Friday, August 19, 2016

Prince of the Volcano – Antonio at Benanti Winery on Mt. Etna

(June 2016) Benanti is one of the oldest and most prestigious wineries in Sicily, and as such, only allows tastings by appointment in their family mansion located in the small town of Viagrande. There is no sign announcing the winery, and the estate is surrounded by a tall wall and high iron gates. Driving along the hilly residential road with glimpses of the blue sea below, it is very easy to miss.

The Estate of Benanti Winery

Fortunately our bus driver had the GPS coordinates, and Lorenzo, our guide, went inside the property to make sure we were at the correct location. Once this was ascertained, we descended from the bus and walked up a long driveway with a view of the two-story gray stone mansion at the end. A graveled patio, wine barrels with flowers, and large green lawns graced the property, while directly behind were steep slopes covered with vineyards climbing up the flank of Mt. Etna.

Grounds of Benanti Winery Estate

About Benanti Winery

Originally started in the 1700’s, the vineyards and winery have been passed down through the generations, and are currently managed by Antonio Benanti. With only 14 hectares of vineyards and producing around 150,000 bottles per year, Benanti is a true “cult” winery of Sicily. Indeed the general tasting fee of 50 euros per person was the highest we encountered on our trip to Southern Italy, and reminded me of the price paid in Napa Valley to visit a cult winery.

Benanti exports 70% of their production, with the USA as the largest market. They have received high ratings and very positive reviews from US magazines, such as Wine Spectator.

Antonio Benanti – Son of the Volcano

Antonio Benanti, with his quick youthful movements, good looks, and obvious passion for his wines, easily charmed our group with his explanation of the vineyard and winemaking processes. He stressed how different the climate and terroir of Mt. Etna were, and described how growing up on the edge of a volcano shaped him, his family, and the wines.

“It is funny how an aggressive volcano can create such delicate, balanced and elegant wines,” exclaimed Antonio, as he held a glass of white wine, made with the carricante grape, up to the light.

Antonio Benanti - Prince of the Volcano

He then explained how his family was responsible for pioneering the rebirth of Mt. Etna, whose great winemaking legacy had fallen into the same bulk wine morass that had tainted all of Sicily until recent times. In 1988 the Benanti family brought in a team of experts to help revamp the vineyards and winemaking processes. In 1993 they introduced their first wine at Vin Italy, and then spent 3 to 4 years traveling around the world to promote the wines.

The promotion element was very important we learned, because the style of Benanti wines is quite distinct. Antonio describes the climate as an “Alpine altitude at a Mediterranean latitude.” He says the closest region making similar wine styles is Alto Adige.

Benanti Vineyards with View of Ocean in the Distance

With a focus on grapes that are specific to the Mt. Etna terroir:  carricante, nerello mascalese, and nerello cappuccio, all of their wines are very mineral driven, with high acid, and delicate balanced styles with elegance. They are not the normal heavily textured whites and reds of Southern Italy. Again this is due to the higher elevation on Mt. Etna, the cooler climate, airflow, and the unique volcanic soil. Irrigation is not allowed.

Due to Benanti’s leadership, there are now over 131 brands produced on Mt. Etna, because many other small wineries have started up in the past decade. 

Walking up the Slope of Mt. Etna to Benanti Vineyards

Walking Up the Slope of Mt. Etna for a Tour of Benanti Vineyards

We began our tour with a walk up the hill to the vineyards spread out along a gentle slope on Mt. Etna with views of the ocean. Antonio escorted us to an ancient vineyard with vines aged over 100 years, and described the low yield and the high quality coming from these small antique vines. He pointed to other newer blocks, and described some of the other varieties they were experimenting with, but stressed that their focus was on indigenous varieties.

Viticultural techniques are mainly organic, only using organic products such as sulfur, copper and manure for fertilization. They have 20 to 25 seasonal workers.

As I stood on the slopes of Mt. Etna surrounded by the ancient vines climbing up the hillside, I couldn’t help but feel the pulsing energy of the mountain.  I thought of how the lava must have poured down this slope to the shining blue sea so close by, and knew the roots of the vines were digging deeply into this unique soil. It was truly one of the most beautiful vineyards I have ever seen.

Standing in Benanti's Vineyard of Ancient Vines on Mt. Etna

Unique Winemaking Room of a Palmento from the 1700’s

After our tour of the vineyard, we walked back down the hill, and Antonio ushered us into a cellar with a huge wooden press that had been built in the 1700’s. Called a “Palmento,” Antonio told us it was an ancient winemaking operation that used to be shared by the whole community - similar to a communal olive oil press. The Palmento is actually attached to the mansion, and Antonio explained that the house had been build up around it.

