It was our first rainy morning since we started the trip. We headed out early to meet Ciro Biondi, the current owner of Vini Biondi, with instructions to meet him at the piazza in front of the church of S. Alfio in the town of Trescastagni. Well of course it took us twice as long to get there, as it does traveling anywhere in Sicily, but after a few phone calls, the accommodating Ciro arrived at the piazza and asked us to follow him up the mountain to his vineyards.
The Biondi family has owned vineyards on the Etna since 1635, but didn't start producing their own wine until the late 1800's. Over the past hundred plus years they have seen countless medals and awards, partnerships, periods of prolific production countered with declines in quality, all leading to the present day tutelage of Ciro Biondi. In 1999, an architect by trade, Ciro decided to restore his family vineyards. He hired renowned Salvo Foti, considered one of the most gifted interpreters of native varietals in Sicily, as his winemaker and the match has resulted in multiple Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri awards for his red wines.
We followed Ciro up the winding roads first to Monte Ilice, a dormant volcanic crater whose slopes rise to a steep 900m at a 50% gradient! A blanket of fog lay over the top of the mountain, obscuring much of the 2 hectares of east facing vineyards that stretch up right to the edge of the crater. They are planted with bush trained Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio using 2meter poles to help hold the soils in place on the steep gradient. Of course everything has to be done by hand, so Ciro has a 300 meter cable lift to bring materials up and down the mountain. At harvest, it takes 4 people 10 days to hand select the grapes from the Monte Ilice vineyard. It is an incredible vineyard site and a definite source of pride for Ciro.
The soils here are amazing. Although in the photo it just looks like fertile black earth, it is actually more like a gravel of ground volcanic rock and sand. It is these soils and the dramatic climate on the slopes of the volcano that make the Etna so unique and one of the most exciting spots in the world of wine today.
We piled back in to the cars to follow Ciro to his next vineyard site, Carpene, where he nostalgically recalls the days that wine was still made here in the old palmento. The typical winemaking structure of the 19th century, the palmento at Vini Biondi is built into the hillside with openings on the upper part of the back wall where the grapes would be brought in to stone basins for foot treading. By gravity, foot-trodden musts would pour into fermentation basins on the lower floor. While no longer used for production, it has been beautifully restored and makes for a wonderfully romantic setting!
Next we headed to Ciro's current production facility where we tasted from the fermentation tanks, freshly picked Nerello Mascalese, and the Outis, a consistent Tre Bicchieri winner from Gambero Rosso. The Outis is a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio that come from his east facing Monte Ronzini vineyards at 620m. He also popped a bottle of his newly released and current award winner, the 2006 M.I.(Monte Ilice), that was just announced as a Tre Bicchieri recipient for the 2010 edition!
Beautiful wines, amazing vineyards and a gracious host, we totally enjoyed our visit with Ciro and Trescastagni. As Ciro headed off to a filming in the vineyards with British chef and restaurateur Gary Rhodes, we went back done the mountain into town for a delicious lunch!
Click here for the full slideshow of our visit: Vini Biondi