While traveling in Sicily, it was hard not to think of wine director Shelley Lindgren and her restaurant A16. Shelley’s done more for the reputation and profile of Southern Italian wines than anyone in the city, perhaps the country. There are lots of regions you’ve never heard of, strange sounding grape varieties, wines with flavors and aromas like you’ve never experienced.
One region I predict you’ll be hearing about in the not-too-distant future is Mount Etna on the eastern edge of Sicily. Etna’s not well-known now, but its potential is vast. Which is an ironic thing to say, as Etna was formerly one of the most productive and famous wine areas in the world. About the size of Massachusetts, Sicily is a big island, and people have called it home for a while—oh, to the tune of 5000 years. And over a good part of that time, Etna was a primary source of red wine to Europe. Until the 19th century, its dark red wines, made primarily from the obscure grape Nerello Mascalese, were shipped all over Europe. They were used to cut (and bolster) the reds from famous regions like Burgundy and Piedmont. They were prized in cellars across Italy. But as Italy’s economic and political dynamics shifted over the last two centuries, Sicily and in fact all of Italy’s south devolved, growing poorer and less relevant as the north flourished. Etna’s vineyards continued to produce, but in obscurity.
If you were to see the vineyards of Mt. Etna, an active volcano, though, you would have my confidence that the south will rise again. Steep slopes house ancient stone terraces on which gnarled old vines of 30-130 years of age produce fruit of incredible intensity. The dark volcanic soils are rich in minerals and stone. Lots of sun, but cool nights in summer ensure powerful wines that smell of cherries and stone but nevertheless flaunt good acidity and sweet tannins. The fact that internationally esteemed wine cognoscenti like importer Marc de Grazia and winemaker Andrea Franchetti of Tuscany’s Tenuta di Trinoro have chosen this place for elaborate new projects shows the confidence the region is again engendering. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, ask the good people at A16 for a bottle next time you go in.