Part 2: Sicily’s Volcanic Wines
Sicily is also known as mezzogiorno, “the land of the midday sun”—and of the midday nap. This April afternoon is so warm that I decide to take la pausa before my next visit.
I love that notion of an afternoon pause: it doesn’t sound lazy, just meditative. I retreat to my dark hotel room and flop on the cool bed sheets, mesmerized by my ceiling fan as its breeze evaporates the sweat on my arms and legs. Outside, a dog barks, someone laughs, a door slams.
After several hours of drugged sleep, I head out again along a rutted road farther up the mountain.
The land on either side still seems wild, reminding me of Lampedusa’s observation in The Leopard: “‘Countryside’ implies soil transformed by labor; but the scrub clinging to the slopes was still in the very same state of scented tangle in which it had been found by the Phoenicians, Dorians, and Ionians when they disembarked in Sicily.”
A former wine importer in the U.S., he recently started his own winery. “I had sold the most remarkable wines to dozens of countries for thirty years,” he tells me, as he pours me a glass of his rosé open on the table. “But I have never sold a wine that everyone wanted as much as these. It’s the power of Etna.”
Marco’s grandparents lived just southwest of Etna where his mother, a successful Italian painter, was born. His father, Sebastian de Grazia, was a professor of political philosophy as well as an author; his book Machiavelli in Hell won the Pulitzer Prize.
They met while Marco’s father was on a fellowship in Italy, and moved to the United States where Marco was born. They returned to Italy when Marco was just eight months old.
Marco was also academically gifted, studying at the University of Florence, the Sorbonne, Rutgers, and Berkeley, earning degrees in philosophy and comparative literature.
“I guess the ineffable paradoxes of Etna draw unusual characters to it,” he says, pushing back a red beret that gives him a Che Guevara look. “I suppose I must belong in that category as well.”
Marco got his first taste of winemaking at 16, when he helped his best friend Sandro at his family’s nearby farm. He recalls the first bottle that they shared one weekend when Sandro’s father was away.
“I’ll never forget that gentle beauty,” he reminisces of that youthful escapade. “We had intended to drink it with a dish of snails—we had captured hundreds of them and kept them in the cellar, feeding them lettuce.
But we discovered that they had escaped and were crawling all over the veranda, inching toward a getaway. We just sat on the steps drinking the wine, watching them and laughing.”
A server brings us freshly baked bread with warm ricotta cheese. It melts on my tongue with a tangy bite. I cup my hands around an earthenware bowl, steaming with fresh chunks of glistening pink tuna in a broth of herbs, garlic and cognac.
The evocative flavors of the ancient south waft up from the bowl, thick with flavor and memory. Marco’s Feudo di Mezzo Il Quadro delle Rosé, with its aromas of field berries, goes beautifully with them.
Sicilian food, with its honest, rustic flavors, is a cuisine of the senses with the fragrances of the fresh and local. The waters teem with fish; lemon, orange and olive trees hang heavy with fruit; and the hillsides ripple with wheat for pasta. This natural bounty is perfumed with the flavors of many cultures.
“Sicily is a layered civilization, so many tribes and nations have contributed to what Etna is today,” Marco says, his eyes closed as he breathes out the wine’s finish.
“Hands from around the world have worked this soil. Invaders come and go, but the land stays. Winemakers come and go, but the vineyard stays.”
Despite his evident passion, Marco didn’t think of wine as a profession until he was an undergraduate at Berkeley. He wandered into a local wine shop that had a decent selection of Italian wines, but told the owner that he could do better.
The owner didn’t believe him, so Marco invited him to dinner at his apartment. They got sloshed on Marco’s stash of wines from Italy and the merchant offered him a job. Eventually, he became a full-time, independent importer.
Marco describes Etna as the Burgundy of the Mediterranean because its climate and soils also produce wines with an obsessive-compulsive edge. Like Burgundian producers, he doesn’t blend grapes.
“It’s a difference in philosophy: Burgundy versus Bordeaux, Plato versus Aristotle, the ideal form versus moderation in many things,” he muses. “Just as philosophy is the struggle to impose order on thought, winemaking is the struggle to impose order on nature. My goal is to express the classical ideal of wine.”
Marco raises his glass, “We drink with the angels,” he says as we clink tumblers.
The server sets down a platter of deep-fried calamari and a wooden board covered with spinchone, a traditional Sicilian pizza made with diced tomatoes and fresh basil.
The early evening light streams down from the high windows in the trattoria, catching the jeweled colors of the food and wine and illuminating our ghostly hands and faces like a Caravaggio painting.
“Sicily has the ancient recipe for producing great wines,” Marco says. He pours his Calderara Sottana, also a nerello mascalese, but made from the lower terraces in the vineyard that produce more full-bodied wines.
I’m entranced by its edgy eccentricity. It’s a wine that teleports you to a place in your mind: I’ve disappeared into a grove of olive trees.
“The Mediterranean climate concentrates flavor and an active volcano keeps everyone on their toes.” But does he worry about the volcano erupting?
