From the archives August 15, 2008
Some time back, when I was invited to Sicily to evaluate several vineyard projects, a few of us were sitting around the midnight table with passito and amaro. Next thing you know, we grabbed a few hours of sleep and then piled in a large van and headed towards the volcano. It was our homage to Burning Man, and what was waiting for us wasn’t what we had expected.
A few weeks ago I tasted through a portfolio of wines and was interested in the Etna Rosso from Terre Nere. The last time I had had it was at the Fatty Crab with Regina Schrambling and my gal Kim and it paired beautifully with the exotic plates that filled our table. Nerello, once again I was encountering the little phantom grape that I first got to know in my youth.
Nerello and Frappato are my two favorite red wine grapes from Sicily. Zibibbo and Malvasia in the uber-elixer versions also influence me. And of course the particular Marsala wines from masters like De Bartoli complete the opera for this Sicilian-swayed soul. But back to the fire on the mountain.
I am so much a Western Islander, influenced by the Palermo-Trapani-Corleone triangle. On the east coast, from Messina to Noto, it’s another world.
We arose early, drank a bitter espresso and some almond cakes and headed to watch the sun rise on Etna. It was September, and the harvest was in full-swing. Along the small roads cluttered with vines, the early morning heat lit up the highway with the perfume of the harvest. And though this was a harsh environment, the time and the place had come to an agreement, a permanent cease-fire for getting along with each other. Survival allowed for a softening of the onslaught, and the Sicilians were the recipients of the bounty of their captors, once again.
So remote, so unmalleable, is this area, that during the war life proceeded pretty well much as it had for centuries. People on the mountain had a larger adversary, the fire within. Nazis and Fascists and Allies were little distraction from the ongoing conflict against Mt. Etna.
To be able to grow anything, to gather a harvest, is an annual miracle that has been taking place for thousands of years. Here is where Nerello and the lovers of the fire grape reach for their remedy.
The older the vine is the more issue from a kind of sortilege by the earth. Not in quantity but in power and potency.
Here is where the Greeks claimed a goddess, Aetna, by Zeus, the mother of Palici, worshiped for centuries by the ancient Siculi tribes. Now we drink wine from glasses instead of blood from skulls. It is much better for everyone.
Another tale has it that the older vines are the ancestors who have settled down and have become immortal. And in order to live forever they must produce wine from the extreme hillsides surrounding the summit. Nowadays, the terrain, while challenging, is experiencing a renaissance in interest for these wines. The immortals stretch and wake from their slumbers.
The wines are astringent, not too heavy, red but not morbidly so, and can match well with exotic food or staple fare. There is something about wine from this area of Sicily that has many of us excited.
One from our group proclaimed, ”Etna Rosso is the opposite of Gruner Veltiner, but equally fascinating are both wines to the same people.” I can see that. Etna is fire and passion, yes, but also order, controlled chaos from the bowels of Hades. After a day scrounging along the rim, waiting for the sunset, I felt another piece of the Sicilian puzzle slip in place. It was beginning to make sense in this extreme landscape. We are an accident of the cosmos, all of it. And that is cause for celebration. Music, fire, drums, wine, alchemy, life.