Carricante is a white variety indigenous to Sicily, Italy’s largest island. Actually, Sicily is six percent bigger and produces six times as much wine as Sardinia, the other Italian island where my rare varieties obsession began. Though I have always enjoyed discovering the lesser known wines of the world, a whole new universe of wine opened up to me in Sardinia. Tasting wines like Vernaccia di Oristano D.O.C., Malvasia di Bosa D.O.C., Granazza, and Bovale was life changing. I recognized that most people have never even heard of these phenomenal wines. Furthermore, the producers deserve international recognition for maintaining their native varieties. After all, they are preserving a piece of cultural history. So, I decided to do something about it and my rare varieties series was born.
According to Karen McNeil’s The Wine Bible, Sicily is the largest wine producing region in Italy in terms of size at 10,000 square miles. Sicily, like many other regions of Italy, has a rich history of viticulture and winemaking. The Greeks advanced this rich history by bringing their modern winemaking techniques to the Mediterranean island. Though Sicilians had been producing wine since 4,000 B.C., the Greeks helped make Sicilian wines world-renowned in ancient times. Staking claim to Julius Caesar’s favorite wine also didn’t hurt Sicily’s reputation in the wine world.
However, along with other southern Italian wine regions in the twentieth century, Sicily’s focus turned to producing quantity over quality. In an effort to attract an international market, Sicilian producers were making dynamic wines from international varieties like Chardonnay. Thankfully, with the rapid rise in popularity of Mount Etna wines, Sicilian producers have returned to an emphasis on quality production and embracing their native grapes.
In fact, the white wines of Sicily, specifically grown in the foothills of Mt. Etna, are gaining international acclaim for their unmatched, distinctive style. We’re not talking the fruit forward, New World style that has become the status quo. No, Sicilian white wines have found a groove of their own. They exhibit a savory quality rarely found in wines elsewhere. Elevated acidity and lower alcohol levels around 12.5% ABV make these whites exceptionally refreshing and poignant. In a wine world with excessive competition and over saturation, white wines from Sicily are stepping out from the crowd. Plus, the increasing recognition and appreciation of Etna whites and reds supports my theory that wine lovers are longing to expand their horizons.
Mount Etna Bianco D.O.C.
If you have ever tasted a Mount Etna Bianco D.O.C., then you have already tasted Carricante. In 1968, the Mount Etna D.O.C. became the first D.O.C. in Sicily. This geographic indication encompasses 120 square kilometers around the active volcano. White wine, superior white wine, red wine, aged red wine, rosé, sparkling white wine, and sparkling rosé are all produced under the Mount Etna D.O.C.
The Etna Bianco D.O.C. offers a dry style and mandates that the wine must be produced from a minimum of 60 percent Carricante. The remaining 40 percent of the blend will commonly include another native Sicilian variety called Catarratto. Different clones of Cataratto may be used, such as Catarratto Comune or Catarratto Lucido. Additionally, other grapes may be used in this 40 percent, which often includes local varieties Minnella and Gracanico, as well as international varieties like Chardonnay. Wines under this designation must have a minimum 11.5% ABV.
For the Etna Bianco Superiore D.O.C. designation, the wine must be at least 80 percent Carricante. The other previously mentioned varieties account for the remaining 20 percent. Wines under the Superiore distinction are dry in style and must have a minimum 12% ABV.
What’s So Special About Mount Etna?
Sicilians refer to their volcano as “Mamma Etna,” regardless of the fact that Mount Etna is an active volcano with the potential to destroy the lives of her surrounding citizens. Mount Etna helps the surrounding vineyards flourish. The volcanic soils enliven the wines of this region. Volcanic soils, including basalt, ash, pumice, and lava, retain water well, which helps produce wines that are fresh and lively. Most significantly, volcanic soils contribute a trademark sapidity to their wines. Mount Etna wines have a mineral, savory, almost salty quality that is so distinct. This volcanic characteristic has allowed Etna Bianco to amass a fan base while standing out from an over-crowded, fruit forward market.
Many of the vineyards are planted on ancient lava flows in this region. The top of Mount Etna sits at 3,320 meters above sea level and the volcano is close to the Ionian Sea. With every volcanic eruption, volcanic ash was spread even further throughout this zone of Sicily. So, many local volcanic-based vineyards are almost sandy in composition. This helped preserve certain vineyards during the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century because the phylloxera root louse cannot survive in thin, sandy soils. Certain vines in this region of Sicily are over 150 years old and are being used to produce vines that are not grafted onto the American phylloxera-resistant rootstock, as are the majority of vines in Europe.
The climate of this zone offers a lot of dry, sunny days tempered by cooling sea breezes. On Mount Etna, grapes are planted at elevations up to 1,000 meters. These heights provide a somewhat cool climate in an unexpected location.
Azienda Agricola Cortese says that the name of this variety comes from “u carricanti,” which means “heavily laden” in the local Sicilian dialect. Carricante’s name references the vigorous growth and high volume of grapes produced by this vine if not rigorously controlled. This variety loves to grow at higher elevations. Carricante typically expresses an exuberant acidity and savory minerality, along with citrus and blossom aromas.
Azienda Agricola Cortese, Carricante, Terre Siciliane I.G.T. 2018
Azienda Agricola Cortese is an organic Sicilian winery embracing biodiversity and traditional, minimal-intervention winemaking techniques. Cortese believes in creating a flourishing ecosystem for their vineyards, the results of which are alive in their wine. Their Nostru line pays homage to the rich Sicilian culture with colorful graphics on every label. A depiction of Ragusa’s Baroque San Giorgio Cathedral adorns this bottle of Carricante.
The Cortese Carricante, Terre Siciliane I.G.T. 2018 is made from 100 percent Carricante grapes grown at 400 meters above sea level. After destemming and soft-pressing, the must was allowed to settle at low temperatures for 48 hours. Following fermentation, the wine sat on the lees for 5 months.
- Brilliant pale straw yellow with green reflections.
- Medium intensity yet thrilling perfumed aromas of orange blossoms, lime blossoms, lemon zest, green apple, white peach, white pepper, and salinity saunter from the glass.
- I’ve never smelled a wine like this! The bouquet is exhilarating to say the least.
- The bouquet definitely has an array of blossom aromas, orange blossom, lime blossom, even gardenia.
- There’s an enticing savory scent of salinity that’s dancing beautifully with the floral aromas.
- More citrus notes like juicy tangerine, Meyer lemon, green apple and white peach.
- You can practically smell the energy of the Sicilian terroir and the flourishing environment Cortese has created for these grapes with their organic and biodynamic practices.
- A beautifully composed symphony of aromas that evolve and crescendo with each subsequent sniff.
- High acidity that electrifies the palate tempered by notes of Meyer lemon, tangerine, and a savory salinity.
- This wine is medium bodied, dry, and one that I will most definitely be purchasing again.
- You can smell and taste the winery’s respect for nature and the natural eco-system in the glass.