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robert camuto: letter from europe

Heirloom Etna

Pietradolce specializes in old vines and experimentation
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Producer Michele Faro in an old “pre-phylloxera” vineyard on Sicily’s Mount Etna: “I buy monuments.”

Posted: Feb 13, 2017 5:45pm ET

Michele Faro loves plants. Especially old ones.

Faro, the production manager of his family's large and successful Sicily-based plant nursery, fell in love with Mount Etna vineyards 15 years ago. In 2005, he began buying up very old, low-yielding vineyards to start his boutique wine label, Pietradolce.

Today, the most striking thing about Pietradolce is its vineyards—not the rows of young, head-trained ("alberello") vines in front of its sleek new lava-stone winery on Etna's north face, but the small old vineyards on the slopes behind it. Here, ungrafted Nerello Mascalese bush vines were arranged haphazardly on lava terraces a century ago.

"I buy monuments. These vineyards are monuments," says Faro proudly.

Each vine resembles a small tree, and the collection, a dense orchard. The vineyards are cultivated organically, inaccessible to tractors and require lots of handwork. Some old vines grow out of lava-stone walls, others extend shoots into nearby olive trees. Between the vines sprout carpets of tall wild greens known as cauliceddi, which locals pick in fall to sauté with sausage and add to pasta.

"I like the old style of cultivation," says Faro, 42, who has the bearing of a young entrepreneur on the move. "Nothing is organized."

In recent years, I've heard many winemakers speak fondly of Faro's vines. Though the wines—produced with Tuscan consulting enologist Carlo Ferrini—are often debated on style points, his evocative old vineyards seem to be universally admired.

Faro himself admits that his wines have not reached the potential of his vineyards, and he hopes to change that. The 2016 harvest marked the first working in his new gravity-flow, black stone-and-glass winery—a dramatic step up from the cramped winery down by the Mediterranean coast to which he previously trucked his grapes.

"We have more space that will allow us to be more gentle with the wines," he says, "and to get the best quality we can from our vineyards."

Since his first vintage in 2007, Faro has regularly added on cru bottlings from a collection of old vineyards characterized as "pre-phylloxera." Many vineyards on Etna were spared the blight that devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century and early 20th century because the phylloxera vine louse has difficulty spreading in sandy soils, including the black volcanic soils here. As a result, the local vines never had to be grafted onto disease-resistant rootstocks from vines native to North America.

"I love pre-phylloxera vineyards because you get naturally more concentration with a small quantity of fruit," Faro says.

Faro produced his first cru bottling, the red Pietradolce Archineri, from his first harvest, in 2007 (87 points, $35). He followed with more crus as he bought additional plots.

Since the 2010 vintage, the oldest and lowest-yielding of his Nerello Mascalese vineyards has been used to make a red called Barbagalli, which is released after three years and fetches his highest prices—an average of $93.

The following vintage, he introduced his first white, Archineri, from more than century-old vines of Carricante on Etna's east side. (The 2013 vintage, priced at $35, scored 89 points.)

Next came his red 2014 Contrada Rampante, named for the vineyard zone in which most of his old red vineyards lie. With the 2016 vintage, he will introduce yet another red, Contrada Guardiola.

Cru bottlings are certainly the rage in Italy and on Etna—sometimes to excess. That said, in an informal tasting of Pietradolce wines on Etna, I found greater differences than I expected among his red crus: Archineri was generally clean and bright, Rampante was rustic with an animal characteristic, and Barbagalli showed the most minerality and complexity.

The crus are produced in 200- to 400-case lots, allocated, and they easily sell out. But Pietradolce's total production, from 35 acres, is about 4,000 cases. With the 2016 vintage, Faro is making nine wines, including three whites, five reds and a rosé.

The newest white is an experiment Faro started in 2015—fermenting one batch of old-vine Carricante on its skins in conical oak casks for 10 months. About 160 cases of that first vintage will be released in late 2017.

Faro says he wants to see what skin contact can do for aging Carricante. What that means to me is that Pietradolce—like Etna itself—is a dynamic work in progress.

"Etna is so variegated—it's a puzzle," Faro says, adding affectionately of his vineyards, "We are just beginning to understand our babies."

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