Sunday, August 14, 2016

Visiting Planeta Winery on Mt. Etna, Sicily

(June 2016) The next morning we left the hotel around 9:30 to drive to our 11am appointment with Planeta Winery at their Feudo di Mezzo location on Mt. Etna. Planeta actually has six different wineries across the island, all with unique names, but they all fall under the family brand name of Planeta.

Mt. Etna with Smoke on Top from Earlier Erruption

First Glimpse of Mt Etna – Awe Inspiring

The drive from Messina to Mt Etna was beautiful, with colorful red and pink flowers along the highway and the blue sea twinkling at us. When we rounded a corner and saw the huge bulk of Mt. Etna with smoke still swirling around the top from the eruption the previous week, we all caught our breath in awe. It is a huge mountain (10,991 feet in elevation) – similar to the volcano on the island of Hawaii – and seems to take up the whole island. Snow still nestled upon the upper slopes, and it rose dramatically against the blue sky.

View of the Alcantara Gorge

Stopping at the Alcantara Gorge

Then we turned off the highway and began snaking our way up the back portion of the mountain. Along the way we made a rest stop at the Alcantara Gorge, which is a deep canyon formed by the Alcantara River which rushes down from the slopes of Mt. Etna. The canyon is composed of lava which the rushing water has carved into unique ballast pillars and steep gray rock walls. A popular activity for tourists is to go wading in the river wearing large rubber hip boots.

It was a great rest stop with plenty for free bathrooms and a tasty espresso bar.  Then we spent some time looking over the edge of the canyon and taking photos.

Unique Vegetation on Upper Slopes of Mt. Etna

The Zip Zag Road to Planeta Feudo di Mezzo Winery

After our rest, we climbed back on board the bus and continued to zig zag our way up the back slopes of Mt. Etna. The landscape slowly changed from the lush green vegetation below to black volcanic rock formations and flowering bushes covered in yellow and pink flowers.

The turn off to Planeta’s Feudo di Mezzo winery is easy to miss, as it is a small paved road weaving through volcanic rocks and bushes. The landscape was the most unusual I’ve ever witnessed for vineyards. In keeping with their focus on sustainability, the winery building is simple and composed of black volcanic stone so it blends in with the scenery.

The Simple Black Lava Stone Architecture of Planeta Winery on Mt. Etna

Touring Planeta and Visiting the “Secret Vineyard”

We were met by four very friendly Planeta employees, the winemaker, director of hospitality, wine tourism director, and export VP. They invited us on a tour of the small cellar made of black volcanic stone, and then invited us to walk down a steep trail to see a hidden ancient vineyard they had found on property.

To get to the vineyard, we had to climb down a slope littered with black volcanic rocks and flowering shrubs. We were accompanied by the winery dog, a huge German Shepard, who was very friendly.

Trail to the Secret Vineyard on Mt. Etna

The secret vineyard was one of the most exciting events of my time on Sicily, because it was a pre-phylloxera vineyard with vines of 120 years old. They were tiny, shrunken and composed of a field blend of indigenous grapes that had still not yet been completely identified. There were probably only about 200 vines in total, and the reason it is thought they survived is because the vineyard was located in a protected bowl, which looked like a small crater. It was exciting to be there amongst the ancient vines, and we took lots of photos. Interestingly the vineyard was surrounded by lush green ferns.

Our Group in the Secret Vineyard of 120 Year Old Vines on Mt. Etna

A Tasting in the Main Visitor Center of Planeta

Afterwards we returned to our bus and drove a short distance up the mountain to the main visitor center of the winery. This was surrounded completely by vineyards and an incredible view of the valley below.  We were invited into a long room, which was set up for a private tasting and presentation.

It was here that we learned about the unique grape varietals of Mt. Etna, not found on other parts of Sicily. Due to its high elevation, the climate on the slopes of Mt. Etna is cooler, so the wines produced are lighter and more elegant with naturally high acid -- very different from the heavily textured whites and reds we had elsewhere in Southern Italy.

Wine Tasting and Presentation at Planeta

Started in 1995, Planeta produces 2 million bottles of wine annually, but only 250,000 at this small winery location on Mt. Etna. They have a total of 90 acres of vineyards, with 26 on the mountain ranging from 500 to 1000 meters (3000 feet high).

We enjoyed a tasting of four wines, and it was here that I found a new favorite varietal – Carricante (the Riesling of Sicily).  It is used to produce crisp elegant white wines as well as sparkling.

  • Planeta Etna Bianco 2015 – made from 100% Carricante grape in stainless steel with 10% neutral oak. Fresh citrus and mineral nose with a hint of soft floral. Crisp acid and very refreshing – similar to a minerally riesling. I loved this wine!
  • Planeta Chardonnay 2014 – a buttery lemon apple style chardonnay with generous oak, good acid, and a creamy lemon custard finish.  It reminded me a bit of Rombauer chardonnay from Napa Valley. This one was from their winery in Menfi.
  • Eruzione 1614 Nerello Mascalese Planeta 2013 – a medium bodied light red wine made from 100% Nerello Mascalese, another of the unique grapes made on Mt. Etna. The nose was a combination of mixed red berries, rose and spice with a soft entry, but then firm tannins, medium acid and a dried cherry finish.  Slightly similar to nebbiolo, but a bit lighter.
  • Planeta Santa Cecilia Nero d’Avola 2013– from their winery in Noto, this red wine had a nose of tar and dried cherry, with some volcanic minerality on the palate. The tannins were soft and the wine streamlined with fresh blackberry and spice.

Though we didn’t taste Planeta’s DOCG Cerasuolo di Vittoria wine, made of 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Frappato, I did purchase a bottle in the gift shop for only 14 euros.  However, I ended up giving it away as a gift to our bus driver, because he told me it was his favorite wine.  Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get a chance to taste it someday.  I also bought their rose made from Nero d’Avola and Syrah. We enjoyed it on the train ride back to Rome.

Delicious Outdoor Lunch at Planeta

A Delicious Outdoor Lunch at Planeta

After the tasting, Planeta was kind enough to invite all 28 of us to a sit down lunch of pasta and salad, along with local cheeses, olives, and freshly baked bread.  Afterwards they served espresso and cookies in the retail shop while we all eagerly lined up to purchase wine. It was a delightful and very memorable visit. The only downside is we were having so much fun that we were one hour late to our next winery visit.

Enjoying the Pasta at Planeta

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