Monday, 7 October 2013

GOURMET TRAVELLER: The Good Life in the Shadow of Mount Etna

First published in the September edition of India Today Travel Plus

SPIRITED TRAVELLER / By Sourish Bhattacharyya

IN ETNA’S SINISTER SHADOW
MAKING wine on Europe’s tallest active volcano? It seems like a crazy idea, for the volcano erupts with deathless regularity, and at least once a decade, its lava flows reach dangerously close to the highest town, turning the land along the way into mounds of solidified magma, uncultivable for hundreds of years.
This is a view of Mount Etna from the beach resort town of
Taormina painted by Thomas Cole in 1842. The topography
and life around the perennially active volcano has changed
dramatically since the time this scene was painted. 
That hasn’t stopped the Nicolosi family from being in the wine business since 1726. Their windswept vineyard is perched at a height of 700m, overlooking the coastline of the hedonistic holiday destination Taormina. The soil, having collected lava chips carried by the air whenever an eruption takes place, crunches under your feet as you go up and down the 45-degree slope. It’s an eerie feeling, but the Nicolosi family isn’t alone on the slopes of Etna.
The slopes of Etna today support about 100 producers, all between 400m and 800m, the point beyond which human habitation isn’t allowed. Some of them are new arrivals, who come with heavy-duty credentials, such as Alessio Planeta, one of Sicily’s most important wine producers, and Giuseppe Tasca of the famous Regaleali estate. They’ve been attracted by two features of Etna’s gloomy landscape — the area is teeming with abandoned vineyards, which are up for grabs at discounted prices, and many of these sites have old vines, the stuff every winemaker dreams of.
The Planeta estate in the district of Sciara Nuova had been abandoned for 20 years, giving the soil the rest it needed to rejuvenate and play ball with one of Italy’s most prestigious labels. Ironically, its wines cannot carry Etna’s name on their labels because the DOC rules don’t permit vineyards above 800m, but the Planeta estate is at 870m. The wine house has gotten around the problem by coming up with a most attractive label for its white wine produced with Carricante grapes and 5 per cent Riesling. The wine is called Eruzione 1614, commemorating a slow eruption that started that year and continued for a decade!
Back at Barone di Villagrande, Marco Nicolosi, the youngest member of the family, whose Ph.D. thesis at Milan was on the techniques of producing red Nerello Mascalese wines, explains how the constant breeze counteracts the effects of heavy rain (it rains ten times more than the rest of Sicily on the slopes of Etna) by drying the grapes. The harvest is completed in mid-October and the rains start towards the month’s end. It’s just the kind of place where you’d want to go on a holiday, especially in May and June, and the Nicolosi family has just the place where you’d want to check in. A pretty little hotel with four rooms and all the mod-cons you could possibly want, including free WiFi. If I had the luxury, when at Villagrande, I would give my laptop a break and go up the Etna on a mountain bike, and if luck’s on my side, watch it spew out lava as I settle down with a glass of Carricante. www.villagrande.it

A NAME WITH A REPUTATION
THE NAME Cerasuolo di Vittoria has the gravitas that you’d expect of a red wine region that was the first in Sicily to be granted the coveted DOCG status in 2005 — and it’s still the only one to carry that mark of distinction in Italy’s sprawling southern island. Yet, very few people know about it because, as Decanter magazine analyses it so aptly, the wines from this south-eastern corner of Sicily have neither “the jammy fruit and chewy textures of the international-style reds invented in the 1990s,” nor the “headline-grabbing attention of Etna wines, with their celebrity owners and old bush vines.”
The wines marry the “tannins and earthiness” of Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s much-acclaimed red wine grapes, with the “floral aromas and juiciness” of the sensitive Frappato, which only grows in Vittorio. In the words of Decanter, they have “a unity and authenticity that make them a true reflection of their terroir — one which, perhaps surprisingly given the baking hot climate, expresses aroma and an exhilarating dry intensity rather than weight and power.”
Gulfi is one of the big players of the area and its vineyards at Chiaramonte Gulfi, a commune in the province of Ragusa, offers a great getaway in Locanda Gulfi, which has a restaurant that showcases the best of Sicilian cuisine, and the more informal Hosterja Gulfi, where guests eat on lava tables and draw wines freely from the barrels next to them. You could go for a wine tasting weekend or bone up on Sicilian cuisine at the cooking classes of the resident chef, Carmelo Floridia, or make Gulfi your base to travel to the historical cities of Siracusa, Noto, Modica, Ragusa Ibla and Catania, which are famous for their magnificent showpieces of Sicilian Baroque architecture. Go to www.gulfi.it, download the brochure and book your holiday now.

BACK FROM THE BRINK
TOWARDS Sicily’s south-east is the historic town of Siracusa, which was colonised by the Greeks in the eight century B.C. The days of the colonisers, and their Roman successors, who brought corn to Sicily, come alive in the ancient ruins scattered across the city’s historical centre, but their fragrant and fruity gift to thirsty humanity, Moscato di Siracusa, which could rightfully claim to be Italy’s oldest wine grape, would have been lost forever had Antonio ‘Nino’ Pupillo not revived it 25 years ago at the property his grandfather bought in 1908.
The centerpiece of the property is the castle-like country house that the German emperor, Frederick II, built in 1240. Guarded by a 60-year-old cactus tree that is as tall as the castle, it’s the kind of location where you’d want to host your 50th birthday bash. The place is studded with historical relics, including an eight-century Arab stone engraving of Bacchus wearing a lion mask surrounded by vines and bunches of grapes, and you can savour a Sicilian repast at the 18th-century Palmento, a spacious hall that can easily accommodate a wedding reception. My meal, laid out by the Pupillo family, consisted of skinned roasted bell peppers, the Sicilian stuffed rice balls, arancini, cabbage rolls with rice, bread with caponata (the sweet and sour fried eggplant preparation), pita bread with wild spinach, and sausages cooked with Moscato wines and raisins — rustic yet wholesome, fresh and flavourful, just what you’d want with a glass of Podero 27, the refreshingly crispy sparkler, and the 100 per cent Moscato, Cyane, an intensely aromatic, slightly sweet white wine that lingers on your palate much after you’ve drunk it. www.solacium.it

THIS MONTH’S TIP-OFF
A GUIDED wine tour of Mount Etna, especially if you happen to be around when the smoking giant is erupting, is an experience not to be missed. A drive up the slopes of Etna takes you to vineyards where wine tastings are accompanied by delish cherry tomatoes, cheeses, roasted peppers in olive oil and salami from local wild pigs; to the national park where you can follow breathtaking walking trails amid masses of ghostly magma formations; and to baroque towns where you’re greeted by the whiff of the distinctive local cuisine simmering in the kitchens of family-run restaurants. If you have the time, you can take a slight detour to the town of Bronte, which is famous for its pistachios that show up in sweets, baked goodies and ice-cream. Check out the tour on offer at www.lebaccanti.com. A family for four can buy a tour for Eur 165 per person (including taxes and fees).

500,000
THESE many years of constant volcanic eruptions on Mount Etna have enriched its soil with the kind of minerals that make a difference to the quality of the wines produced on its slopes.