There are many ways to get to know a place. Yet those that tantalised the palate and the sense of smell are my favourites. So while thinking about the majesty of Mount Etna I found myself driving up to Benanti Winery in Viagrande…
Getting to know MOUNT Etna through its wine
To know a wine means to understand where it comes from. Joris told me that. He is a Nordic looking friend who was born in the Netherlands by mistake and who has found his rightful home in Sicily more than ten years ago. He is driving me to Benanti, one of the most prestigious wineries of the Etna. Joris is a wine connoisseur, a drinker and a vigneron. Not necessarily in this order. However he wants me to make it clear that almost everything he knows about Etna wine is due to Mr Salvo Foti. He is an esteemed enologist and one of the visionaries behind the great success of Etna wines in the last 20 years. The first essential information is noted.
Driving up Mount Etna
It is the end of June. The air is more crispy here than closer to the coast. I am staying in a villa padronale in Carruba within the so called ‘lemons coast’ (Riviera dei Limoni). Around here there are several charming villas like the one I am in. All with terraces framed by fragrant white jasmine. Although the lemon orchards that surround them help to somehow keep up with their grandiose appearances, many of them have been clearly abandoned.
Driving up Mount Etna, we arrive in Viagrande. We are at 410 m above the level of the sea and on the southeast slope of the Etna. I need to be overly specific about the location because that is no detail when you are talking about wine.
In Viagrande things are very different than in Carruba. You see it immediately. Villas here are carefully maintained if not completely restored. And vineyards in place of citrus groves frame them. The winery of Benanti is no exception.
In the space of twenty minutes – that is the ride between Viagrande and Carruba – I learn that where I see citrus orchards there once were vineyards. Following the pest that infected vines in the 19th century many families were forced to repurpose their land. An exception was made for the ancient vineyards growing in a certain area around the Etna, an area that since 1968 is certified for the production of DOC wine. Viagrande, between 400 and 500m asl, belongs to this area.
We enter through a gate next to a pink lava chapel into a majestic property. It includes two main buildings and a swimming pool. To welcome us is Agatino, a loyal employer of the winery and Mr Giuseppe Benanti himself.
The story goes that Mr Benanti together with the enologist Mr Foti decided to invest in the wine production of the Etna over dinner. They were dining in a renowned restaurant on the slope of the volcano and remained astonished by the absence of Etna wine on the wine list. Those were the 80s. Since then the Etna wine production begun a new phase of which Agatino – our tour guide for the day – could not be more proud.
We start by standing around a thick wooden table with a detailed model of Mount Etna. It is here that I learn that Etna wine is a label that encompass very different wines because there is no place on the Etna that is the same as another one of the same volcano. There is a great variety of lava soil, for instance. Moreover sun exposition, altitude and sea influence each slope differently. So the fact that Viagrande is 410 m above sea level and on the slope south-east of the Etna means something. Here the grapes are more exposed to sunlight as well as to more temperature changes within the day and in the wine this translate into more complexity in its structure.
Now that the context is clear, Agatino leads Joris and me outside on a walk along the vineyards of the Benanti’s estate.
And it is here that Agatino and Joris engage in one of these conversations where at the end everyone agrees to disagree. Two are the main topics: whether or not the grapes of the estate are all survivors of the Phylloxera (the pest I mentioned before that decimated the European wine production in the 19th century); and whether the best wine would be a natural (without addition of sulphites), biological or sophisticated one. I get some information from this too. For example, that it was an implant of an American plant immune to Phylloxera to save the production of wine and that natural does not necessarily means good, that biological does not necessarily means without additional products and that sophisticated wine does not necessarily mean corrupted.
My curiosity, however, is elsewhere. Looking at the trees scattered around the estate I am wondering: are they giving the fruity notes to certain wines? My answer arrives once in the palmento, the room where grapes used to be pressed.
Yeasts are the one responsible for all the notes that are in a glass of wine. So no romance here, just chemistry. However undoubtedly charming is this huge structure with lava stones tanks in different levels and its majesty the chestnut wood press.
There are many Sicilian families who own or used to own a palmento. And there is a simple reason for it: making wine in Sicily has always been a question of family pride. The palmento of Benanti has remained almost untouched by time and it lends itself perfectly well to an example of the wine tradition of the area. Other palmenti however have had a different evolution. Some, for example, have been included in the design of a more modern home (see Casa nel Palmento).
We are at the end of the tour. Now the moment that everyone impatiently waits while touring in a winery has come for us too. Back to the main building, on a solid and beautiful wooden table, bottles, wine glasses and a spit bucket await us.
Mr Benanti’s idea of a good Etna wine
I sip four different wines in the order set by Agatino. And while he still tries to feed me information, I amuse myself by guessing all different notes. I experience a wonderful walnuts aftertaste trying a Carricante, but when I claim to taste alchermes while drinking a red wine, Agatino tells me not to exaggerate. I smile.
Mr Benanti decides to join us and the conversation opens up. The topics vary from women to politics, to his pride for the guests of the winery and to its ideas behind the most recent bottles launch, and especially about rosé wine.
Mr Benanti’s tone becomes more serious. Almost solemn. He wants to make it clear to me that when his winery produces rosé it is not to follow trends. Within a new market and in contrast with those wineries that use diminutives like ‘Rosatello’ or ‘Prosecchino’, Mr Benanti stands his ground: when his winery puts something on the market there is not space for diminutives. The rosé of Benanti is called ‘rosato’.
A glimpse of the future
At this point I have to admit that I am starting to loose my concentration. It is dinnertime and I have had quite some wine. I notice I am not the only one preparing to depart. Mr Benanti kindly stands up and gifts me with a stylish, polished brass wine opener. He tells me a friend of his once suggested to use it as a necklace. Considering the weight of this beautiful but definitely heavy object, I am sure I will find an alternative place for it. I thank him sincerely for the time and for the wonderful afternoon. But just when we are ready to go, Antonio Benanti rushes to us.
He is Mr Benanti’s son and has taken the reins of the prestigious family business together with his brother Salvino. He offers Joris and me a bottle of a new wine before we leave. It is a bottle of Contrada Monte Serra, Etna Rosso DOC 2016. It is a symbol of a new phase for Benanti winery, but it feels more like a promise. Benanti winery will continue to stand its ground.
WHERE TO STAY IN VIAGRANDE:
Cottage delle Camelie with private swimming pool.
Casa Edera with a taste for the Sicilian past.
©photos Giulia Lattanzio ©intoSicily all Rights Reserved