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robert camuto: letter from europe

An Offer He Couldn't Refuse

How a famed Tuscan winemaker was lured to Sicily
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Paolo Caciorgna in the first small vineyard he purchased on Mount Etna

Posted: Sep 25, 2017 12:40pm ET

Paolo Caciorgna, the acclaimed Tuscan enologist who makes wines for stellar estates like Montalcino's Altesino and La Serena as well as for music stars Sting and Andrea Bocelli, never planned to make wine on Sicily's Mount Etna.

But 15 years ago, longtime friend and American importer Marco de Grazia invited Caciorgna to his newly founded Tenute delle Terre Nere on the volcano's north-facing slopes.

That was at the very beginning of the renaissance of Etna's once-forgotten vineyards—a rebirth that has since made it one of Italy's hottest wine areas.

"I was happy to be with Marco and to help a little bit," Caciorgna says one bright spring morning when Etna's peak—nearly 7,000 feet above the highest vineyards—is billowing white smoke. "He wanted to pay me, but I said, 'No."

But de Grazia was intent on having Caciorgna become a fixture of Etna's burgeoning wine scene and frequently called him with scouting reports of vineyards for sale.

Caciorgna demurred: "I loved the terroir, but I didn't think I could be a producer here."

De Grazia finally made Caciorgna a gift he couldn't refuse. "In 2006, we were in Marco's cellar, and he said, 'You see those three barrels? That's your wine.'"

"He pulled me in!" Caciorgna says with a laugh.

Caciorgna bottled and sold the wine in those barrels—about 66 cases of the 2005 vintage—under the name N'Anticchia, derived from the Sicilian term for "a little bit."

"It was good wine," Caciorgna adds. "It gave me the motivation to come here."

For his second vintage on Etna, 2006, Caciorgna purchased grapes to produce about 250 cases of wine. In 2007, he bought his first vineyard—about 1 acre, in the town of Passopisciaro, of meticulously kept terraces dominated by Etna's indigenous Nerello Mascalese.

"It was like a garden," says Caciorgna of the near-century-old vineyard dotted with fruit, olive and almond trees.

The vineyard was planted in a way that's rare in the wine world, but less rare on Etna. Head-trained ("alberello") vines are supported on chestnut posts and planted on their own roots instead of on phylloxera-resistant American rootstock. (Etna's sandy volcanic soils naturally resisted the blight of phylloxera when the vine louse swept across Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.)

Today, Caciorgna, 52, who continues to consult for a stable of 30 clients across Italy, owns about 6 acres of Etna vineyards. Too small and narrow to plough by tractor, they are worked by hand and rototiller by one full-time employee and a couple of part-timers.

"The viticulture is more expensive, but it's easier to do good organic agriculture here. There is little problem with disease," says Caciorgna, who rents another acre and buys grapes for about 30 percent of his production, which totals around 8,000 cases.

After years of making wines in de Grazia's cellar, in 2016 Caciorgna moved his boutique winery into an 1,100-square-foot mountainside space in a former hazelnut processing facility. Here, his neighbors are two other Tuscan producers—Valiano and Antonio Moretti of Tenuta Sette Ponti—renting adjacent spaces for their Etna winemaking.

Caciorgna makes three Etna wines from Nerello Mascalese under his Pietro Caciorgna label, which he started in Tuscany in 2002 and named for his father. His entry-level Etna wine, largely from purchased grapes, is an easy drinker called Ciaurìa, retailing for about $22. His middle-range wine, called Guardoilvento ($30), is a deep and complex red made primarily from 3 acres in the Santo Spirito vineyard area. He kept the name N'Anticchia ($65) for his most powerful wine, made from a selection of old vines and aged 18 months in barrel.

Although Nerello Mascalese is often blended by other producers of Etna reds with Nerello Cappuccio for its darker color, Caciorgna views it as one of Italy's great red wine grapes.

"Nerello Mascalese and Etna is like Nebbiolo and Barolo," he says. "It produces a really fine wine in this area."

Caciorgna is still scouting for more small vineyards, fascinated with how volcanic eruptions have shaped the terroirs, leading to great differences between one vineyard plot and the next based on the amounts of volcanic ash and basaltic rock in the soil. 

Looking back over a decade and a half, he thanks de Grazia for luring him here.

"Thanks to Marco, I discovered Etna," he says, "He helped me be at the right moment in the right place."

Learn more about exciting Sicilian producers from Robert Camuto's visits to Benanti, Pietradolce and Palari.

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