A Passion for Sicily with Passopisciaro: An Interview with Sarah H. Bray, Part 2

Passopisciaro Bottles.

In my last post we took a virtual trip to Sicily through a conversation with my friend Sarah H. Bray, who has spent a lot of time working in Sicily, among other places. Now we continue the exploration by narrowing in and looking more closely at Mount Etna. As Sarah is a US Brand Ambassador for Passopisciaro, we’ll get to know their winery, wines, and their relationship with the fascinating terroir on top of this volcano. 

Mt. Etna.
Mt. Etna.


Passopisciaro’s wines have always impressed me, so I was excited to talk to Sarah more about them and get know their backstory better. This winery is all about Nerello Mascalese, which is native to Mount Etna. This grape tends to show red fruit flavors with herbal and floral notes,as well as light hints of spice. It tends to be medium bodied with fresh acidity. Nerello Mascalese is also known for being really able to reflect its terroir. Passopisciaro really showcases this aspect of the grape with six different bottlings from different sites on Mount Etna.


Sarah told me that owner Andrea Franchetti seeks to show textural complexity in his wines. “He favors late picking in order to soften the phenolics of these highly tannic varieties,” creating polished wines. The wines are fermented in stainless steel vats, followed by malolactic fermentation and 18 months of aging in large neutral barrels. Since they use no new oak, that polish has to come from the quality of the fruit from the start. Andrea also believes in racking the wines when needed. Getting that oxygen in the wine allows for more expressive fruit and less rustic tannins when the wine are young. Other than this, intervention is kept to a minimum so as to allow the differences in the terroir to really shine through. 

Farming in Passopisciaro’s vineyards follows sustainable practices. They generally take a lutte raisonnée approach (basically only intervening when really necessary) and only use organic materials for treatments. They also borrow certain practices from biodynamic methods, following the moon cycles, but don’t the preparations.

In addition to the six Nerello Mascalese wines, Passopisciaro also makes a Passobianco from Chardonnay, and their top-end Franchetti cuvée which is a blend of  Petit Verdot and Cesanese d’Affile.

Now that we have this primer on the winery out of the way, let’s jump back into the conversation with Sarah.
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My understanding is that Andrea Franchetti did quite a lot both to revive the winery and the vineyards when he purchased the property. What was that process like and were there and surprises along the way?

He tells the story about how, after founding Tenuta di Trinoro, he was looking to start a new project in Sicily. Driving around the island, he thought it was too warm overall, but someone pointed up to the black mountain in the skyline, and he set off (I’m assuming at break-neck speed; he’s quite the fast driver!) Ascending, he stuck his arm out the window – this would have been around Easter time – and the air was substantially cooler. He then came upon these collapsed terraces across the volcano with these gnarly old vines planted on them. He ended up acquiring several parcels across the northern side of the volcano at different elevations, from 1,800-3,300 feet above sea level, and released his first vintage of Passopisciaro in 2001.
There really was no winery before him. There was a building with a caved in roof that he had to restore; the previous owner had abandoned the building when the lava flow of 1947 came within meters of it. In the vineyards, about 60 acres purchased in non-contiguous sites, there was much work to restore crumbling, overgrown terraces and bring these 70 to 100 year old-vines he’d purchased back to production. Meanwhile, he was experimenting with winemaking styles for this “vinello,” or little wine as he called the Nerello Mascalese grape; his winemaking experience previously had been with the Bordeaux varieties, so initially he used barriques to age the wines, but evolved to using neutral oak after the first several years when he saw that the wood overpowered the variety. As an outsider to Etna, he was also interested in trialling different varieties and what they could express about the terroir, so he planted additional vineyards of Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, and Cesanese d’Affile on the main estate in the contrada of Guardiola.

Passopisciaro's Winery at Guardiola.
Passopisciaro's Winery at Guardiola.
I love that image of him racing up Mount Etna. It’s like he’s chasing the terroir!
There must be some real challenges to working on an active volcano. Give us some insight into what that’s like?