“The volcano gives so much that if, once in a while, it takes something back, no one seems to really mind,” Marco observes with a volcanic mentality—that fatalistic happiness shared by those who live with other natural time-bombs, like tornados and earthquakes.
“Etna will devastate you and then give you everything. The more she betrays me, the more I love her.
“There’s a certain edge to making wine when, at any minute, you could be buried under molten lava. Etna is the goddess of fertility, but she’s 600,000 years old. Anyone can get cranky at that age.”
Next we try his Santo Spirito Rosso, radiating the freshness of the mountain air and the power of the Sicilian sun. Its mineral core is wrapped in fleshy berry fruit flavors that pair beautifully with our entrée: a meaty red mullet baked in a pistachio crust.
The bush-like pistachio trees are planted all over the island and their green nuts are used in many local dishes.
I have to agree: Sicilian wines strike me as an intriguing application of new methods on ancient grapes. The result is distinctly Sicilian, yet also newer than nuovo.
A good example is his Guardiola, a towering, tightly woven wine with a stone heart. The layers of blackberries and plums finish with a spicy slap of licorice.
After that, we enjoy a traditional dessert of cannoli: pastry tubes filled with ricotta cheese, candied fruit and slivers of dark chocolate. It belongs to a category of desserts called agrodolce, with their contrasting flavors of sweet and sour.
Cannoli supposedly originated in the city Caltanissetta, (Kalat Annisa) where sultans locked up their harems in great castles. These women, bored out of their minds, made cannoli to pass the time.
Dinner over, we leave the trattoria as the lengthening light of evening drapes itself across the hills. Marco has suggested that we visit his winery, Tenuta delle Terre Nere (Black Earth Estate), nestled on the northern slopes of Etna, just a few minutes away.
We climb into his VW van that bears the scars of brushing against many vines and an argument or two with some larger branches. When we arrive, I breathe in the heady scents of fuchia and oleander, and wonder if there’s an extra room so I can move in.
“The challenge is to coax from this traditional grape my interpretations of these different patches of land,” Marco says as we walk. “If I can do that, people will recognize these wines the way they recognize the sentences of certain writers. This is what we mean by terroir.”
His hillside concave amphitheater has some thirty terraced rows, each edged with a low moss-covered black stone wall. Some of his vines are more than 140 years old; their green narrative punctuated by black commas of lava stone. The gnarled gray stumps lining each row look like grumpy old men waiting for the show to start.
“My job is just to remove anything that might damage the vines, and then stay out of the way.” To him, that means gentle tilling of the soil so the roots can breathe and a gravity flow in the winery so the juice isn’t bruised. “I extract what’s beautiful and leave the dross behind.”
A light evening wind called et alaria makes the leaves tremble. I notice that they’re planted in such a way that no vine covers another. This keeps the ventilation in the vineyard constant, which prevents mildew and rot. The vineyard style is said to be a lada all’aria, in the air.
“There’s a rhythm to this work and a joy in working with the seasons. I remember as a child spending October afternoons picking grapes, lathered in sweat, then plunging into the lake, the cold water shocking us.
“History takes a long time,” he says, his smile not quite reaching his eyes. “You’re making decisions today based on what you think the wine will be in twenty years.
Yet making wine happens just once a year, so it takes a long time to become good at it.” In his opinion, winemaking school gives you the technical skill to create correct wines, but not exciting wines.
“You need a palate that can distinguish good from great. Tough vintages are for the pleasure and interest of great winemakers: they seek and achieve the beautiful year after year.”
Marco opens the door to his winery. Despite the late hour, the bottling line is in full swing and the sound of clashing and clinking bottles rushes out at us.
A half-dozen employees are working the line, making sure the bottles are in place and taking the filled boxes over to the towering white stacks of cases. It’s a gray mechanical whir with a few human hands darting in and out.
In another area stands a stack of brightly colored boxes, adorned with the crayon drawings. They’re the work of Marco’s three-year-old daughter, Elena, after whom the wine is named.
She produces a new set every year, so they graphically follow her development. (The profits from this wine go to the local children’s hospital in her honour.)
We retire to his kitchen, where we sit at a rough wood table. Bronze pots hang on the walls, in between mesh bags of onions, garlic and herbs. Marco seasons a nine-pound piece of steak on a wooden plank and slides it into the blazing wood-fired oven.
Dried vines crackle and hiss, infusing the meat with a smoky flavor that curls around the kitchen. He’s hosting a gathering of local winemakers later tonight.
“In Sicily, few things are what they seem,” Marco observes as we drink his La Vigna di Don Peppino made from pre-phylloxera vines that are one hundred and forty years old.
There’s nothing earthy about this wine: it tastes like clouds. We watch the sun wash the hills in greens and golds as it sets.
“But once you come to terms with this most complex of places, learn to respect its profound identity—and work like a dog to express it—it will reward you with wines that rival the finest in the world.”
Continue to Part 4: Etna Wine