Etna’s sense of place. Marketing tool for wine nerds? Or a truly unique experience?


First of all, I am a wine nerd. This blog is certainly not an attack on wine nerds, as I will defend them with my dying breath. But it is an examination of why I am attracted to certain wines that may have a unique story, and my experience selling wines to consumers and the wine trade over the years in New York City.

On July 18th, Salvatore Galati (a very sharp dresser!) came into Sherry-Lehmann to give us a staff tasting on a selection of Italian wines from Winebow. Winebow is a wine, spirits, and sake wholesaler in the following states in the US: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Montgomery County, and Maryland. A few years back I worked for Empire Merchants, the largest wholesaler in New York, and second largest in the US, but Winebow was always our biggest competitor for Italian wines… simply because their selection rocks!

No disrespect to my Empire peeps, because I loved the people I worked with at Empire, but I have to give it up to Winebow’s incredible selection.

I had the opportunity to taste a 2008 Fessina Musmeci Etna Rosso. I knew we were going to taste this wine, and I have to admit this was the wine I was really looking forward to tasting. And I was blown away… more by the nose than anything else. And I have been thinking ever since, “Would I have been as blown away if I had not known about the unique “terroir” of Etna? Would I have the same reaction if I had it blind?”

Before I launch into the idea if sense of place is just a marketing tool for wine nerds or a truly unique experience, let me go into some brief information about the producer. This is a relatively new winery, founded in 2007, but I do not find that to be a detriment. I’m all for innovators in the wine world to come along and attempt to make wines in an area of the world where some may have thought at one time was impossible. This winery was founded by winemaker Silva Maestrelli, her husband, Roberto Silva, and winemaker Federico Curtaz. Their vineryard for their Etna Rosso is located in a small village of Rovittello, about eight miles east of Randazzo in Etna. The vineyard is composed of centuries-old lava deposits.

I conducted some research on what effects a volcanic soil could have on the quality or style of a wine. Volcanologists from the University of California in Santa Barbara have said that volcanic soils are so mineral-rich that people will risk ash, lava flows and unbelievable damage to grow crops and raise livestock in such a bountiful environment. Professor Tim Dixon, marine geologist from the University of Miami, says because volcanic terrains are usually sloped, they typically have good drainage. Well, I don’t think I needed to look up research to realize most of the land on a volcano is sloped, and hence, allows the needed drainage that is necessary for quality wine making, but always good to be thorough 😀

Okay, we know that about volcanic soil, but how is this important in regards to the end product of a wine?

One of the classic Masters of Wine essay questions is the following:
How does soil influence wine quality?

There are many points that one can address to answer this question, but I would personally have my top points concentrate on:
-Control of canopy

Control of canopy would be number one for me, and I know, some would say drainage, and I think on my Advanced Level 3 WSET exam (a few years back!), there was a similar question like this one, and the answer was drainage. But now we are discussing things on an MW level, we are in the big leagues, and within reason, there is no one right answer, as long as you can convince the essay reader of your point.

There are so many different soils out there, some more porous than others, and many different situations that can be handled in regards to drainage or even retention of water by choice of variety, rootstock, irrigation (where legal and affordable), or drainage system. In humid regions, such as Virginia, US (RDV Winery) or Bordeaux (Cos d’Estournel), they use drainage systems in their vineyards to assist with better drainage. California, in their seventh year of drought, has certainly had issues with not receiving enough water. Many producers irrigate in areas such as California or the Murray Valley (and Murray Valley certainly has their issues with too much salinity in their irrigation water and prices significantly increasing), but some producers prefer to dry farm, such as Tablas Creek recent conversion to dry farming with Mourvedre and Grenache on drought-resistant 1103-Paulson and lower density of planting. I feel control and maintenance of the canopy is a much more laborious chore for the majority of producers overall than water management.

I found it interesting that Dr. Richard Smart, the great expert in canopy management, in a lecture I attended earlier this year, said that he did not come up with anything that was not already common sense when it comes to canopy management, he has mainly tried to stress the importance of canopy management for fruit maturity and overall quality. I find that even though many situations can be modified by canopy management, it is still an expensive process for many people. Whether it is Kosta Browne in Sonoma County practicing leaf removal since they have issues with excessive canopies, Rolling Hills vineyard in Texas converting their vineyard from a standard VSP system to a vertically divided system to be able to properly spread their copious vegetation from their medium vigor soil, or 50% crop thinning from Marques de Murrieta in Rioja for their famous Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva (Even though some winemakers as such as Jean-Michel Comme at Pontet Canet, will argue that if a vine is healthy and in balance, that crop thinning will not be necessary), canopy management typically involves extremely costly practices.

