Tasting through the Vintages with Andrea Franchetti
Last Friday, we hosted a once-in-a-lifetime event with Andrea Franchetti, featuring for the first time ever in the U.S. every single made vintage of Passopisciaro “Franchetti”, from 2005 to 2013. Held at Locanda Verde, the event began with a walk around tasting of the five Passopisciaro Contrada (C, S, R, G and P) wines, and was followed by a sit-down luncheon, where Franchetti talked us through the wines. Here, it immediately became clear that Andrea is not only a man with a vision, who sees what most others cannot sense or even imagine, but he is also the best executioner of his own will to realize how best to pleasure our palates. On that day, there was no better demonstration of terroir than the eight ‘Franchetti’ vintages that were set before us, each wine a world apart from the one that preceded it.
What began as a vacation in Sicily led to Franchetti making wine on Mount Etna. “I was driving around, looking for a colder place and I ended up on Etna,” he said, “the largest volcano in Europe, an extraordinary place…as I saw this, I thought this was a top winemaking place, but it had been abandoned for 50 years.” In the past, the wines had been sold in bulk to France during the time of phylloxera, but that time had long since passed. And Franchetti was fortunate enough to pay a small fraction of the owner’s 1.5 billion euro asking price.
“I spent enough time there to imagine a wine that was completely different from what I was used to,” he said. “The Contrada wines are Nerello Mascalese, which grows only on Mt Etna. Mt Etna is covered with it. That’s the one you have to make if you’re on Mt Etna. “ In regards to ‘Franchetti’, he continued, which is generally a blend of Cesanese d’Affile and Petit Verdot, he said, “This is the wine that comes from an attempt to make a completely different wine on Mt Etna. It’s a concentrated black wine instead of the celestial cosmic grape of Nerello Mascalese.
“Petit Verdot,” he continued, “is a small black grape [that] in Bordeaux is used to give nerve to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It pins the wine to the floor. It’s a green kind of addition. In Italy, “ he continued, “it turns into a big wine with all the sun, so you can make 100% Petit Verdot wines, which is completely unheard of.” Unheard of unless you’re Franchetti making his namesake wine in 2006 and 2010, both of which are 100% Petit Verdot.
“On Mount Etna and in Tuscany, Petit Verdot is a completely different grape. Volcanic [soil] is so different from limestone,” he continued. “Petit Verdot in Tuscany is round. On Etna, it’s more peppery, spicy. With volcanic soil the wines don’t have much of a stomach; they’re not as plump in the middle. They’re a stiffer body with high aromatics.”
When he ‘discovered’ Cesanese d’Afile, Andrea said that he first planted it in Tuscany. “It has a lot of aroma,” he said, “it ages well. It’s a gentle counterpart to Petit Verdot.”
Planted at 550-1,000 meters above sea level, each patch of vines totals less than 1ha with 12,000 vines planted per hectare. “The soil is so dry,” said Franchetti, “the rain slides off, so the plants are dehydrated. The Nerello Mascalese is there for a reason. The grapes are being put to the test…[but] if you stress too much, they just stop.”
The luncheon began with four 2011 Contrada wines, each stunning in its own right, with 2011 being a vintage that Franchetti coined “a parameter year for the wines of Mt. Etna”. Contrada Chiappemacine is a 1.2ha parcel, planted to 80-year-old vines at 550m. Having undergone malo for 18 months in large oak casks, Contrada C offers purple flower aromas, lush red fruit, hyper-tart acidity and lava-like minerality.
At 850m, Contrada Sciaranuova is a 1ha parcel of new lava that’s since turned to thick gravel and is planted to vines that are also 80-years-old. Deep and rich with cherry and red plum fruit and floral aromas, Contrada S is layered with acidity and dark soil notes that appear just at the finish.
From Mount Etna’s most famous and sought after contrada, Contrada Porcaria resides at 650m, a 1.5ha plot of frail lava sheet soil. In 2011, it yielded the spiciest of the series, a lean and savory wine that’s dark on the soil expression, with mouth watering acidity and lighter fruit.
The highest cru at 1,000m, Contrada Rampante delivers the most aromatic wines of Etna, due to the sandy character of its lava soil. A bouquet of rose petals, wild purple flowers, and red cherry fruit yields way to lean, velvety tannins that cup the bright acidity that lingers long on the finish.
As we sat to lunch, and the Franchetti wines were poured, we were awed at the range of expressions in the glass. A blend of 40% Cesanese d’Affile and 60% Petit Verdot, the ‘Franchetti’ 2005 , Andrea’s first vintage from Etna, was awarded 95 points by Parker. Offering a smoky minerality with savory, herbaceous notes, the 2005 balances plum and dried cherry fruits, with great acidity that demonstrates the wine’s longevity.
The ‘Franchetti’ 2006 (100% Petit Verdot) is singing. “It’s a really good wine,” said Andrea, shyly adding, “It’s one of the best wines made in Sicily, ever.” Intense, balanced and deep, at its second year of picking the vineyard was “still in experimental stages. The plants were still four-years-old with low yields,” and the vintage earned Franchetti 97 Parker points. With aromas of dried figs, the palate on the 2006 is savory and deep with a touch of cinnamon mid-palate and dried cherries near the finish that lingers long, still fresh with vibrant acidity.
Through the vintages, the wines were brilliant expressions of terroir, each as individualistic as Franchetti’s peers on Etna, who he brought together to form the Contrada dell’Etna, Sicily’s greatest wine event. “I invited producers to come and show their wines to each other because it was very chaotic,” he said. “Sicilians are very individualistic. They look at each other with suspicion, but inter-tasting was very necessary. It became such a massive event, that last year we didn’t have the space, so another larger winery had to host it. It’s the most important wine event in Sicily that started just by chance.”
As we tasted our way to ‘Franchetti’ 2011 (50% Cesanese d’Affile, 50% Petit Verdot), Andrea said, “The 2011 is [an] already full and perfect year. By perfect I mean we picked all over the mountain and got the best possible grapes in that year.” With late rains and a long season, this was a vintage that enabled Franchetti to “just wait until we were satisfied with the fruit.” Every year, he told us, the harvest on Etna gets later and later, enabling them to regularly pick five to six days later than the previous year. And with ‘Franchetti’ 2011, the results were magical. With beautiful aromas of earth and spice, enticing like the warmth of a loved one’s body, ‘Franchetti’ 2011 offers volcanic minerality, savory olive notes and acidity that’s seamlessly integrated into the wine’s velvety tannins. As the current release, the 2011 is now in stock, and ripe for delivery.