You think active volcano, and of course, there is the constant, very real threat of eruptions. Etna is a composite volcano, meaning that pressure can build and release at any point on its surface, not just from the summit craters that loom at 11,000 feet above. The aftershocks of eruptions are also a challenge; the eruption that occurred after Christmas last year caused more damage through the earthquakes (mostly on the eastern side) than any lava did.

Smoke in vineyards on Mount Etna.
There is also the very fact of how hard these vineyards are to work. The traditional planting method is a bush-trained “alberello” (little tree) on terraces of varying widths that ascend in altitude very quickly, requiring manual labor at every stage of the growing cycle, but in soils that are like walking on the moon. It’s really laborious to move through the vineyard just walking – think about carrying equipment or crates of grapes!

Winter pruning on terraced vineyards of Mt.Etna.
Winter pruning on terraced vineyards of Mt.Etna.

For more on what it’s like to make wine on Mount Etna, see this detailed section on the Passopisciaro site.

Everything about this seems so precarious! However, the upside seems to be that the volcano creates really distinctive terroirs and these are now being classified. Passopisciaro has been at the front of establishing this cru system on Etna, known. Give us a brief overview of how it’s organized. How do you see that evolving?

The Contrada system on Etna leverages existing territorial names on the volcano. If you grew up there and told another local, meet me in Contrada Rovitello, that person would know instinctively where to go. In fact, Passopisciaro’s address just reads Contrada Guardiola -– mail and delivery guys know where to go, but it’s a bit more difficult for clients to find us the first time they visit!

These names roughly correspond with changes in elevation and lava spills and thus have been appropriated as names for the growing zones, which are quite distinct from one another. Some change as the lava flows occur: San Lorenzo was originally called Bocca Dolce, but the 1981 lava flow ate up several hectares, so the name was changed for the remaining territory; Sciaranuova, which literally means “new lava flow” in Sicilian dialect, is a small cru that corresponds to a flow from the 1600s that was planted in the 1800s (it takes about two hundred years for new lava to become friable enough to plant). 


Contrada map on Mt. Etna.

It’s also important to understand that every lava flow is made of a different mineral and soil composition, and over time, areas have been exposed to different elements. Sometimes, side by side sites are visibly different. In our Porcaria vineyard, which is part of the larger area Feudo di Mezzo, there once ran a river, so the pumice stones are much more worn down; Chiappemacine, instead, is at a lower elevation where a lava spill actually encountered limestone, and there’s a mix of these soils in parts of the vineyard making the soils lighter in color in some of the terraces. Elevation also has a huge impact, as ripening occurs at different times and climatic conditions can be quite different between 1,800 and 3,300 feet.
Passopisciaro vineyards in winter.
Passopisciaro vineyards in winter.
The real question about the evolution of this system lies in whether or not the DOC production zone will be expanded, which is not really on the front burner at the moment. Some Contrade lie within the DOC, some do not. Contrada Guardiola is split in half, with the upper confines of the DOC corresponding to the road that leads to our winery, which sits just above the road, as in just above the DOC line. Some of our vineyards are above, some below. Lots of the higher elevation sites on the northern face of the volcano are being used to make wines (really great ones, in fact), but they cannot be called Etna Rosso’s.
While Marco de Grazia was the first to put these names on his labels and begin to talk about the sites in terms of Grand and Premier Crus, Andrea had the idea to start an event called Le Contrade dell’Etna in 2008, where he invited other producers to his estate to bring samples of the most recent vintage and taste through these young nerellos from the different territories. He also invited some international trade and media, and that event really helped propel the region, and the concept of these cru sites, onto the world stage. The next edition of this event will take place on April 14 & 15.

For more info on Sicily’s terroir see this article Sarah wrote for SevenFifty Daily.


If I ever get to go to Sicily, I’ll have to plan my trip around Le Contrade dell’Etna. Seems like it’d be the perfect way to taste through and understand the terroir.

