To describe a wine as “salty” may not seem like much of a compliment. Yet it can be high praise indeed.
Some of the world’s greatest wines have a distinct saline tang. In France, where the vocabulary for describing wine dwarfs the capacity of English, to remark on a wine’s “salinité” is to toss a welcome though perhaps voguish verbal bouquet.
In my experience, few wines demonstrate this notion of salinity as well as the whites in the Etna Bianco category, made largely or entirely from carricante grapes grown in the foothills of Mount Etna in Sicily. They are marked by a distinctive savory tang that the winemakers will tell you is blown in by the salty wind off the Mediterranean.
Here at Wine School, where for the last month we have been drinking Etna Biancos, we prize savory wines. We also recognize that they are likely to be an acquired taste, especially for palates honed in the United States. For decades, the cliché about American wine drinkers was “they talk dry but drink sweet.” Jackson Family Wines, one of the world’s leading wine companies, built its success on its Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay, which embodied the old saw by offering a sweetly fruity flavor without calling attention to it.
Moët & Chandon used to make White Star, a special, sweeter cuvée of its nonvintage Champagne, specifically for the American market. That practice ended a few years ago, and now the United States receives the same nonvintage Moët Champagne as the rest of the world.
Has the American palate matured? Wrong question. Vintner’s Reserve is still a top-selling bottle, and it’s misleading to generalize about American tastes. I think it is safe to say, however, that a growing number of Americans every year appreciate wines that offer the sort of subtlety and nuance that is rarely possible to achieve in the mass market.
Not that these wines must be dry. Moderately sweet German rieslings can be among the most glorious, balanced, refreshing wines in the world. But often, when people have decided they love wine and want to make the effort to learn more about it, they begin to note that many good wines, particularly white, offer not the fruitiness that might be expected from fermented grape juice but savory qualities that are often described using terms derived from spices, herbs and minerals.
So it is with Etna Biancos, whites with a pronounced savory quality that belies another wine cliché, that Italy cannot produce white wines with character. Perhaps that was true 30 years ago. But the quality and diversity of Italian whites nowadays is astonishing, from the Alpine Alto Adige and Valle d’Aosta regions in the extreme north to Calabria on the toe of the boot to the island of Sicily.
As is customary in Wine School, I suggested three bottles. They were Benanti Etna Bianco 2016, Graci Etna Bianco 2016 and I Vigneri di Salvo Foto Etna Bianco Aurora 2016.
Each of these wines was delicious in its own right and gave a clear idea of the potential of the carricante grape. Yet while they shared certain characteristics, they were entirely different.
In common, they all had noticeably firm acidity, relatively low alcohol and those distinctive saline notes. The Benanti had salty, herbal, stony aromas, and though it seemed a bit dilute compared with the other two bottles, with acidity that was not quite as pointed, its flavors had staying power, lingering in the mouth long after the wine had been swallowed.
The Graci was a denser wine, richer and with more body. The aromas and flavors were similar — herbs, citrus, saltiness — but the texture was more interesting. This was a wine you could roll around in your mouth even after swallowing, which I think was because of the residual feeling of its acidity. It was tangy, lip-smacking and refreshing.
The Aurora seemed to be still more concentrated, with even more salinity and minerality than the other two, and with the herbal and citrus flavors as well. None of the wines were heavy, but all were lasting, evocative of their place and superb with one of my favorite dishes, bigoli with tuna, anchovies and sage.
What made these wines different? Of course, each producer has its own sensibilities and intents, which alone are often enough to account for differences. These three wines also had different grape compositions. The Benanti was 100 percent carricante, while the Graci was 70 percent carricante and 30 percent catarratto, a white grape found throughout Sicily, and the Aurora was 90 percent carricante and 10 percent minnella, a rare Sicilian white found almost exclusively on Etna.
The combinations are all permitted by Etna Bianco rules, which require the wines to be at least 60 percent carricante, up to 40 percent catarratto and up to 15 percent minnella. A higher designation, Etna Bianco Superiore, requires a minimum of 80 percent carricante, and all the grapes must come from the Milo area on the east face of Etna, which is regarded as the best area for carricante. One reader, Dan Barron of New York, found the richness of the Graci far more to his taste than the Benanti, and wondered whether the catarratto in the Graci might have accounted for that.
