Recommendations, Wine Education

Varietal Exploration [Vol. 3]: Carricante and the Etna Volcano

Written by Simone Popov · 9 min read >
Table of Contents

    Welcome to the world of Carricante, a grape full of extremes and contradictions, suited to maybe one of the finest wines in Italy (and the world).

    To see other grapes explored, click here

    Grown in Italy’s most southern locale, Sicilia, an island off the South-Western coast of Italy,  the wine of Carricate nonetheless displays such incredible freshness, minerality, and acidity that one could easily confuse it with a grape grown in a far more northern location, say, Chardonnay of Chablis of Sauvignon Blanc of the Loire. Despite this potential misdirection to would-be tasters, Carricante displays a personality (an aura, if you will) that is distinctly Mediterranean. The grape’s “terroir” is a confluence of the southern sun reflecting off of the warm Ionian Sea, the volcanic soils of Mount Etna (Europe’s largest and most active volcano), and the jaw-dropping elevations of the mountainsides, bringing a distinct “alpine” influence.

    Snowy peaks of Etna. Photo Credit Italia.it

    The Carricante Secret

     The wines from these heroic environments [ and the crazy vignerons tending vines there] are catching traction with the wine pros and sommeliers, though maybe not as much as these wines deserve. Perhaps it is because the prices are still relatively low, and if word got out, we would see a dramatic rise reflecting the incredible quality and low quantity of production. Though I am not one to gatekeep, I instead share my full-fledged passion for the grape and the wine it produces.

    So, let’s jump into these beautiful, unique, and complex wines.

    Editor’s Note.: As you will read below, the story of Carricante begins and continues almost exclusively in Sicily. However, in the interest of exploring the global wine world, some Carricante is planted here in the U.S. Luckily, it is accessible (thanks to Rhys Vineyards and their Italian-centric brand Aeris), so I picked up a bottle to compare for this tasting and article.

    The Story of Carricante

    The story of Carricante begins in Viagrande, in the province of Catania, on the Island of Sicilia. Even back in 1774, the local vignerons saw potential in the grape’s abundant yields and immense acidity. Carrica roughly translates to “load,” indicating the vast loads of grapes the vine of Carricante can successfully ripen. Other key viticultural characteristics of Carricante include its long ripening cycle, reduced alcohol (due to slow sugar build-up in the grapes), and ability to produce and retain high levels of malic acid, meaning the grapes can possess immense freshness even late into the season under the relentless Sicilian sun.

    The Lay of the Land

    Though planted throughout the island, the grape finds some of its highest quality on Mount Etna’s northern and southern sides. The mountains’ well-drained volcanic soils mitigate the high yields, and the heights at which these vines are planted allow for a long, slow growing season. As implied, viticulture under such conditions is a challenge. Vineyards are terraced, yields are generally low, and harvesting is done manually, often walking on steep hillsides. The activity of the Etna Volcano is also impactful, altering the terrain within many regions.

    The lay of the land of vineyards surrounding Mount Etna.

    The Contrade

    As you can see from the picture above, the vineyard area in Etna DOC [the official designation of the vineyards on Mount Etna] is divided into geological parcels, also known as Contrade. There are now 142 Contrade on the mountain (Decanter), each showing distinct soils, elevations, aspects, and/or microclimates. This terroir-focused approach has defined Etna as the “Burgundy of the Mediterranean,” This is an apt comparison, considering Carricante’s and Nerello Mascalrese’s varietal character is not too dissimilar from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (though Carricante may be closer to Sauvignon Blanc in nature).

    Tasting

    Azienda Agricola Benanti [info]

    Giuseppe Benanti’s winery in Viagrande may have been a significant grower of grapes for bulk wines in the late 1800s (around 300,000 ha were planted in total on the mountain in the 1880s). Yet, under the supervision of his great-grandson, the winery truly elevated Etna to its highest heights, focusing on artisan viticulture. Dr. Giuseppe Benanti [Jr…Jr?], an industrial pharmacist by trade, decided to resurrect the family winery in 1988 when there were barely any producers in the area.

