Sicilian producer Planeta has launched a range of wines from a project it began on the slopes of Mount Etna five years ago.
Alessio and Francesca Planeta show off their new Etna range
Ever since 1997, Planeta has reached beyond its family home near Menfi on the western end of the island to set up winemaking projects in other parts of Sicily. Having already established ventures in Vittoria and Noto, in 2008 it bought its first land in Castiglione di Sicilia, on the north side of the Etna volcano.
So far the company has amassed about 16 hectares of vineyard across two estates, which are almost exclusively planted with the local varieties Carricante and Nerello Mascalese, although there is also a small amount of Riesling.
Having completed a separate Etna winery in 2012 “a few seconds before the harvest,” according to co-owner Alessio Planeta, the company has now launched a range of five wines, opening with a traditional method sparkling Carricante with an RRP of £22.50.
The still wine entry level tier, with an RRP of around £15, takes the form of “Etna Rosso” and “Etna Bianco”, which are made respectively from 100% Nerello Mascalese and 100% Carricante.
Although currently positioned only a few pounds more expensively until the vines have matured and vinification experiments have been refined, the upper tier is represented by a red and white under the “Erruzione 1614” label, which commemorates one of the most dramatic eruptions in the volcano’s history.
Again, the varietal components here are Nerello Mascalese for the red, although this time incorporating some older bush vines, and Carricante for the white, although 5% Riesling is also blended here. Explaining this decision to introduce Riesling to the otherwise indigenous mix, Alessio explained: “We were tempted by the volcanic soils. The idea is to give a more complex nose and shape to the wine.”
Despite its higher price positioning, the Erruzione wines are classified only as DOC Sicilia, since the 870m-high vineyards fall outside the DOC Etna area. “Altitude is very important,” Alessio told the drinks business as he outlined the challenge of achieving the right balance in this mountainous region. “Too low and it is not typical Etna soil, too high and you can have problems with ripeness.”
In particular, Alessio marked a climatic contrast with the main Planeta base in Menfi, where the harvest usually takes place in mid-August, noting that grape picking in the Etna vineyard is delayed until the second half of October.
“It really is another season and style of wine,” he remarked, adding: “I will never say Etna is better than Menfi where I was born, but the volcano and the place are unique.”
Although the Planeta focus is evenly split between red and white, Alessio noted that the Etna region was, until very recently at least, primarily dedicated to red wine production. “In the past there were not a lot of white grapes on Etna,” he explained. “You planted white where the reds wouldn’t ripen, so more on the south side. Not a lot of the best vineyards on the north side had white grapes, but now producers are planting them there.”
While Cataratto and Grecanico are also commonly planted in the Etna DOC, along with the very localised variety Minnella, Alessio argued: “for me Carricante is the one – it has that white flower flavour, minerals and acidity for long aging.”
Turning to the company’s choice of red variety, he highlighted its particular suitability to the growing conditions on Etna. “Nerello Mascalese was planted around Sicily because it was productive but not super interesting,” Alessio remarked, describing the variety as “naturally a very high producer of alcohol” when cultivated in warmer parts of the island.
However, in the cooler altitudes of Etna where a longer hang time is possible without excessive ripeness, he suggested that the variety offers “very fine tannins, like Nebbiolo.” Indeed, Alessio noted that this grape from the other end of Italy is providing a useful model for current experiments to find the right way to create age-worthy Nerello Mascalese.
“It’s not easy,” he admitted, pointing to trials with different ages and sizes of barrel. “The tannins of Nerello can be a bit sharp and you don’t want to cover the fruit with wood. We look at Piemonte because they have the same problem.”
For all its challenges, the thick skinned Nerello Mascalese is a better candidate for Etna than Sicily’s more widely planted red variety Nero D’Avola. “You could never have it on Etna as it doesn’t like the rain but Nerello Mascalese doesn’t seem to mind,” Alessio told db, noting that this region receives around three times the annual rainfall of southern Sicily.
Planeta’s arrival in the Etna region appears to have coincided with a more general period of change in the region’s winemaking ambitions. “In the ‘90s there were not a lot of good producers, except one,” claimed Alessio. “The tradition in Etna was that wines were only sold locally – it’s not an easy place for viticulture, there are a lot of stones.”
However, he noted: “In the last 10-15 years there has been a lot of energy there and the quality of the wine has changed a lot. I think it’s the most interesting area of Italy at the moment.”
Today he estimates there are around 40 producers on Etna, with many of the long-established ones having shifted away from bulk production in favour of higher quality bottled wine.
“In the last two years we have tasted all the production of Etna and seen the evolution that has happened,” continued Alessio, who credited the rise in media attention and visitors with helping to accelerate this improvement.
“People try to do their best every year now,” he said, noting in particular a shift towards harvesting later. “In the past with the bulk wine they harvested very early so it was not the best and quite green. If you wait, you get the rain but better results.”
In the next few years Planeta aims to increase production to around 40,000 bottles for the Etna Rosso and Bianco, while the Erruzione range is likely to reach 10,000 bottles for the red and 20,000 for the white.
With a further 3ha due to come into production soon, the company also plans to plant a final 4ha “in a very high place”, according to Alessio. “We’re in discussion now. I want Nerello Mascalese but people say it’s too high so we’ll see.”
While this Etna project matures, Planeta is already awaiting the results of its latest venture in Capo Milazzo, where the company has planted 8ha of Nero d’Avola and local variety Nocera on a rocky promontory looking out towards the Aeolian islands.
Although the modern profile of this region’s DOC Mamertino is relatively low-key, producers there are quick to remind that these wines were reported to have been highly prized by Julius Caesar 2,000 years ago.
“We have done a harvest this year and will do some experimentation,” outlined Alessio, who confirms that a new winery for this project is due to be ready next year.
With a total of 370ha across five different regions of the island, Alessio insisted: “It’s the last project for Planeta – our future is to do better and better where we are in Sicily.”