When Passopisciaro founder, Andrea Franchetti visited Sicily in 2000, his keen eye picked out abandoned vineyards on the northern side of Mount Etna with the unique characteristics of high-elevation terraces of highly varied black, lava soils. Franchetti’s first project Tenuta di Trinoro was already a financial success and the makings of a critical darling by pioneering the Val d’Orcia region of southern Tuscany. It required the bravado of an artist to take on the risk of producing quality wines on the face of an active volcano in a region that had only a nascent commercial wine industry for the past 30 years. But also like many artists, Franchetti has the driven personality of an artist that edits, revises and repurposes media to produce something new but familiar.
Before Andrea Franchetti visited Sicily in 2000, Mt. Etna’s profession winegrowing community had all but disbanded over the period between WWII and 1981. Commercial-scale viticulture could not overcome the cost of growing grapes in such an extreme terrain and climate, and the major 1981 and 1991/1992 eruptions of Mt. Etna were the ultimate disincentive to struggling growers from investing even further. However some vines of Carricante and Nerello Mascalese did remain viable on the terraces of Etna, even going back before 1900. Franchetti approached an owner of one neglected vineyard, and the owner settled for 1/5th his original asking price just to be rid of the property once-and-for-all.
Franchetti’s first Mt. Etna vintage came out of the 2001 with fruit grown on a rented vineyard of Nerello Mascalese at 1,000 meters. The resulting wine from the Nerello was too light for Franchetti’s preference, which typically leans towards more robust and extracted reds, so he supplemented the Nerello with another wine to produce 200 cases of a fuller-style red. Franchetti found that Nerello Mascalese often produced wines with notes of camphor and citrus that are the result of the volcanic lava soils, and the indigenous yeasts could prove temperamental. However just four harvests later, Franchetti’s relentlessly artistic personality fashioned a representation of Nerello M. that met Franchetti’s standards, stayed true to the typicity of the site, and even garnered some critical attention.
The true stroke of creativity followed in 2008 when Franchetti decided to embrace the contrade. Each contrada on Etna reflects one of the old feudal properties as laid out in the local land registry, and the early 2000’s had ushered in a growing trend of isolating vineyards and releasing the resulting wines as “contrada wines,” a designation intended to be similar to crus. By 2011, Passopisciaro released five single-vineyard bottlings from each contrada Franchetti works with: Rampante, Sciaranuova, Guardiola, Porcaria, and Chiappemacine. Today, these bottlings are named Contrada “G” or Contrada “S” to avoid confusion with the sites themselves.
Each of the contrade demonstrates remarkable complexity in terms of the Nerello Mascalese itself as the main grape of Mt. Etna, but perhaps more importantly for those who appreciate the nuances of terroir and the individual personality of each site. While the contrade can be considered in the same way as cru, each contrada is so vastly different, one could consider the contrada wines as extreme representations of what cru designations achieve. The extreme differences of vineyard sites are due to the ever-changing environment of a highly-active volcano. These distinctions are due to the various eruptions, spills and flows that result in five variables: soil minerals, grain size (sand, gravel, powder, and rock), altitude, individual lava flows, and irregular aspects.
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