    He hired a young local vigneron, Salvo Foti, and the two dedicated their time to understanding the immense potential of Etna’s unique terroir to produce exceptional wines. Two years later, Benanti produced the Pietramarina, one of the most significant wines for Etnean (and arguably, Sicilian) viticulture. This wine, from albarello (bush vine) planted in an 800-meter vineyard on the Eastern side of Mount Etna, became a case study of how age-worthy Etna’s wines can be and somewhat of a “Grand Vin” of Etna. Benanti’s white wine production still follows Salvo Foti’s (who left in 2011 to pursue his projects) methods, including hand harvesting and Indigenous yeast fermentations in stainless steel, followed by aging in the same vessel. The red winemaking is more divergent, but we’re talking whites here. Nerello Mascalrese will come later].  

    2022 Benanti Etna Bianco

    Price: $32 [WineSearcher]

    Benanti’s base-level Carricante is a delicious and affordable option for any by-the-glass program. Grapes come from the 20-60-year-old vineyards on Etna’s eastern and southern slopes, particularly standing out for elevations around 700 to 950m and generous sun exposure.

    Tasting Note

    The wine exhibits a medium-plus aroma intensity, with a pleasant character of sea spray, wet rock, zesty lemon, dried herbs, green apple, fermented pineapple rind, and some earthy, cellar funk undertones. The wine has bright, medium-plus acid on the palate, a phenolic texture resembling putting salt crystals on your tongue, and a light body. The palate also opens up with a bit more herbaceous character, displaying notes of dried mint. Those herbal notes extend to elongate the finish.

    Conclusion

     This wine leans into the underripe and the mineral character without too much ripe fruit. It is a pleasant and delicious wine, though it may lack a bit of complexity compared to some of the other features on this list.

    See how this wine fared when paired with oysters.

    2021 Benanti Contrata Cavalere Etna Bianco

    Price: $59 [WineSearcher]

    Contrada Cavalere sits on the southwest exposure of Mount Etna at an elevation of almost 950 m. The 50-year-old vines are trained in the classic Guyot system. The wine is fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks utilizing indigenous yeasts and matured on the lees for 12 months with occasional stirring.

    Tasting Note

    Though the wine started shy at first, the aromas of nectarine, sea salt, weather-worn rock, golden pear, ripe apple, thyme, yogurt, and lemon blossom were soon coaxed out with air. There was also a bit of that earthy cellar tone, which seems somewhat of Benanti’s signature. These wines are not “clean” (and who wants them to be?) yet show much character. The palate has a very electric and zippy quality, which comes from some phenolic grip and bright, high acidity.

    Conclusion

    Stylistically, this wine leans into its textural components and is not as focused on the fruit. The Contrada Cavalere is more complex than the standard Etna Bianco, but one can argue that some bottle age could do this young wine a lot of good.

    Monteleone [info]

    Looking at Etna with a more modern outlook, Giulia Monteleone ventured into the world of wine production in 2017 after falling madly in love with a pre-phylloxera-planted parcel on the northern hillside of Etna. This lot of land, 500 m above sea level along the Alcantara River, may not be the mountain’s most “extreme” area. Still, it provides a distinct terroir for growing the iconic Sicilian grapes of Carricante and Nerello Mascalrese. With the aid of her boyfriend and esteemed local vigneron Benedetto Alessandro and his father Enrico, Monteleone is displaying wines of incredible structure and complexity, critically acclaimed as reminiscent of the great Barolos and Grand Cru Burgundies (in particular, Chablis). This excellence is achieved through the steadfast dedication to low yields, minimalist interventions, and careful winemaking, as well as to the unique microclimate of the Monteleone estate.