Now let’s add grapes into the mix. Passopisciaro focuses largely on Nerello Mascalese, with six of its eight wines coming from this grape. What’s is so captivating about it?  How does it transmit the various terroirs?

I could talk about Nerello Mascalese all day, every day. I think it is a grape that produces wines that are compelling, complex, and simply delicious. For someone encountering the grape for the first time, I talk about it like a lovechild of pinot noir and nebbiolo, since it has the tannic structure of the latter and the red fruit character of the former, with its own obvious distinct mineral and herbal characteristics (For the record, genetically, it’s not; according to Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, it’s a natural crossing of Sangiovese and Mantonico Bianco).
In terms of transmission of terroir, Nerello Mascalese is an extremely transparent grape.



Images of Nerello Mascalese grapes and vines.
Images of Nerello Mascalese grapes and vines. Photo courtesy of Sarah H. Bray.


Here’s another detailed description of Nerello Mascalese from Andrea Franchetti on the Passopisciaro site :





The red wine of Etna is of nerello mascalese, an ancient grape, rare except on this volcano, where it is still splendidly cultivated like a mountain grape in old and ancient bush vines. It has little color, large bunches with strong, thick skins, and it ripens late – for the vines planted at 800 meters and above, as late as November. The light red color of the wine is from the variety, not from dilution; the berry is large, and instead of using the bitter skins, the wine is made from the juice, which is best when plants are not too stressed.

During fermentation, the nerello has notes of marzipan and a boorish, carnal quality, which are so pagan that the embarrassed winemakers let it fade; often, there’s a hint of nail polish when the yeasts are disturbed, but in every other sense, the fermentations on Etna happen easily because of the lack of pesticides, up to now, on the mountain. Notes of citrus and camphor come into the wine from the lava flows, and an aromatic acidity gives the impression of a sort of reddened white. When well made, nerello mascalese improves over eight years, then begins to age slowly, gaining hints of a sweet smokiness.


Now that we’ve learned so much about the wines, let’s turn to how to enjoy them. What are some of your favorite pairings for some of Passopisciaro’s wines?

Passobianco, the only white wine we make, is a delicious aperitivo wine, but I recently had it with a pasta dish over a fava cream, which was an absolutely delicious complement.

The Nerello Mascalese wines, from Passorosso to the five Contrada wines, can pair with fish as easily as pork both of which are readily available on a mountain that is located in the Mediterranean; they’re also great Thanksgiving wines, given that they can handle everything from the tartness of cranberry sauce to the richness of gravy. This glosses over the nuances of the five single vineyard wines, which generally are richer from the lower sites (Contrada C and P), structured from Contrada G, and lighter, more acidic, and almost ethereal from the higher elevation sites (S and R); when I have the option of showing them together, I course them according to body.

The Franchetti wine we make, made of Petit Verdot and Cesanese d’Affile, are great with meat dishes like barbecue and steak au poivre; I’ve also had them at the end of meals with simple desserts, given the richness of the black fruit that comes out in the wine with some bottle age.

Once again, you’ve given us some amazing suggestions. Fava cream, steak au poivre, and everything in between – it all sounds delicious. I’ll get my hands on a bottle soon to do some experimenting. Thanks for all the ideas and info Sarah!



Sarah H. Bray in Passopisciaro's vineyard on Mt Etna.
Sarah H. Bray in Passopisciaro's vineyard on Mt Etna. All photos courtesy of Vini Franchetti unless otherwise indicated.


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Sarah is one my collaborators on Bâtonnage Forum and will be here in Oakland at Bay Grape on 4/28/19 as part of our Women in Wine Discussion Series leading up to the event. Find more details here. All profits from ticket sales go to creating scholarships for minority women attending the Bâtonnage Forum!

You can also still get tickets to Bâtonnage as well. It's happening on 5/4 – just one month away! – in Napa.

Tickets and info here.



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The rest of the Italian Food Wine Travel (#ItalianFWT) is exploring Island Wines from Italy. Check out their posts here:





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