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Continued Conversations with Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro on Mt. Etna

Eight years after landing in Siena, where he established Tenuta di Trinoro, Andrea Franchetti acquired Passopisciaro (“Fisherman’s Path”), an ancient vineyard and winery, on the slopes of Sicily’s Mt. Etna. In the town of Castiglione, he planted 40 acres of vines on the north side of Etna, at an elevation that peaks at just over 1,000m. And while the lava-strewn slopes of Etna were a hot bed in the 1920’s, it is only in the last 10 years that vintners began to reexamine the area as ripe for quality wine production.

With ancient terraces and a long ripening season that extends into November, Mt. Etna is an active volcano with mineral rich lava soil that greatly benefits the two varietals that thrive here: Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese. Embracing the latter of the two, Franchetti first released Passopisciaro, a blend of 100% Nerello Mascalese from different Contrada (or Crus).

In 2009, Andrea introduced four other wines, all from single vineyards with different terroir and elevations. By using these high elevations to reduce yields and alcohol content, Franchetti mastered Nerello Mascalese–an indigenous Sicilian grape that produces pale, lean, and delicate “northern” wines that are reminiscent of Pinot Noir.

  Andrea Franchetti at Passopisciaro

During our Skype session, Franchetti discussed his wines from Tenuta di Trinoro, then addressed our questions about his wines from Passopisciaro, beginning with Guardiola 2010, one of the highest altitude chardonnays in the world. “With 50 terraces going up the steep mountain, next to the winery, these vines were planted six years ago…This next vintage will probably be where it shows its best,” said Franchetti. These 5ha of grapes from Bourgogne are tightly packed and grown on volcanic black soil.  With 12,000 plants per hectare, there was an early rush harvest this year, or a “leopard skin picking” to best avoid any resemblance the “peanut butter chardonnays” of California. Using no oak, Franchetti picks and chills, so that the grapes can be fermented all at once. With mineral infused apple/pear fruit, the Guardiola 2010 has a spritzy acidity that’s lean but not aggressive, and complimentary of the wine’s round fruit.

Alongside the Chardonnay grapes on the site of Guardiola, Franchetti planted Cesanese d’Affile, an aromatic red grape from central Italy, and selections of Petit Verdot. In March of 2009, he tasted the Cesanese grapes and found them “screamingly aromatic”, a trait that he wanted to emphasize, and so he added 20% Petit Verdot, which made it “almost embarrassing aromatic”, for the Franchetti 2009. Fused with smoky minerality and fruit that’s plump but not overripe, the Franchetti 2009 shows mid-palate vegetal and black pepper notes with a well-balanced fruit finish. And because Andrea Franchetti specializes in “jewel wines”, there are fewer than 400 cases produced each year.

Of the four Contrada Etnaincluding Rampante, Chiappemacine, Sciaranuova, and Porcaria–that Franchetti released in 2009, all used to be blended together for the Passopiscairo wine. However, in 2008 the Passopiscario was made from a blend of pickings from Contradas Malpasso, Guardiola, Santo Spirito, and Arcuria. Light ruby in color, this is a smoky wine with lush berry fruit and a touch of spice, that finishes surprisingly lean and minerally with lingering light fruit.

   The Contrada Etna, Palazzi & Franchetti

In 2009, Andrea fermented the four Contrada Etna wines at varying times and found that they were all so completely different that they deserved to be released as single vineyard wines. “Each [contrada] is placed on a different lava spill on different sides of the volcano,” Franchetti explained. It’s “a system of volcanos or cones,” that allows the vines of each contrada to “draw from different lava spills, each with its own combination of minerals.” And because different soils yield different flavors, the four Contrada wines are all Burgundian in style, but so incredibly varied. With the lowest Contrada at 500m and the highest at above 1000m, the grapes were picked earlier than usual in 2009, because of the rain.  But “when picked early,” said Franchetti, “the varietal is more present…you risk a green wine, but you get a better varietal wine.” And after tasting through the vintage, we couldn’t agree more that Andrea is right!

With steep walled terraces, Contrada Rampante is one of the highest contradas still cultivated, with 80-year-old Nerello Mascalese vines that are grown in soils that are sandy and pale, due to an old, oxidized lava spill. The coolest of the four wines, the Contrada Rampante shows lean cherry fruit, fresh acidity and light tannins that balance, with spicy black pepper notes that tickle the tongue as the wine lingers in your mouth. We love this wine, and I regretfully write that it is all sold out.

Descending to 600m, one finds Contrada Chiappemachine, a small parcel of .5ha, where the Nerello Mascalese vines are 80-years-old. Slightly fuller bodied than the Rampante, the fruit notes here are a little riper because some of the roots actually reach bedrock, and the cool breeze in the Etna air is almost detectable in the glass, with a slight saline infusion. A sip or two later, and I was transported to the volcano’s edge with a bowl of ripe red cherries in my palm.

Yielding wines that are fuller yet, than the Chiappemacine, Contrada Sciaranuova sits at 850m. One of the great crus of Mt. Etna, Contrada Sciaranuova is 1ha of 80-year-old Nerello Mascalese vines. Slightly musky with sour cherry notes, the Sciaranuova is bigger bodied, with great aging potential.

At the perfect elevation of 750m, resides Contrada Procaria, which produces full-bodied wines that are dark and lush. The 2009 is the perfect marriage of fruit and minerality, with a note of light smoke that hovers above bright cherry fruit. With ample tannins and starlight acidity, the Contrada Procaria will please the palate for years to come, but only if you act quick!

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