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The wine buff: Italian southern belles

 

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A vineyard in Sicily - the island now concentrates on quality.

A vineyard in Sicily - the island now concentrates on quality.

Castellore Organic Sparkling Grillo

Castellore Organic Sparkling Grillo

Mandrarossa Bonera

Mandrarossa Bonera

Etna Rosso Pietradolce 2018

Etna Rosso Pietradolce 2018

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A vineyard in Sicily - the island now concentrates on quality.

I spent two and a half weeks travelling around the south of Italy during the summer, starting in Naples, driving through Basilicata, over the Apennines to Puglia, then across to Calabria and finishing up in Sicily. Yes, it was a lot of moving around, but I hadn't been to these parts of the country before so a road trip was called for.

As much as the food varies when you travel through Italy, so too does the wine, and it is interesting to see the variation in styles. One of the places in Italy that has become the darling of wine geeks is Sicily, and, in particular, the wines from Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano.

The volcanic terroir is dense, but the roots of the bright yellow broom which grows across the slopes have been responsible for breaking up the rock into stony, sandy clay which allows the vines to flourish. We visited on a sunny day; the sky was clear, the perfume from the broom wafted in the warm air, and we could see wisps of smoke venting out of Mount Etna's peak. We heard later that evening that there had been a small eruption the previous day.

Winemaking in Etna, which was mostly done on a small scale, went into decline post-WWII; vineyards were abandoned, and many of the vineyards with the indigenous and little-known Nerello Mascalese and Carricante grapes were grubbed up to plant more popular international varietals, Chardonnay and Merlot, which were sold for bulk wine and blended elsewhere. But in the last 20 years, young winemakers have discovered that, hidden under weeds, some of the old vines still survive, and there has been a revival of interest in the region's indigenous grapes.

One of these winemakers is Michele Faro, who owns Pietradolce on the northern side of the volcano, with five different organic vineyards situated 600 to 900 metres above sea level. It's an impressive winery, surrounded by steep, terraced vineyards, some of them quite ancient.

These old vineyards are of particular note, because not only did they survive being grubbed up, the volcanic soil meant that they survived the scourge that is phylloxera, a disease that wiped out most of the vineyards in Europe in the late 1800s.

The most-prized plot is Vigna Barbagalli, a tiny vineyard where the terraces follow the lines of a natural amphitheatre, and the vines are further protected by olive, wild fig and hazelnut trees. The wild bush vines here are up to 120 years old, and they yield very little fruit, just 500 grams to one kilogram per vine. That's basically one bunch of grapes per vine.

As you can imagine, production is very low, and the price of these wines reflects that.

While this is out of reach for most people, all of the wines at Pietradolce are made in the same low-intervention way, with wild fermentation and minimum sulphur. I have one in today's Sicilian line-up.

Grapevine

The autumn Winemaker's Dinner at Ashford Castle on November 12 will be hosted by Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson Wine and hotel and vineyard owner Victoria Tollman. Following a drinks reception, a five-course tasting menu will be paired with the award-winning wines from this estate, which include stunning Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in South Africa. Dinner €120, or with overnight for two people, €535. www.ashfordcastle.com

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Castellore Organic Sparkling Grillo

€12.99, 11.5pc, from Aldi

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Castellore Organic Sparkling Grillo

Castellore Organic Sparkling Grillo

Castellore Organic Sparkling Grillo

 

Sicily does some really refreshing white wine, and Grillo is the grape which was traditionally used to make Marsala. This sparkling organic wine will appeal to Prosecco lovers with ripe peach, lime and a touch of spicy minerality.

Mandrarossa Bonera

€22-25, 13.5pc, from DrinkStore Stoneybatter; Deveneys; Kelly's and Jus de Vine

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Mandrarossa Bonera

Mandrarossa Bonera

Mandrarossa Bonera

 

From a highly respected co-op which produces top-quality wines from the western coast of Sicily, this blend of Nero D'Avola and Cabernet Franc has plenty of body with rich flavours of dark plums and a concentration of supple ripe fruit.

Etna Rosso Pietradolce 2018

€32, 13.5pc, from Green Man Wines, Deveney's, Ely64, and www.64wine.ie

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Etna Rosso Pietradolce 2018

Etna Rosso Pietradolce 2018

Etna Rosso Pietradolce 2018

 

Made from 100pc Nerello Mascalese grown 800m above sea level, this is scented with wild berries and herbs and a touch of spice, and is fresh, and elegant on the palate with a good backbone of tannins.

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