Sicily's 'salty' Carricante wines are a savoury treat

Few wines demonstrate a "salty" notion of salinity as well as the whites in the Etna Bianco category, made largely or entirely from carricante grapes grown in the foothills of Mount Etna in Sicily.
Few wines demonstrate a "salty" notion of salinity as well as the whites in the Etna Bianco category, made largely or entirely from carricante grapes grown in the foothills of Mount Etna in Sicily.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - To describe a wine as "salty" may not seem like much of a compliment. Yet it can be high praise indeed.

Some of the world's greatest wines have a distinct saline tang. In France, where the vocabulary for describing wine dwarfs the capacity of English, to remark on a wine's "salinité" is to toss a welcome though perhaps voguish verbal bouquet.

In my experience, few wines demonstrate this notion of salinity as well as the whites in the Etna Bianco category, made largely or entirely from carricante grapes grown in the foothills of Mount Etna in Sicily. They are marked by a distinctive savoury tang that the winemakers will tell you is blown in by the salty wind off the Mediterranean.

Here at Wine School, where for the last month we have been drinking Etna Biancos, we prize savoury wines. We also recognise that they are likely to be an acquired taste, especially for palates honed in the United States.

For decades, the cliché about American wine drinkers was "they talk dry but drink sweet". Jackson Family Wines, one of the world's leading wine companies, built its success on its Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve chardonnay, which embodied the old saw by offering a sweetly fruity flavour without calling attention to it.

Moët & Chandon used to make White Star, a special, sweeter cuvée of its non-vintage Champagne, specifically for the American market. That practice ended a few years ago, and now the United States receives the same non-vintage Moët Champagne as the rest of the world.

Has the American palate matured? Wrong question. Vintner's Reserve is still a top-selling bottle, and it's misleading to generalise about American tastes. I think it is safe to say, however, that a growing number of Americans every year appreciate wines that offer the sort of subtlety and nuance that is rarely possible to achieve in the mass market.


Few wines demonstrate a "salty" notion of salinity as well as the whites in the Etna Bianco category, made largely or entirely from carricante grapes grown in the foothills of Mount Etna in Sicily. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Not that these wines must be dry. Moderately sweet German rieslings can be among the most glorious, balanced, refreshing wines in the world. But often, when people have decided they love wine and want to make the effort to learn more about it, they begin to note that many good wines, particularly white, offer not the fruitiness that might be expected from fermented grape juice but savoury qualities that are often described using terms derived from spices, herbs and minerals.

So it is with Etna Biancos, whites with a pronounced savoury quality that belies another wine cliché, that Italy cannot produce white wines with character. Perhaps that was true 30 years ago. But the quality and diversity of Italian whites nowadays is astonishing, from the Alpine Alto Adige and Valle d'Aosta regions in the extreme north to Calabria on the toe of the boot to the island of Sicily.

As is customary in Wine School, I suggested three bottles. They were Benanti Etna Bianco 2016, Graci Etna Bianco 2016 and I Vigneri di Salvo Foto Etna Bianco Aurora 2016.

Each of these wines was delicious in its own right and gave a clear idea of the potential of the carricante grape. Yet while they shared certain characteristics, they were entirely different.

In common, they all had noticeably firm acidity, relatively low alcohol and those distinctive saline notes. The Benanti had salty, herbal, stony aromas, and though it seemed a bit dilute compared with the other two bottles, with acidity that was not quite as pointed, its flavours had staying power, lingering in the mouth long after the wine had been swallowed.

The Graci was a denser wine, richer and with more body. The aromas and flavours were similar - herbs, citrus, saltiness - but the texture was more interesting. This was a wine you could roll around in your mouth even after swallowing, which I think was because of the residual feeling of its acidity. It was tangy, lip-smacking and refreshing.

The Aurora seemed to be still more concentrated, with even more salinity and minerality than the other two, and with the herbal and citrus flavours as well. None of the wines were heavy, but all were lasting, evocative of their place and superb with one of my favorite dishes, bigoli with tuna, anchovies and sage.

What made these wines different? Of course, each producer has its own sensibilities and intents, which alone are often enough to account for differences. These three wines also had different grape compositions. The Benanti was 100 per cent carricante, while the Graci was 70 per cent carricante and 30 per cent catarratto, a white grape found throughout Sicily, and the Aurora was 90 per cent carricante and 10 pe rcent minnella, a rare Sicilian white found almost exclusively on Etna.

The combinations are all permitted by Etna Bianco rules, which require the wines to be at least 60 per cent carricante, up to 40 per cent catarratto and up to 15 per cent minnella. A higher designation, Etna Bianco Superiore, requires a minimum of 80 per cent carricante, and all the grapes must come from the Milo area on the east face of Etna, which is regarded as the best area for carricante.

Notably, Graci's higher-end Etna Bianco, Arcurìa, is 100 per cent carricante and is even more gorgeous, while Salvo Foti's superb Etna Bianco Superiore, Vigna di Milo, is likewise entirely carricante, as is Pietra Marina, Benanti's Etna Bianco Superiore, one of Italy's greatest whites.

Many readers were able to find the Graci, and almost everybody seemed to find that the warmer the wine got, the better it was. This is a crucial point for enjoying good white wine. Cold masks nuances as it does flaws. When you get a glass of pinot grigio from the local bar, you want it as cold as possible so that you taste nothing. But for good whites, you want access to every subtlety.

All of these wines have savouriness in common, with herbal, mineral flavours and, in the best versions, a distinct absence of fruit flavours save for citrus.

Nothing is wrong with fruitiness in wine. I mentioned moderately sweet German rieslings earlier, which can be gorgeously fruity. Salinity and other savory flavors are simply another aspect of wine's complexity.

What the sweetness and fruitiness of spätlese riesling and the salinity of Etna's carricante have in common is great acidity. It's the spine of a wine that gives posture to the flavours, whatever they may be. You might say that acidity is good wine's not-so-secret weapon.