Passopisciaro is sited 1,000 metres above sea level on the northern slopes of Mount Etna, Sicily, a volcano from which a steady plume of smoke is a constant reminder that it is very much live. High altitude, exposure and temperature variation, between day and night, all play an important role in a unique terroir which produces wines of enormous character. Andrea Franchetti forged his name when he created Tenuta di Trinoro, in the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany – from scratch. Having established himself in what he himself describes as a 'God-forsaken place' – for which read desolate and beautiful – he then embarked on a new project. Andrea elected to clear and restore some long-abandoned terraces of ancient vines. The fact that these were situated on a live volcano simply provided extra excitement. The challenges were considerable: derelict cellars, a blackened landscape and the restoration and replanting of a vineyard set on inhospitable lava dust.
This is crazy, quintessential Andrea Franchetti country; stunning, unpredictable, astonishing, mystical and dangerous. A short drive from Passopisciaro will take in attractive cool forest, luscious vegetation and greenery, and then suddenly, on the turn of a sharp bend, the shock of totally barren landscapes, temporarily robbed of life by suffocating lava flows. Still and eerie, even more incongruous is the sight of skiers, as they merrily slalom their way down the slopes of Etna with smoke spiralling from the mountain top, added to the odd belch and obvious flames.
'It’s perfectly safe', promises Andrea, 'it moves so slowly'. But we have all seen too many films to relax totally. Then there are the many statues of the Madonna, dotted across the landscape, arms outstretched to represent how she intervened to stop lava flows in the past, saving villages which would have been destroyed in their wake.
This is the context in which Passopisciaro was born. The land here must also once have looked deathly as the soils are ancient lava. This contributes a very particular mineral character, slightly smoky – to the finished wines. There are three wines to date:
Passopisciaro - the wines
Nerello Mascalese is indigenous to Sicily, a red varietal, of which Passopisciaro is 100% comprised. This is an intriguing grape, wild and assertive, which Andrea has elected to tame. Passopisciaro comes from various parcels of old Nerello Mascalese, at between 30 and 120 years old. Generally a shimmering, limpid ruby in colour it surprises many tasters by its delicacy, coming from so far south. The nose tends to offer summer berry fruit, underpinned by a slighty smoky minerality. There is an ethereal purity on both the nose and palate at Passopisciaro, and remarkable finesse. Nerello Mascales does not do quite so well everywhere.
When he embarked on the Passopisciaro project, Andrea Franchetti was faced with 130 terraces, obscured and strangled by undergrowth. He replanted, determined to grow something other than the ubiquitous Nerello Mascalese. Franchetti, an astonishing wine, is produced from two hectares of young vines of Petit Verdot, a grape usually preserved for "seasoning" in Bordeaux blends, blended with 1.5 hectares of Cesanese d'Affile. Andrea has trawled Bordeaux for Petit Verdot vines whilst the latter come from plots at Tenuta di Trinoro, Andrea’s estate in Tuscany. The blend tends to be roughly half and half, providing deep colours and a very attractive nose, intense and pure, redolent of sweet berried fruits, refreshed with wild herbs. The palate aims at layered opulence with a very obvious mineral character throughout.
Passopisciaro Guardiola Bianco
Andrea Franchetti elected to produce a white from 100% Chardonnay, quite unlike any other Chardonnay. Passopisciaro Guardiola is from young Chardonnay vines planted, by Andrea, at 12,300 vines per hectare, at between 1,000 and 1,100m above sea level. Production is naturally restricted, this high up, just 8hl per ha, producing intense, concentrated fruit. The wine is made in stainless steel with just a couple of months' enrichment in large wooden vats. There is an extraordinary purity about Chardonnay when stripped of its ubiquitous entourage of heavily handled winemaking, clumsy use of oak and artificial yeasts. This is rich yet delicate, subtle and powerful, a paradox, complemented by a smoky minerality.
Passopisciaro Bianco Dolce
Passopisciaro Bianco Dolce is very much an Andrea Franchetti indulgence – an extra challenge for a bit of a wheeze. He has taken a blend of white grapes, bunches of Minnella, Grecanico, Catarratto, Coda di Volpe, Insolia and Caricante which were tied on the cellar beams at Passopisciaro to dry for four to five months before extracting minimal amounts of the remaining, super-concentrated juice. A stunning, golden amber in colour, it presents an absolutely extraordinary nose, a complex blend of savoury and sweet aromatics, wild herbs and honey. The palate offers dried fruit, truffled notes with a profusion of herbs and spice not dissimilar to good vermouth. The texture is decadent, opulent and silky with a high-grade Manuka honey intensity, high toned and slightly dangerous.
Whatever drives Andrea Franchetti to such extraordinary lengths, we must be grateful that he has the fantastical imagination to envisage seemingly impossible goals – and the courage and tenacity to succeed in them. The Passopisciaro wines are a revelation.