My guess is no. While it’s possible that the presence of catarratto added amplitude to the wine, I don’t know of anybody around Etna who considers catarratto to be particularly desirable.
Notably, Graci’s higher-end Etna Bianco, Arcurìa, is 100 percent carricante and is even more gorgeous, while Salvo Foti’s superb Etna Bianco Superiore, Vigna di Milo, is likewise entirely carricante, as is Pietra Marina, Benanti’s Etna Bianco Superiore, one of Italy’s greatest whites.
Many readers were able to find the Graci, and almost everybody seemed to find that the warmer the wine got, the better it was. This is a crucial point for enjoying good white wine. Cold masks nuances as it does flaws. When you get a glass of pinot grigio from the local bar, you want it as cold as possible so that you taste nothing. But for good whites, you want access to every subtlety. “After a half-hour at room temperature, the wine grew exponentially in mouth-feel and floral aroma,” said Smellis of Brooklyn, who drank a 2016 Etna Bianco from Murgo.
Several people noted similarities between the Etna Biancos and Muscadet, while another cited assyrtiko from Santorini. The Muscadet, grown near the Atlantic mouth of the Loire in France, seems an apt comparison, and the assyrtiko, a little-known grape from a volcanic island in the Mediterranean, maybe even more so. As Ferguson of Princeton, New Jersey, said acutely of the Etna Bianco, “You could taste the sea, but it was a warm Mediterranean, not the crisp Atlantic.” One might also cite Chablis.
All of these wines have savoriness in common, with herbal, mineral flavors and, in the best versions, a distinct absence of fruit flavors save for citrus.
Nothing is wrong with fruitiness in wine. I mentioned moderately sweet German rieslings earlier, which can be gorgeously fruity. Salinity and other savory flavors are simply another aspect of wine’s complexity.
What the sweetness and fruitiness of spätlese riesling and the salinity of Etna’s carricante have in common is great acidity. It’s the spine of a wine that gives posture to the flavors, whatever they may be. You might say that acidity is good wine’s not-so-secret weapon. —
Among the great values in wine are Italian whites, which can sneak through the marketplace little noticed because of Italy’s overall reputation as a gushing well of reds.
Having just explored the Etna Biancos of Sicily, we will next turn to another white from southern Italy, the fianos of Campania. These wines are both shaped by volcanic soils, in Campania’s case Vesuvius, which looms menacingly over Naples though it’s not nearly as noisy as Etna.
According to Ian D’Agata’s magisterial work, “Native Wine Grapes of Italy,” fiano is one of the country’s oldest white grapes, dating back perhaps to ancient Rome. Denizens of Pompeii, it is tempting to imagine, might have been sipping a wine made of fiano grapes when Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, burying and preserving the city.
By the 1970s, the grape was barely remembered and had largely vanished from Campania. Had it not been for the efforts of a few winemakers, most notably the Mastroberardino estate, it might be forgotten today.
Here are the three bottles I suggest:
— Luigi Maffini Cilento Fiano Kratos 2016 (Panebianco, New York) $21
— Ciro Picariello Irpinia Fiano 2015 (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, New York) $18
— Cantina Giardino Campania Fiano IGP Gaia 2016 (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York) $32
Many different fianos are available, but most seem to be made in small quantities, so chances are you may not find these exact bottles or, if you do, the same vintages. Don’t worry about the vintage. In fact, though I have the ’15 Picariello, it may be that the 2016s will be available by the time you shop. By all means, snap it up.
If you can’t find fianos from these producers, you might also look for wines from Colli di Lapio-Romano Clelia, Mastroberardino, Pietracupa, Villa Diamante, Terredora di Paolo, Antonio Caggiano, Villa Raiano and Feudi di San Gregorio.
These wines will go well with all manner of light seafood preparations, vegetable dishes and salads, seafood pastas and herbal risottos. Of most importance, do not serve these wines too cold, or you may mask whatever complexities they might have. They are best served cool — say, half an hour out of the refrigerator.
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