During the day we would work from the balcony, overlooking our piazza, with its stunning fountain, and towering Opera house. At night we would sit on rooftops, sip cocktails and watch the sun set over our girl Etna. Eventually we found the local Vermouth dives, and seated in alleyways between mopeds, we would lower our masks to suck up salty olives and juicy figs. Countless bottles of Insolia were consumed to go with the pounds of fish we were buying from the local fish market each morning.
As the weeks passed, Etna had become our companion. Our North Star, a cool Aunt of sorts who sat above us, glamorously puffing away on a long slim cigarette, watching over us, but also making sure we knew who was in charge. Now that we were so close to Etna, I truly couldn’t pass up the opportunity to understand more about this DOC wine region that was growing in popularity, and the grape, Nerello Macalese, I had tasted a few times, and remembered thinking…”are you sure this isn’t Burgundy Pinot?” With total havoc looming over the tourism industry, prices to tour Etna and its wineries were seriously slashed. We booked a private tour that included a morning of hiking, and an afternoon at the Palmento Costanzo winery, all via my favourite vehicle — the Defender 90.
Our tour guide (who of course, is now also a friend) picked us up early in the morning, and with our masks on, and temperatures scanned, we began the ascension up Etna. Etna sits at roughly 3K meters (10K feet) above sea level, and its volcanic soil has long supported extensive agriculture. The colors are wild and have a dangerous flair – all black and orange with stripes of green, it felt quite fitting we were visiting on Halloween.
We drove through idyllic villages, with breath-taking views, and made our first stop to explore a lava cave. With helmets and flashlights, we went underground, and learned that Sicilians used these caves for ice production (talk about a seriously cool walk-in freezer). We hopped back in the D90 for some off-roading through the ancient forests, speckled with diverse flora and fauna. Our hike took us through old and new lava flows, and Davide pointed out the nested stratovolcanoes, with their distinct summit craters. Hungry and thirsty, we climbed back in our ride, and began our descent towards the Passopisciaro village, along the Northern Slope.
After pulling off the main road, and winding through the dormant vines, we arrived at the Palmento Costanzo tasting room, which sits tucked between their three prized parcels. The building is absolutely stunning and modern, featuring floor to ceiling windows. I vowed that one day I would return to throw an epic party inside this glass box surrounded by vineyards. Our table was set with local bread, their bespoke Extra Virgin Monte Etna DOP Olive Oil, antipasti, and the smells wafting from the kitchen indicated we were in for a treat beyond wine.
We started with the introductory Mofete line – a beautiful Nerello Mascalese rosato, with notes of apricot, fennel, thyme, peach, strawberry, and the classic high acidity Nerello Macalese is lauded for. Next we moved onto the Di Sei collection – the Bianco made from 90% Carricante, and 10% Catarrato, it was zesty, with notes of brioche from 10 months on fine lees. The 2016 Di Sei Rosso, 80% Nerello Mascalese, and 20% Nerello Cappucio was a showstopper. Some of the vines included here are up to 100 years old, as many of the vines planted in volcanic sands continued to thrive while the rest of Europe was ravaged by phylloxera. Palmento does make wine made from 100% pre-phylloxera vines, in 2016 they produced 1,700 bottles of it via their ‘Prefillossera’ line. The intensity and aromas these roots sucked up from the earth was apparent, reaching its full potential via aging 24 months in large oak barrels, and 12 in the bottle. This wine hit all the right notes, with bright cherries, baking spices, leather, mint, and all that volcanic earthy goodness. It went harmoniously with a classic Sicilian hearty white bean stew with ribbons of fatty pork. Mark my word, this mid-range wine could take on a Grand Cru Pinot Noir any day.
Next we moved on to the ‘Contrada Santo Spirito’ line. Here, ‘Contrade’ is defined by small subsections of the mountain that are characterized by specific lava flows and microclimates. With such distinct growing conditions all over Etna, and within Vineyards, each winery is allowed to define ‘Contrada’ wines they feel expresses that particular terroir. Palmento’s three ‘Contrada’ are Particellas (Parcels) 466, 464, and 468. We sampled one wine from each parcel, all 2016, 90% Nerello Mascalese, and 10% Nerello Cappuccio. All aged for 24 months in their French Oak Ovums (yes, they have aging Ovums), and 12 months in bottle. At 40 Euro, these wines deliver elegance, complexity, and terroir. My personal favourite being the 464, with an intense bouquet of orange zest, violets, followed by sweet spices, and unctuous balsamic notes, balanced by refreshing minerality and acidity.
After our delicious lunch and parade of memorable Etna DOC wines, it was time to see where the magic happened. Our tour guide was an extremely hip young woman, with a killer Louise Brooks bob. She took us through the North Slope where the red varietals were planted, and down to the East Slope to visit the whites, most sitting between 650-700M above sea level. The vines were rustic and bush trained, supported by chestnut poles, with 365’ sun exposure. Unsurprisingly at this point, we came to find out they are certified organic.
We made our way to the original winery structure, constructed in the eighteenth century, and renovated in 2010. The restoration was carried out with bio-architecture in mind, maximizing efficiency via gravity, or the ‘fall” vinification process. We climbed the 15 cement steps to the top and were lucky enough to witness winemaking in progress. Grapes had just been pressed and stalks were being hand raked out, as the juice made its descent into the cellar. We also met one of the newest enologists, another rad young woman, and my heart immediately soared in a total fangirl moment. I’ve always been a subscriber to the philosophy ‘see it to be it’, and in her, I saw myself, in a space that’s long been reserved for men, like many spaces in the wine world.
Leaving the winemakers to their important work, we moved into the modern cellar, which was built to expand production with bio-architectural philosophies in mind. It is lit by five cones that funnel in natural light, and encased in thick lava stone walls. These walls protect the wine from thermal changes and ensure cool tempuratures throughout the year. Add in the underground thermal labyrinth that ran beneath our feet, and you can feel the intrinsic use of natural resources at play here.
I was immediately drawn to the Oak Ovum, designed in 2010 by the Taransaud coopers. Of course we’ve all seen the trendy Concrete Egg, no modern winemaker would be caught dead without one. Like ‘Natural’ wine, these egg-shaped vessels are a modern innovation based on much older winemaking principles. The egg shape is extremely efficient, with its smooth, continuous surface, it allows wine to move freely during the fermentation process. In aging via the Oak Ovum, you have the benefits of this natural movement and convection adding complexity to the wine, as well as the flavours of vanilla, spice, and toast the oak itself will add. Also, they’re pieces of gorgeous modern art that add a flair to any winery space. We made one final stop in the cellars to check out some experimental fermentation happening with wild yeasts, all giggles as one of the workers was elbow deep ‘stirring’ the juice. We also got to play winemaker assistants ourselves by hand spinning some barrels.
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