediterranean light moving across the slopes. I think of D.H. Lawrence’s observation of Etna, “Anyone who has once known this land can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it.” Then I think of the volcano again. Does Andrea worry about it?

“Not at all. We are gladiator winemakers here: all or nothing,” he says smiling as he pours me his cabernet franc. “The danger gives your work a knife-edge focus. This is an insane way to make wine.” This dark-berried wine is insanely good. It seeps through my pores and along my veins, until I’m running warm and flush with its flavour.

“You need to discover what is too much, to cross that line and then come back. The mountain draws stubborn people to it. It gives us something to struggle against—ourselves.

Looking around, I spot a few blackened patches of earth to our right. Andrea tells me that the local shepherds burn the grass because tasty and nutritious plants sprout up afterwards that are good for their flocks. Unfortunately, several times these uncontrolled fires reached his vines. The twisted dark stumps look like dead hands reaching out of their graves.

“Oh, that’s such a shame,” I say, consoling myself with more wine.

“Everything dies, Natalie,” Andrea says, his eyes settling on me. There’s something joyfully self-destructive about Etna. Nature throws an element of desperation at you and you respond.

You can’t change nature, only your response to it. The value of life is defined by death. Here we live on top of a symbol of death—and enjoy life more because of it.”

andrea franchetti

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