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Sicily's whites are not conventional, fruity whites. They offer none of the tropical flavours sometimes associated with New World chardonnays, none of the peach and apricot of German rieslings, not even the tart twang of sauvignon blancs.

Sicily's white wines - rich and salty, racy and refreshing

26/07/2019 - 05:50

SICILY, like the rest of Italy, has long been known as red wine territory. Yet slowly, the whites of Sicily, particularly those grown in the foothills of Mount Etna, have been earning attention as among the most distinctive and unusual white wines in Italy, if not the world.

What makes them so different? These are not conventional, fruity whites. They offer none of the tropical flavours sometimes associated with New World chardonnays, none of the peach and apricot of German rieslings, not even the tart twang of sauvignon blancs.

Instead, they have a pronounced savoury flavour - salty, in a word - that gives these wines a singular nature found nowhere else. They are high in acidity and relatively low in alcohol, generally around 12.5 per cent, which makes them racy and refreshing.

The source of this character is the combination of carricante grapes and the volcanic soils of Etna in north-eastern Sicily.

In centuries past, according to Ian D'Agata's excellent book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, carricante was grown all over Sicily. But by the early 21st century, the grape had largely been confined to the foothills of Etna, an active volcano, particularly on its eastern and southern sides.

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Carricante seems to thrive in rainy areas, particularly those around the zone of Milo on Etna's east side, and at high altitudes, up to around 3,500 feet. No doubt scientists can analyse the chemical composition of carricante to deduce the source of its salty character, but the locals attribute it to the constant winds blowing the saline sea air off the Mediterranean toward the vineyards.

Ten years ago, I might have been able to count on one hand the carricante wines available in New York City. They were an afterthought, if they occurred to anyone at all. All the excitement surrounding Etna wines was focused on the reds, made largely with the nerello mascalese grapes.

That is still true, for the most part. Yet the range of available Etna Biancos has grown steadily, to the point where New York Times wine panel coordinator Bernard Kirsch was able without too much strain to assemble 20 bottles of recent vintages for a tasting in mid-June.

In some bottles we found evidence in the forefront of winemaking techniques - oak flavours from barrel ageing, or creamy textures from stirring the lees, the sediment left over after yeast complete the fermentation. John characterised these as "wines of style" rather than wines of place.

Yet the power of the terroir could not be muffled. Even in these wines, the combination of grape and place - which produces the wine's essential floral, herbal, saline character - was able to shine through.

One issue is the percentage of carricante grapes in the blend. Wines labelled Etna Bianco are required only to be 60 per cent carricante, while those labelled Etna Bianco Superiore must be 80 per cent carricante (and must come from the commune of Milo).

It's almost always preferable for the wine to be made entirely of carricante, as were six of our top 10 wines, including our top three. The remaining four wines included percentages of other local grapes, like catarratto, minnella and grecanico. Yet other grapes may be used as well, including chardonnay and trebbiano, which detract from the character of carricante.

Our top wine, the 2017 Gamma, was from Federico Curtaz, a relative newcomer to Etna whose first release under this label was the 2015 vintage. This bottle was savoury and briny, with stony mineral flavours and a rich, oily texture.

No 2 was the 2017 Moganazzi from Le Vigne di Eli, earthy and energetic, with tangy, saline flavours. It had a touch of oak that was well integrated into the wine, unlike a few others, where the flavour of oak seemed to be too prominent. Those bottles didn't make our top 10.

Le Vigne di Eli is a project from Marco de Grazia, an American importer who also owns Tenuta delle Terre Nere, which makes a number of fine Etna wines including the lively floral, herbal 2018 Terre Nere Etna Bianco, our No 4 bottle, which was just 65 per cent carricante, but our best value at US$25.

Terre Nere also makes a series of slightly more expensive Etna Biancos, labelled Vigne Niche, that are 100 per cent carricante and highly recommended.

Our most expensive bottle at US$90, and the only Superiore in our tasting, was the 2015 Pietra Marina from Benanti, a producer that pioneered carricante wines on Etna. It was No 3 in our tasting, but this wine is among the best whites in Italy and is generally an example of how well the carricante can age: I've had some wonderful older bottles.

Right now, it seemed a bit reticent, with timid herbal, flora and saline flavours, but it will improve with time. The price has shot up, too. A couple of years ago, Pietra Marina cost half this amount. For US$27, however, you can try Benanti's earthy, tangy Etna Bianco, its entry-level wine, an excellent introduction to the style.

No 5 was the salty, earthy, distinctive 2016 Ante from I Custodi, a project that includes Salvo Foti, who has done much not only to explore the potential of Etna wines but to preserve traditional methods of grape growing and winemaking in the region. I also highly recommend the wines from Foti's own label, I Vignieri.

Also worth noting were the rich yet tightly wound 2015 N'ettara from Masseria Setteporte; the smoky, savoury 2017 Alta Mora from Cusumano; the rich, floral 2016 Arcurìa from Graci and the stony, mineral 2017 Mofete from Palmento Costanzo.

Carricantes are not the only exceptional white wines from Sicily, or even from Etna. A few years ago I had a wonderful bottle from Santa Maria La Nave, made of grecanico dorato grown 3,500 feet up on Etna. Grecanico is better known as garganega, the main grape of Soave in the Veneto, but it has a history in Sicily as well dating back centuries. I have not been able to find a bottle of this again, unfortunately.

Other grapes, like grillo, inzolia and zibibbo, which were used originally to make sweet or fortified wines, can produce excellent dry whites. But for me, the combination of carricante and Etna stands out.

If you have not had these wines before, the salinity and acidity may at first be surprising. But try a bottle with shellfish or other light seafoods. I'm guessing you will find yourself enthralled as well. NYTIMES