“It is a different kind of gloom if you get to a volcano rather than if you get to an abandoned volcano. The hued cellars laying collapsed on the blank slope, thousands of stone-walled terraces disappearing up to the mountain in the bush, the misery of black streets and ashen liberty facades. When I started, it seemed crazy to restore vineyards up at 1,000 meters on the northern side of Mt. Etna, where vines have always been planted. At night it’s cold, even in August, and the lava stays on the skin. The wines become solid but harsh and need endless handling, whether they are made of Nerello Mascalese or other grapes you’ve planted. The top of our Passopisciaro property is a looming hump of black gravel, where the lava spill from the eruption of 1947 stopped just shy of the vines. But the upsides are the starry nights, no mold, no moss, incredible ripeness, and no stopped fermentations, because nobody has fooled with the yeasts yet. Here, it is not Mother Nature that attracts you to Etna. It’s the poetry of it.”
– Andrea Franchetti
In 2000 Andrea Franchetti decided to restore an old farm and cellars on the slopes of Mount Etna, an active volcano in northeastern Sicily. The winery sits at about a thousand meters of altitude above the small wine town of Passopisciaro in the district of Castiglione di Sicilia, on the northern slope of the volcano. His first task was to clear and restore long-abandoned terraces of ancient vines on the northern slopes of the mountain, replanting at a density of 12,000 vines per hectare on thin lavic soil. His arrival on Etna helped to initiate the renaissance of viticulture on the mountain and an international discovery of the wines of Etna. At Passopisciaro, he focuses on the native grape Nerello Mascalese and its various expressions of terroir and altitdues through a series of crus, as well as the varieties Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, and Cesanese d’Affile.
The high altitude, sun-drenched vineyards are idyllic yet a constant plume of smoke and the odd ash-filled belch present a constant reminder that Etna is indeed a volcano with attitude, given to relatively frequent lava spills. These spills devastate the landscape, yet each flow leaves a unique mineral profile, giving rise to the notion of various terroirs, here called contrade. The borders of the contrade reflect old feudal property lines, which are still mapped out on the local land registry.
Franchetti, as ever, respects and plays to the strengths of his chosen terroir on Etna, producing wines of remarkable complexity and individual personality. Significant temperature differences between day and night also play an important role, necessitating a longer growing period and this, in turn, contributes complexity and intensity, as do the profound mineral elements of the volcanic soils.
Franchetti makes eight different wines at Passopisciaro, with six focused on the grape Nerello Mascalese. The wine Passopisciaro is a rendering of the grape that is unique and ever-present on the volcano. In 2005, Franchetti began making a striking red, to which he gave his own name, made with the grapes Petit Verdot and Cesanese d’Affile, loaded with sweet spices, cassis and plum that are woven together with profound elegance. He produced his first white Guardiola Bianco in 2007, a 100% Chardonnay planted at 850-1,000 metres above sea level, with a fresh, mineral and aromatic profile reminiscent of Chablis.
During the first several years of making wine on the volcano, Franchetti had realized that once the Nerello grapes reached the cellar, they produced different wines depending on the district from which they came from. The Contradas each come from vineyards of different ages and are each on a lava flow with different minerals, grain size and altitudes: this led him to vinify each district separately, representing the different taste of mount Etna’s ancient crus, starting in 2008.