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Flavors of Italy

A Sip of Mount Etna

Tuscan wines may claim more fame worldwide but Italy offers  so much more. The southern region of Sicily boasts wine born of the impetuous, unpredictable and unfriendly, land; that’s the volcanic nature of the landscape, of the highest active volcano in Europe, a guardian of centuries old viticulture. What’s become the “new” Mecca for wine producers and enthusiasts is a magnetic landscape, made of black volcanic soils and centuries-old vines that give Etna wines their unique features made of minerality, chiaroscuro, sapid veins and solid but elegant structures. 

In the winter of 1930, my grandfather Pietro was born in a one-room stone house near Randazzo in Sicily. There were no hospitals nearby, so, like many Sicilian women at the time my great-grandmother gave birth to him at home. To imagine he would someday own his own vineyard was highly unlikely.

His father had worked as an overseer on a vineyard as a young man, gleaning winemaking techniques as he watched workers farm the land and harvest grapes. This experience was the seed for both my grandfather and father’s passion and acumen for winemaking and in the 1980s my grandparents, Pietro and Peppina La Monaca, decided to buy a small vineyard and farm in Passopisciaro, a rural village on the northern face of Mount Etna in Sicily. Although they had begun their lives in poverty they invested what they earned as adults in this sanctuary for our family.

My father Giuseppe, “Pippo,” was the La Monaca’s first and only son. By Sicilian tradition, he was to inherit the land. He could have simply been a farmer, but he was committed to first becoming an engineer. However, he never let go of his agricultural roots, returning to the farm to care for the fruit trees in the orchard, the vegetables in the garden, and tend the rows of bountiful old vines of Nerello Mascalese.  In 2002, my grandfather passed ownership of the farm to him. 

A medieval dovecote (palummaru in Sicilian) on top of a nearby hill fascinated Pippo: he began researching the district, discovering its original name was Feudo di Mezzo in Arcuria. This led him to brand his wine production project, Feudo Arcuria

In 2006 Pippo produced his first Etna Rosso called Palummaru, a Nerello Mascalese in purity with unique characteristics imbued by the volcanic soil and fine microclimate. Summer daytime temperatures can rise as high as 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35ºC) before dropping down to  as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10ºC) during the night.

As the sun sets, the volcanic soils release all the heat accumulated during the day. The Nerello Mascalese grapes are forced to grow thick skins to withstand the daily shock, enhancing both the bouquet and the colors of the wine. As Mount Etna has the latest harvest in Italy, thegrapes aren’t ready to be harvested until the beginning of October. For the rest of the country this will have been done in August and September.  

In my mind the town of Passopisciaro is synonymous with la vendemmia- the harvest. Families gather not only to pick grapes, but to enjoy boisterous parties of food, wine, fun, and conversation. In my family, my grandma was the host (her simple chickpea soup was always the highlight for me)Those invited to help in the vineyard are rewarded with a well-deserved supper; cheese, salami, wine, and a feast of dolci and pasticcini.

Unfortunately, like many others this year, we were forced to cancel our family gathering and celebration and focus strictly on winemaking. But it has proved a renaissance  for my father who is making his award-winning wine for the first time since 2012. 

We held the harvest the first week of October. All the grapes were carefully selected and handpicked, processed and pumped into a traditional hand-presser just as Pippo has always done.

The first wine is a new addition, Contessa, an Etna Rosato (Rosé) and will be ready in early spring. The name Contessa is an homage to the “Countess of Etna,” a halo-shaped cloud that only appears atop the volcano when the winds blow from the west. 

We are also resurrecting our award-winning Etna Rosso, Palummaru, a pure Nerello Mascalese. Finally, there will be a limited release Etna Rosso, harvested from the vineyard’s original one hundred- year-old vines – this will be matured in fine oak barrels for at least the next twelve months.  

People often ask Pippo if this is “natural wine,” referring to the many amateur producers now experimenting with small batches and naturally occurring yeasts. His response? Our wines are more than organic, because the land, the vines and the grapes are as nature decides—but Pippo is no amateur winemaker.