Sicily’s Mount Etna completely dominates the island’s skyline and its wines are increasingly having a similar impact, with its indigenous varieties winning acclaim around the world for their unique volcanic character. Christina Rasmussen meets passionate local producer Filippo Mangione and gets the chance to taste his ‘Ayunta’ range and find out how he creates fine, artisanal, vibrant wines on the slopes of an active volcano.
Etna’s vines are ancient and the winemaking is intuitive, with an emphasis on minimal intervention, making the most of its unique conditions.
An active volcano. A land you might assume to be barren. In fact, Mount Etna is quite the opposite. Volcanic nutrients create an environment that has an affinity like no other with its indigenous grape varieties.
Filippo Mangione started from scratch in 2011. Before making wine, he worked in sales and publishing roles in the trade. Keen to continue in his family’s winemaking footsteps, with his own project, it all began with a chance encounter.
Strolling down the side of Etna, Mangione stumbled upon an elderly man tending a plot of very old vines on Calderara Sottana. Some time later, the man passed on the plot to him, and using his life savings, this became Mangione’s metaphorical home.
He now vinifies from four plots across Etna, all within around one mile of each other, at an elevation of around 700 metres.
“Etna was my obsession, there was simply no other option for me”, he told me.
Mangione started Ayunta from small beginnings – his first vintage, in 2012, was just a 1,000 bottles. Today, he produces around 15,000.
His vineyards are very old. He believes some vines date back 200 years. While some have their own roots, others show signs of early grafting techniques. His vineyards are co-planted with white and red varieties. He meticulously checks harvest dates, to create separate cuvées of each.
For the whites, grape varieties include Carricante, Catarratto, Coda di Volpe, Minnella, Zibbibo and others. For the reds, there is Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Nocer and Alicante Bouschet.
Winemaking is simple and gentle. “I want to be obsessed with the quality of the grapes. After this I don’t want to intervene. I add small amounts of SO2 after fermentation, and at bottling, as I want the grapes to shine through, and not to risk rogue bacteria when the wines are exported.”
Mangione explains Etna’s unique microclimate – almost continental on one side, while facing the sea on the other. It is freezing from top to bottom, with the volcano creating its own conditions.
“The soils create an environment in which the vines compete for minerals and structure; this affects how the vines grow, and how they age. The resulting wines tend to be skinny, acidic and on the harder side. Acid and the notion of minerality prevail on Etna.”
The white wines see one night of skin contact, with fermentation in concrete, after which they rest on their lees for one year.
“I don’t like oak, especially for white wine”, he explains. “I want the grapes to develop their potential on their own, and by having a night on the skins, and ageing in concrete, we can achieve this.”
The red grapes are destemmed – Nerello, in particular, can be very tough with added stem tannins – then fermented with indigenous yeasts in open concrete tanks, with daily gentle punchdowns. Fermentation is reasonably short, around 10-11 days, after which the wine is pressed.
“This gives the right balance for the core of the wine, I want Etna to be Etna, not Nero d’Avola”, he says, explaining that he strongly believes that skins and seeds must be ripe when harvesting.
“Grapes are not planted to make wine. Their raison d’etre is to make seeds. We force these creatures to turn into something other than what they were supposed to be. The berries are the nest for the babies. The babies are the seeds.”
A team from UC Davis University came to take cuttings from his vineyard and were astounded with what they found. Every single cutting survived and there was zero virus, testament to the unique growing conditions on Etna and the significant lack of interference and contamination.
The wines (imported by Red Squirrel):
Piante Sparse 2016 (meaning ‘Stray Vines’)
Open and floral, with an enticing nose of orange blossom and acacia honey. A gorgeous mirabelle plum flavour predominates on the palate, with a waxy, lifted edge of white flowers. An almond skin, herbal edge joins on the finish, with wild rosemary and lemon curd lingering on the palate. So textural and moreish, with layer upon layer of complexity.
Piante Sparse 2014
What a joy to see such unique development. Clearly a sister wine of the 2016, but with subtle differences; the herbal elements here are enhanced and joyous; lavender, fennel, wild thyme and even a cardamon twist shine through. The wine finishes with such a rocky, stony element, with intense croissant-dough lees characteristics – strangely, not unlike the lees finish on aged Champagne.
Lifted pink peppercorn spice with a densely smoky nose; graphite and coal. On the palate, there is lovely lifted, yet grippy, black cherry skin, with peonies and rosemary on the finish. Herbs linger on the back palate; wild thyme and sorrel.
Ever so compelling and complex; what a wine! Packed, dense, forest-like earth prevails on the nose, followed by crushed wildflowers – in particular wild roses. Mossy, undergrowth tones follow, together with graphite and that specific, finely mouthcoating, “ashy” texture that only Etna gives. Pure and vibrant, with so many aromas wanting to have a say. This is a wine that speaks of the earth; one that gives a glimpse into the future of the 2016.
Calderara Sottana 2015
Such a different wine; extremely powerful blue toned nose of blueberries, peonies and violets. Crunchy pencil lead dominates the palate with a backbone of rosehip oil and wild thyme. Dark smoky notes and dense tannins give this wine real crunch and bite – a baby now, but quite an outstanding wine in the making.
I remarked on the prevalence of earthy notes in the wines and Mangione beamed back in respons: “I really hoped it would be like this. With my wines, I want you to drink the place.”
And – well, you do.
This is very much ‘fine wine’ territory, and it will be fascinating to follow Filippo Mangione through the years. Long live Etna.