But canopy management, whether you are trying to give more shade or take it away, or create more ripeness or avoid over-ripeness, is an incredibly expensive process. And part of Smart’s important role in the wine world was to convince producers to constantly invest large amounts of money into their establishment and maintenance of canopy management.

One may argue that because it is abhorrently expensive (human labor or high tech machinery) having a vineyard that has a soil that gives an ideal balance of control of canopy and drainage (dependent on the vines and availability of water) may be clearly associated with quality and style.

Volcanic soils can rapidly break down, process, and release potash and phosphate, two critical nutrients, but they are not known to be too over vigorous, since these soils are typically sloped and the erosion of the soil to the valley floor moderates vigor. And as discussed before, the porous quality of the soil helps to encourage deep roots, and keeps the balance of drainage and availability of water.

Don’t worry, I am bringing it back home, so to speak.

But does Etna have a sense of place? Are vineyards grown on volcanic soil mainly for a marketing tool for wine nerds? Or are they truly unique?

My tasting note of this Etna wine involves an intense smoky minerality. I know I used that dirty word, please don’t ask me where minerality comes from… But also, it goes back to the old debate: Does any place have a sense of place? Burgundy, the quintessential region for expression of place may be placed into question as well.

There is no other region that I have nailed in a blind tasting more than Burgundy. Yes, I have sold a lot of Burgundy and drunk a lot of Burgundy, but I have drunk and sold a lot of different wines from various parts of the world, and my hit rate is never like Burgundy. (And I am not bragging, I have made a fool of myself many times blind tasting, and I’m sure I will do it again!) Especially if it is a 1er Cru from a top village, those wines usually sing of their “sense of place”. Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanee are only a 15 minute drive from each other, but they produce such vastly different wines. A few years back a producer for Gevrey-Chambertin told me it was not just terroir, it was the idea that each producer needs to follow a certain style in their wine making practices to get AOC (aka AOP) approval for that village’s distinct style. This is only one man’s opinion, but I did find his statement interesting.

At the end of the day, I am not 100% sure of how much influence a soil can have on the final product of the wine. There is so much information out there, and many Universities are still conducting research on this idea. The only facts I do know are that soil regulates water to a certain degree, it regulates vigor with its fertility, and may be the cause of certain unwanted conditions such as chlorosis due to deficiencies in the soil.

I must say that I may get frustrated by not having all the answers as an MW student, but as a wine consumer and as someone working in the trade selling wine, I do not mind not having all the answers. I think one of the many things that makes wine special, is the idea that you can experience a place that you may have never traveled to, or you may revisit a place you were lucky enough to visit at one time, by simply having the sensory experience of a wine from that place. The stories and the pictures of wine regions have not only transported me to a different world that I desperately needed to escape to… but I have enjoyed helping to transport others even at a consumer tasting, where people are not getting intoxicated by the alcohol, but they are getting intoxicated by the stories of the place…. okay, sometimes they are getting intoxicated by the alcohol too. 😉

Many times a consumer has said to me, after I have told them the story of the unique sense of place of a wine, “Thank you for sharing that with me, I needed to dream about another place.” And who knows what they are going through in their life. It may be simply that they were bored, or they may be going through a huge loss in their life, you never know how powerful your words can be to someone else.

I believe Etna does have a sense of place. Even if some of that sense of place is basically just in my own head. It means something to me, and just like the Velveteen Rabbit, it is real, because the boy’s belief in the toy made it real.



Tasted the following wines during this staff training:

-San Quirico Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2013 (100% Vernaccia) restrained fruit, green almonds (I just had some a few weeks ago, if you have had them before you know what I am talking about!)

-Monchiero Carbone Roero Arneis “ReCit” (100% Arneis): bright acidity, almost crisp, white flowers, peach fruit, lots of stone fruit on the finish, but not as textural as “Cecu d’La Biunda”.

-Monchiero Carbone Roero Arneis “Cecu d’La Biunda” 2011 (100% Arneis):
Double single vineyard, richer body than previous Arneis, intense note of honeysuckle and orange blossom notes. Delicious.

-Monchiero Carvone Barbera d’Alba “Pelisa” 2012 (100% Barbera): Blackberry and red cherry, mouthwatering acid, not a modern, over-extracted Barbera, small percentage of oak, well-balanced.

-Fessina Musmeci Etna Rosso 2008: (95% Nerello Mascalese and 5% Nerello):
Light color, licorice, smoky “minerality, rose petals, sweet tobacco, dried herbs, all about the nose with this wine.. light body.. could smell this wine for hours.

-Falesco Merlot “Montinao” 2009 (100% Merlot): opaque color, purplish tint, black and purple fruit, earthy, spicy, big and opulent but sense of place on the palate.



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