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Last week, I started chronicling my press trip to Sicily, the almost mystical island off the toe of Italy. We started the week on the East side of the island, navigating around Mount Etna, the active volcano that influences every aspect of life.
On Day Two of the trip, we headed to Caverna Etnea, the Firriato estate that is just a few kilometers from the volcano.
Just as Mount Etna casts a shadow on a large swath of Sicily, Firriato , despite being a relatively new producer (founded in 1984), is a dominant player in the Sicilian wine scene. With six estates on the island that encompass the seven main soil types on the island, Firriato produces 4.5 million bottles (375K cases) across 34 labels.
The company is also a leader in the promotion of sustainable and organic farming with 380 hectares (989 acres) of vineyards, all farmed organically. Firriato has three hospitality sites among their estate vineyards and we were welcomed to one of them, Caverna Etnea, by Irene Di Gaetano Lombardo di Monte Iato, daughter of the founders Salvatore and Vinzia Novara Di Gaetano, and her husband, Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato, now the COO of Firriato.
The property, which is situated within the Etna National Park Nature Reserve, is centered around the an early 18th Century palmento (a Sicilian word meaning, essentially, winery, but has come to indicate a building containing a wooden wine press). The main building also contains several guest rooms where we spent the night.
Upon arrival we had a walking tour of the property and vineyards with Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato, who, it turns out, is an actual Count (a noble title which is somewhere below a Duke and above a Baron—I actually succeeded in not making any references to the only other Counts I know: Dracula, Monte Cristo, Chocula). Federico married into the family a few years ago and he has been feverishly studying the wine business ever since.
After a fabulous dinner and several bottles (who’s counting?) of Firriato wine, we retired to our rooms on the property.
The following morning after breakfast and a quick workout in the well-equipped gym, we headed up the hill to the Caverna’s Wine Bar for a tasting of a few of Firriato’s wines.
Here are a few of the wines we tried that really stood out:
The first two wines were sparklers, a relatively new undertaking for Firriato, but one that they are not taking lightly. Currently only 10% of the production (with plans to grow), but Firriato made a significant investment and purchased all the necessary equipment for its production, convinced of the vast potential of sparkling wines from Etna.
Gaudensius Blanc de Blancs Brut: 40% Caricante from Etna (Caricante comes from the local dialect meaning “to load” as the variety has traditionally been used for its very high yields, but Firriato, to improve quality, has identified a clone with very small berries and a low yield) and about 60% Chardonnay from western Italy. According to Federico, Caricante is rather tasteless but has great acidity. This wine spent 18 months sur lies, but they are going to increase that eventually to 30 months. Rich and creamy nose. Nice and tart good depth. This is nice. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
Gaudensius Blanc de Noirs, Etna: Etna sparkling must be 100% Nerello Mascalese. The name of the brand is Latin, meaning “enjoy.” Fruitier nose. Deeper and more corse. This is gangbusters. Can really taste the red fruit. A great wine for meals. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2016 Firriato Jasmin: 100% Zibibbo from Firriato’s holdings on the Western side of Sicily. Very aromatic grape that grows and ripens faster than the more widely known Sicilian variety, Grillo. Floral and honeyed, not over powering like some Zibibbo. Traditionally made sweet, but this is completely dry. Really fruity and delightful. This is nice. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2015 Firriato Sorìa: 100% Frappato. From Western Sicily. Translucent darkish red. Tons of raspberry on the nose. Really juicy and full with a bit of smoke. Fun wine. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91.
2012 Santagostino Baglio Sorìa: 50% Nero d’Avola 50% Syrah. More earthy on the nose with a bit of greenness (bell pepper) and black pepper. Big, spicy, and I really like it. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2013 Cavanera Rovo della Etna Coturnie: Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. Spice with a hint of funk that gradually burned off. Fruity initially, depth, weight, and spice come in on the mid-palate, with smokiness and grip on the finish. Nice. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2013 Firriato Harmonium: Considered “the” Nero d’Avola of Sicily (according to Federico). A blend of three single vineyard Neros. A bit dark red fruit and vanilla. On the palate round and luscious with good fruit and balance. This is yummy for sure. Whoa worthy? Not quite. But close. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2013 Firriato Ribeca: 100% Perricone. Grown in clay soil. Perricone was widely used to make Ruby Marsala, but its very low production and late ripening caused many farmers to switch to Nero d’Avola. When Firriato decided to plant more in 1987, vines were almost extinct. Dark chocolate and chalk on the nose. Great fruit with tons of structure. Whoa. This needs time but fantastic. Fruit, depth, intrigue. Whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.
2014 Firriato L’Ecrù: 100% Zibibbo. A passito wine (grapes are dried) but a unique method. Two different harvests: the first when grapes are slightly unripe, they are then put on drying rack. Two weeks later, the second, late harvest grapes are picked and make into wine. Once drying grapes have lost 70% of weight, they are then infused into the late harvest wine, which is at 17%. Then after a few days, based on taste, they remove the grapes and then press these grapes lightly, adding this juice back to the wine, lowering ABV to 13%, resulting in 170 grams of sugar. An intensely flavored wine, with orange peel and blossom along with dates and figs. Quite sweet, but also luscious, really a treat. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.