The rise and fall of Sicilian wines over several decades is a dizzying tale of opportunities taken and spurned, blessed and besieged, during what might be considered the modern era.
For hundreds of years before the chaos of a spectacular volcanic eruption (1669) and a massive earthquake (1693) struck the island, the island of Sicily was a strategic prize. Cultures shifted as a parade of Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Moors, British, Dutch, French and other conquerors occupied the island in succession. Its rich and varied history has resulted in a spectacular array of language, culture, architecture, and food. And, of course, wine!
Vineyards bowing to the grace of Mt. Etna (“her”) are the focus of this story about Benanti Winery.
A VERY Short History of Modern Sicilian Wine
During the early 1800s, nearly 1,000 acres of land were planted to vines in and around Viagrande, a commune at the base of Mt. Etna in the Sicilian province of Catania. Production emphasis was on brandy for export. The industry was prolific, at least until a spate of volcanic eruptions, cholera, agricultural blight, oidium (powdery mildew), and multiple seasons of bad weather, ground the industry to a near halt. What remained of Sicily’s viticultural abundance was raided by the administrators of the 1861 Risorgimento (unification of Italy).
Shortly after, however, mainland Europe’s vineyards were decimated by the phylloxera louse that was accidentally imported on vines from America. Suddenly Sicily’s wines were in hot demand to supply thirsty Europe. The boom continued into the late 1800s/early 1900s, in part because Sicily built a new train system to traverse Etna from the city of Catania to the seaport of Riposto. Sicily was a pioneer in the growing international agriturismo (farm stay) industry. Journals and how-to booklets published around 1920 guided many new winemakers through the process. And specialty wines—signature products of place and/or style—began to differentiate the contradas (neighborhoods or regions) of Sicily.
But there was no escaping periods of doom in the early- to mid-1900s. First there were the global traumas of the Great Depression and World War II added to Etna’s unique earthquake challenges. All countries took a big hit during that period of time. As the pendulum swung to a positive trend in the 1960s, Etna winemakers decided to get on the quality bandwagon. Etna was named Sicily’s first DOC in 1968. Progress was short-lived, however. Europe’s recession in the early 1970s prompted government policies to abandon (grub up) unproductive vineyards, but also inspired the emergence of cooperatives founded to aid struggling winemakers. A short decade later, the entire Italian wine market was stalled by scandal.
Then along came Dr. Giuseppe Benanti in 1988, followed by stranieri (“foreigners”) in the 1990s, willing and able to do something about Sicily’s terrible wine!
When Cavaliere Giuseppe Benanti decided to start a winery in 1988, there were only four wineries in the Mt. Etna area. Now there are 154.
Known as Giuseppe, his grandfather and namesake started planting grapes on the family estate in the commune of Viagrande in 1890. Although Benanti had built a successful professional career as a chemist working in his father’s pharmacy business, he was inspired by a personal desire to drink good wine and a big vision of restoring the integrity of indigenous grape varieties.
Benanti was the first Etna winery to grow grapes on all four slopes of Mt. Etna. Since 2012, the winery has been managed by Giuseppe’s fraternal twin sons, Antonio (president) and Salvino (general manager), who remain committed to producing wines using 100% native grapes: Carricante and Cataratto (white), and Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio (red).
Palmenti are traditional wine cellars unique to Sicily. Benanti has beautifully preserved its old cellar, an unusual structure with four rooms on different levels designed to exploit gravity so grape must can flow into large fermentation tanks for pressing. Although these buildings are common throughout Sicily’s countryside and rural villages, due to EU regulations, they are no longer used to make wine.
- Lamoremio Brut Rosato Metodo Classico (“my valentine”). 100% Nerello Mascalese, the noble red grape of Sicily, from a selection of vineyards on Mt. Etna’s southern slopes. Salmon color; tart red fruit on the palate with a saline finish and nervy character.
- Etna Bianco DOC. Carricante, the noble white grape of Sicily, from a selection of vineyards on eastern and southern slopes. Vinified in stainless steel on fine lees, aged in bottle for one year. Similar to the minerality in Chablis. Ageworthy for up to 20 years.
- Contrada Cavaliere Etna Bianco. Grown in high-altitude vineyards of sandy volcanic soil on the southwestern slope of Mt. Etna, this 100% Carricante wine is at once intense and delicate, with aromas of orange blossom and ripe apple.
- Contrada Cavaliere Etna Rosso. Also grown on the sandy volcanic soil on the southwestern slope. 100% Nerello Mascalese, this medium-bodied wine has ripe tannins. On the nose, aromas of red fruit merge with warm spices.
- Nerello Cappuccio Terre Siciliane Rosso. The final treat from the southwestern slope is thought to be indigenous to Etna (although its exact origins are unknown). It is fermented and matured exclusively in stainless steel. With violet nuances, and fine aromas of spices, herbs, smoke, and delicate red fruit, this wine is medium-bodied with satin tannins and pleasant acidity.
To arrange a tour and tasting:
Want to learn more about Mt. Etna Wines?
American native Benjamin North Spencer, DipWSET, is a lucky guy. He married Sicilian native Nadine while both were living in the US and Ben was working his way through the northern California wine industry. Convinced that moving to Sicily would be a joyful journey, off they went in 2010. Great decision!! As Ben says now, “I’m not a tourist. I live here. I’ve become part of this place, and Etna has become part of me.” Ben invites you to join him in this learning journey.
During the past decade, Ben has launched a wine school (Etna Wine School, 2011) and written a definitive guide to Mt. Etna wines (The New Wines of Mount Etna, 2020). If you’re visiting the Mt. Etna appellation, be sure to book an Etna experience to learn about the incredible volcanic soils, visit wineries, pair Sicilian food and wine, and more! If you’re a student of wine seeking deeper Italian credentials, Etna Wine School is the place for you. To prepare for your visit, Ben’s book is a wonderfully accessible recounting of Sicilian wine history along with tips for wineries to visit, places to stay, and how to make the most of your visit.
Want to meet some of the 21st century stranieri (“foreigners) putting Sicily back on the map?
Robert Camuto is a travel and wine writer whose work I have long admired. His fiftieth (2008) was a very big year for Camuto. He started writing for Wine Spectator and won a “book of the year” award for his book Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country. He spent a year traversing Sicily to understand its emerging wine scene and wrote about that journey in Palmento (2010). Living in Italy a decade later, Camuto wrote his newest book called South of Somewhere: Wine, Food, and the Soul of Italy as a tribute to his family’s ancestral home on the Sorrento Peninsula south of Naples.