The Palmento - An Ancient Communal Wine Cellar at Benanti Winery

Based on a gravity flow system, workers poured in the grapes on the top floor, where they were crushed by foot, and the juice and must flowed to underground stone tanks for fermentation. Antonio told us the workers would stand in a circle, holding one another by the shoulders and sing a song that required that each person sing a different verse. In this way, if someone didn’t sing their part, they knew that person was exhausted and perhaps overtaken by the fermentation fumes. This is because fermentation would often start during the stomping process.

After fermentation, the giant press was used to press the new wine and it was placed back into the stone tanks for aging, or immediately bagged in large oil skins for transport to market. In addition, customers could stop by the palmento and bring their own bottle to purchase wine.

Antonio said he witnessed the Palmento being used when he was a child.  There is also a Youtube video of the ancient process.  See here as well as here.

Wines of Benanti

Modern Winemaking at Benanti Today

Though the palmento still works, today the Benanti’s make their wine in a modern winemaking facility in the back of the property. However they plan to operate the palmento once a year as part of a festival and to demonstrate how it works.

Their winemaking philosophy is to let the varietal characteristics of the grapes shine through the wine. Therefore they only ferment in stainless steel for whites and older French oak for reds. Fermentation temperatures range from 18 – 19 C for whites and 25 – 26 C for reds. Interestingly, they have patented four yeasts, which are unique to their microclimate and came from the palmento.

Antonio impressed me with his singular focus on differentiation. He explained beautifully, and at least ten times, how his wines were different from anything else in the world. “We process wines that are a cultural experience that tell you about a place.”

Wine Tasting in Ornate Room of Mansion at Benanti Winery

A Wine Tasting in the Benanti Mansion

After viewing the Palmento, Antonio invited us into a beautiful large room in the mansion. It was filled with expensive oil paintings, tapestries, red velvet curtains, a large stone fireplace, and crystal chandeliers. In the center of the room there were six tables elaborately set with large wine glasses and plate after plate of delicious Sicilian appetizers. It was the most ornate room we had tasted in on our whole trip, and everyone was in awe over the luxurious surroundings.

Enjoying the Wine Tasting at Benanti

Antonio invited us to help ourselves to the appetizers, which included plates of local cheeses, meats, olives, breads, and tapenades. While his assistants poured us three Benanti wines, Antonio explained the winemaking techniques and characteristics of each. All three were very distinctive, well-made and exquisite to taste.

2013 Benanti Etna Bianco  - made of 100% Carricante grape, stainless steel fermented, then aged for 18 months before release. Crisp, fresh and mineral driven with lemon, nuts and a salty note. Unique, refreshing and enjoyable to drink.

2012 Benanti Nerello Cappuccio – made of the blending grape called Nerello Cappuccio, which means “black pouch or hood,” because the grape vine looks like a hood when it grows on the bush vine (albero trained vined). Everyone fell in love with this grape because it had soft velvety tannins and a ripe cherry and berry palate with a floral note. Similar to a soft pinot noir with medium ruby color, Antonio told us it was often the favorite wine of women, due to the approachable tannin structure.

2012 Benanti Nerello Mascalese – blended with 20% Nerello Cappuccio to add color and softness, this wine nevertheless showed the massive tannins of Nerello Mascalese, which combined with its lighter red color and earthy, tar notes, reminds me of a toned down nebbiolo. It was also aged in 30% new French oak with medium toast. The wine had crisp acid and paired well with the cheeses and meats.

Benanti Wines from Mt. Etna, Sicily

As we tasted, Antonio stressed that all three wines were age worthy, and could last in bottle for years – even the whites. In addition, he ages the carricante and nerello cappuccio in tank with nitrogen protection for 18 to 24 months before bottling. We were surprised to hear this, because keeping that many vintages in tank would take up a lot of room in the cellar and be costly. Most people would age in bottle so to have room for the new harvest, but he explained that he felt he had more quality control by monitoring tanks. After bottling, the wines continue to age in bottle for another 3 to 12 months, depending on the vintage and varietal. The nerello mascalese is aged in 30% new French oak.

Our visit to Benanti was very memorable, not only due to the luxurious beauty of the tasting and the wonderful tour of the vineyard and palmento, but especially because of Antonio’s passion and enthusiasm for his wines and the volcano he calls home. 

Saying Farewell to Antonio at Benanti Winery

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