    2021 Monteleone Anthemis Etna Bianco  

    Price: $51 [Wine Searcher]

    The vines used for Anthemis are grown at 900 meters elevation. The wine is fermented in stainless steel with selected yeast strains and matured for 12 months on fine lees in 500 and 300L French oak tonneaux, with weekly battonage.

    Tasting Note

    This wine has a slightly more luxurious character and is significantly cleaner and more modern. On the nose, it displays pronounced aromas of apple, brioche, lemon zest, key lime pie, crème, sweet almonds, wet rock, oyster shells, and caramel corn.

    On the palate, the searing acid shocks first, but then this creamy roundness follows. The lemon notes appear as warhead candy, lifting the wine’s flavors and extending the creamy finish.

    Conclusion

    Anthemis was, by far, the most Chablisienne wine I had tasted in this selection. The wine displayed no funky or earthy notes. It was also quite mineral but not salty and had no phenolic bitterness. As someone who enjoys acid quite a lot, I found the verticality of the wine (the characteristic of flavors propelled by the acid) to be truly sublime. If there is one drawback to this wine, it has two diverse phases: the bright, high-acid vertical phase that assaults the front palate and the round, creamy “Chardonnay-esque” phase that comes after. I want those two phases to meld a bit, which [I believe] comes with time in the bottle.

    Alta Mora (Cusumano) [info]

    Though many [now] view Etna as a boutique and artisan winemaking center, Sicily has historically been a “land of plenty,” significantly contributing to Italy’s bulk wine industry. The porous, volcanic soils of the mountain are quite fertile and can produce many grapes if allowed. The Cusumano family established their winery in 1960 and have been at the forefront of this trade. However, this is not to say that their establishment of Alta Mora [meaning “tall black” in homage to the volcano] reflects the mass-produced ethos of the island’s history. The ancient 150-year-old vines of their new estate just would not permit the necessary yields required. Thus, Alta Mora is a distinctly artisan, low-yield project that produces around 6,000 cases (or 72,000 bottles), farming some of Etna’s top vineyards, including Guardiola and Feudo di Mezzo.

    2021 Alta Mora Etna Bianco

    Price: $27  [Wine Searcher]

    The grapes for this entry-level Etna are sourced from vineyards at 600-700 m elevation from 15-year-old vines. The wine is fermented in stainless steel and aged for four months on the lees.

    Tasting Note

    This wine displays pleasant characteristics of thyme and other dried Mediterranean herbs, ripe pear, honey, mango, cheese, exotic fruits, cantaloupe, orange, red apple, lemon, pineapple, and fine sea salt. The Alta Mora was not as acid-driven or tense as the other wines on this list; instead, it seemed to lean towards the fruitier side, which was pleasant. A little ripe cheese character on the palate may deter some, but [in my view] adds complexity.

    Conclusion

    The Alta Mora Bianco was maybe not as precise as some of the wines on this list, but- for the price- an absolute steal.

    Girolamo Russo [info]

    The namesake Russo, Girolamo, sold his grapes in bulk, in a tradition not too uncommon for the Sicilian vigneron of old. Yet his son, Giuseppe, a classical pianist in his former life, saw the potential of the estate’s old vines. He began to craft his wines from the family estate in 2005. Giuseppe named the estate to honor his father and elevate the family vines grown on the northern slope of Mount Etna. Certainly, the 80-100-year-old bush-trained vines on the property, at elevations of 650-780 meters, deserve recognition for being made into world-class wines. Initially, with aid from Emiliano Falsini (of the Matura Group) and Mark de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere, now on his own, Giuseppe produces estate wines using careful native yeast ferments and native local grapes (including Cataratto, Inzolia, Grecianico, Minella and Coda di Volpe to supplement Carricante).

