By Christopher Matthews
Few places in the wine world are as exciting as Sicily.
An island of vines since antiquity, and a vintner’s sun-drenched terroir dream, it has experienced a remarkable revolution toward quality wines in recent years, leaving behind the reputation of cheap bulk wines that once defined Sicily’s copious production.
Of the many favorable spots to grow grapes on Sicily, the most compelling district for me is the Etna DOC, in the shadow of Europe’s tallest — and very active — volcano. Endowed with rich volcanic soils, intense sunlight and cooling sea breezes and altitudes, the cinematic foothills of Etna produce some stunningly good wines from mostly local varieties, namely Nerello Mascalese (red) and Carricante (white).
Being a true Etna fan, when I received a recent invitation to the US debut of Cantine Valenti’s wines, a relatively new winery from that region, I was all in.
There was also a personal connection. A few years back, I met Alessandro Valenti through our upstate friends, Harlan Bratcher and Toby Usnik. Like Harlan, Alessandro is a fashion industry executive, then for Armani in New York City, now for Ralph Lauren in London. In our initial chat, Alessandro spoke of his family’s roots in Catania, Sicily, and his affinity for the island. Naturally, I mentioned my recent trip to Sicily, how much I loved it and that I had just written a column on Sicilian wine, focusing on Etna. Alessandro’s jaw dropped: his family had recently purchased a vineyard property in the Etna DOC, based on their passion for the land and the native grapes. Needless to say, our talk veered into the vinous…
Fast forward to now. Cantine Valenti has grown from an initial property of five hectares in 2004, to 20 today, 16 of which are under vine, solely with traditional Etna varieties — Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Carricante and Grecanico. Great strides have been made in a relatively short amount of time, guided by their talented winemaker, Emiliano Falsani. Falsani, who has worked in wine regions all over Italy, believes Etna is one of Italy’s truly great vineyard sites, and that “you must make the wines in the vineyard on Etna,” allowing the local grapes’ unique aromas and flavors, as well as the district’s signature minerality, to shine through in the wines.
As you might imagine from someone in fashion, Alessandro’s tasting event was set up beautifully: the venue, the front room of SD26, was sleek and stylish; the crowd, well-heeled and chic; the hors d’oeuvres, elegant and delicious. But the undisputed stars of the show: the Valenti wines.
The headliner, now available in the US (and already on SD26’s wine list), was the Puritani 2008 (Etna Rosso), made of 100% Nerello Mascalese from old vines. Deeply colored and fragrant, it has notes of briar fruit, forest floor and high-tone florals. A wine of excellent structure, complexity and finesse, with a long, mineral finish, it’s made for the table, but will also improve in the cellar. And it’s a bargain in the $20-25 range.
Alessandro’s team also showcased two other wines at the tasting, which will soon be available stateside — the Malavoglia 2010 (IGT Sicilia Bianco), and the Poesia 2010 (Etna Rosato). When they arrive, watch out: they are dynamite. The Malavoglia, a white made of 100% Grecanico, is zippy and whistle clean, featuring tangy orchard fruit, hints of almond skin and a chalky, dry finish, reminiscent of Loire Valley Chenin Blanc. And the Poesia, a 100% Nerello Mascalese rosé, is one serious pink, sporting body, structure and refreshing acidity, with pretty strawberry aromas and flavors and, again, that pronounced minerality. These will probably sell around $15 when they arrive; buy early and often!
It was a successful debut: the Valenti wines showed extremely well, combining elegance, value and Etna typicity.