    2021 Girolamo Russo San Lorenzo Etna Bianco

    Price: $78 [WineSearcher]

    The San Lorenzo vineyard sits at an elevation of about 750 meters. The wine is a field blend from a vineyard planted with 90% Carricante and 10% other indigenous varieties such as Cataratto and Grecianico. The vines of San Lorenzo are 84 years old, initially planted in 1940 amongst the vines for red grapes.

    Tasting Note

    This wine exhibits medium-plus aromas of pure sea salt, smoke, salt-crusted wet stone, tart green apple, peach skin, honeysuckle, nuts, citrus zest, lemon peel, exotic fruits (which were kind of hard to put a finger on), gunflint, and a hint of cellar funk. The palate is even more nutty, sherry-like, like a Fino without aldehydes. The medium plus acidity and a weighty fine texture complement the complexity of the wine, and it is exquisite with just a hint of phenolic grip. This Etna Bianco was one of the most complex wines in the tasting, and it perfectly balanced the island character of Sicily with its Mediterranean influence.

    See how this wine fared when paired with oysters.

    Aeris-by Rhys Vineyards [Info]

    When I think about what excites me in the wine world, I think of the rebels, the revolutionaries, the pioneers willing to push our boundaries of understanding vineyards, varieties [grapes], and wines. Kevin Harvey of Rhys Vineyards is just one of those people. After building Rhys Vineyards, a benchmark producer for California Pinot and Chardonnay, Kevin set on a mission to answer a simple question:

    “Are there some obscure grapes that would better suit the terroir and climate of some of California’s promising mountainous regions?”

    And after a multi-year journey, including an encounter with the famed Salvo Foti (of I Vigneri and Benanti fame), when Kevin[according to legend] had his Eureka moment while tasting the Pietra Marina Etna Bianco, the idea of Aeris was born. This unique, international project is an opportunity to taste the Carricante wines from Sicily (nurtured by Foti, arguably one of the best to do it) and this grape’s incredible potential on Centennial Mountain.

    2018 Aeris “Bianco” California Carricante [Centennial Mountain]

    Price: $49 [WineSearcher]

    Centennial Mountain is a rugged and remote mountain in Northern Sonoma, at a peak elevation of around 10,000 ft (3,000m) County. The vineyard sits on a 2,000 ft (610 m) hillside plateau, and all the vines are bushvine (albarello). The wine ferments using indigenous yeast and ages in various neutral vessels, including 300L Stainless steel barrels and one use Slavonian oak vat. This wine is intended for early drinking and highlights the grape’s versatility in the mountainous California terroir.

    Tasting Note

    The California standout was certainly the softest on the tasting, displaying medium plus aromas of pineapple, vanilla, lemon custard, key lime pie, yellow pear, and ripe golden apple. There is some minerality and a bit of a saline undertone, but it is not as precise and focused as the wines of Etna. The acidity of this wine feels marginally lower, but it works well with its rounder texture.

    The mean temperature of Centennial Mountain (yellow line) vs Barolo (orange line) Source: Aeris Vineyards

    Conclusion

    The California Carricante was undoubtedly not a departure from the characteristics of Etna Biancos, but it did stand out. Its clean, fruity, and somewhat rounded character is approachable and enjoyable to many consumers. At the same time, this is not an entry-level wine, as there is plenty of complexity and depth.

    Honorable Mentions

    The wines selected above were excellent, and I would recommend them to any customer. However, I know I have missed some exceptional producers and would be remiss if I didn’t mention them, as they produce incredibly complex Etna Biancos (And Rosso).

    In no particular order:

    What we learned

    That I can drink Carricante all day long! Just kidding. But also, not really.

    While Carricante is an indigenous Sicilian grape, it is influenced by its terroir. It was quite an experience to taste these wines and see their distinctions while retaining the characteristics quintessential to Carricante, such as the high acidity, fresh fruits, salinity, and minerality. And in a world that is slowly heating up, Carricante (much like Assyrtiko) might soon venture further outside of Italy (and California) as the next grape used for wines of unparalleled quality and finesse.

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