Friday, October 2, 2020

Interview with Ben Spencer and I Custodi Etna Rosso Pairing with Fried Eggplant Topped with Fresh Tomatoes and Ricotta

Volcanic wines are the rare gems of Italian wine.  With so many dormant and active volcanoes that still exist today in Italy like Mt. Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius, there are a wide variety of volcanic wines to try from North, Central and Southern Italy. 

My last trip to Italy in October of last year I achieved a trip off my bucket list to walk the vineyards of an active volcano when I visited Sicily hosted by the wonderful team at Firriato.  Our fearless leader and COO of Firriato, Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato, took us on a journey hiking up one of the trails of Mt. Etna at Monti Sartorius an area that hosts ancient craters from the explosion and lava flow from 1865.  The area around Mt. Etna has rather frequent eruptions and in fact while staying at the winery with views of Mt. Etna there was frequent smoke coming out the top.  Federico assured us this is much better to see it active like that than the silence when you don’t know what may be coming next.   
Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato
Federico showing the volcanic bombs that fly through the air from the volcanoes
Mt. Etna has an ever changing landscape and I noticed that from the hike and walking through the vineyards of Firriato where the soils were different everywhere you turned.  This area can face extreme climate changes with very hot summers, potential high winds at time and snow in the winter.    All these factors, in particularly the various volcanic soils in which these vines grown in, are what make the volcanic wines of Italy so unique. 
Monti Sartorius Sicily

A fellow wine loving friend and Piedmont wine tour guide, Valerie Quintanilla, earlier this year introduced me to Benjamin Spencer,  American writer now living in Sicily with a background in viticulture and enology now living in Sicily.  He is also founder of the Etna Wine School and author of his recent book “The New Wines of Mount Etna”.  I did an interview with Ben to provide his expertise and insight into Mt. Etna and what makes the wines produced there unique.   I've been reading through the book it provides in depth detail into all facets of Mt. Etna including the grapes, soils, history and plenty more.

1) What attracted you to the wines of Etna and writing this book? 

My first visit to Etna in 2007 was a real eye-opener. I had been making wine in California for years by then. We used designer yeasts, expensive oak barrels and long hang-times to make wines that impressed customers, clients, especially critics. On Etna, the producers were making wines that intentionally respected the terrain, the old indigenous vines that had grown on the volcano for centuries, and the variables of each vintage. It was a novel and ancient way of looking at wine, but the aromas and flavors were also nervous and edgy, mineral, fresh, and exotic. Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of information about Etna wines. After that first trip to Etna I bought every Etna wine I could find, and I fell in-love with them. But there still wasn't a lot of reliable information about how or why the wines were so inviting. I'm a curious person. After we moved to the volcano in 2012, I just started asking questions and looking for connections. That's why, in The New Wines of Mount Etna, I talk about everything from pirates to volcanic soils and clouds. On Etna everything matters.     

The New Wines of Mt. Etna Benjamin Spencer 

2) How do wines produced on one side of Etna differ from another? 

There are a lot of variables on Mount Etna. The volcanic cone stands 10,000 feet above the east coast of Sicily, in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. This is a warm and humid area. But the Etna DOC is located — from 400 to 100 meters above sea level — the weather is more temperate. Over the last 200,000 years, innumerable volcanic events have altered the landscape like the remnants of melted wax on an old candle. The hours and intensity of sunlight changes with the aspect/angle of each vineyard. The weather changes frequently, based on the slope and elevation. For example, we have twice as much rainfall on the eastern third of the mountain than we do on the rest of the mountain. Vineyards on the southern half of the mountain have longer exposure to direct sunlight, whereas the vines on the north see more deflected light during the spring and fall. These subtle changes can influence the intensity or elegance of a wine. We're also noticing how the age and composition of the volcanic soil can influence profile of a wine (fruitiness, tannins, color). Etna is a fantastic place to learn about wine. I learn something new every day, because the producers are also learning  

3) What are some of the biggest changes in Etna's wine history to where it stands today? 

Etna's history of winemaking is layered. Throughout the centuries scores of grapes were brought to the island. Some of these relics remain here today. Others were lost to time. For centuries, white and black grapes were fermented together in field blends. The reason for this was to give flavor and complexity to wines that were made in palmento — gravity-operated wineries built from lava stone. Those fermentations were hot and fast, and the wine was quite rustic and oxidized. Following World War II, wineries started experimenting with equipment used in the dairy industry, like stainless steel tanks and temperature control systems. This was a game changer. It made it possible to make better and more stable wines using fewer grape varieties. As the years passed, the equipment and science of winemaking also improved. With it, came the formation of the Etna appellation and recipes for modern wines based on the most prized traditional varieties: Carricante (w), Nerello Mascalese (r), and Nerello Cappuccio (r). With these elements in place, wineries began to focus on quality and innovation.           

4) What are some of the benefits and challenges to growing grapes on Mt. Etna? 

Etna is a fantastic region for making wine. Due to the high elevation of most vineyards, grapes ripen slower and more evenly than other places in Sicily, resulting in more elegant wines. Volcanic soils change from neighbor to neighbor, so the potential for variety is omnipresent. Water and sunlight are plentiful too, as are the essential nutrients in the young volcanic soil. Vines thrive here. By law, Etna vineyards are not irrigated, so the entire vineyard landscape is fully sustainable and every vineyard is managed by hand. These are all great points, but over-fertility can be a problem in rainy years and drought was an issue in 2012 and 2017. Etna producers make wine at the whim of Mother Nature, but Mamma Etna also has an occasional say. An emission of volcanic ash can cover a vineyard in sand, or in some cases erase it from the earth under a field of lava. (See attached photos of the 1971 eruption in Fornazzo and the 1981 eruption in Randazzo).      

Volcanic wines of Mt. Etna
An active morning at Mt. Etna
5) Tell me about the Etna Wine School including its purpose and mission. 

Etna Wine School is very much a school without walls. After I completed the WSET Diploma in 2011 and moved to Etna the following year, I began offering organized lectures about Etna's volcanic wines. Shortly thereafter the courses moved into the vineyards and wineries where students could speak directly with Etna producers and learn about the practicalities of making wine on Europe's largest active volcano — with guided tastings, of course. From there I began including full-day experiences and multi-day programs that included exploring the volcano and wine together, plus options for journalists and members of the wine trade who were looking for wines to import. Now, I'm launching our online courses and certificate programs for anyone who'd like to study Etna without having to travel to Sicily. In the end, every online class and in-person experience is dedicated to learning about the world of Wine through an Etna lens. This has been my mission since day one. There's nowhere else in the world I would rather be.   

The Wine 

The wine I’m sharing today is from I Custodi delle Vigne dell’Etna.  The winery was founded by Mario Paoluzi under the guidance and expertise of Salvo Foti, whom has a long history of producing wines on Mt. Etna.  The name I Custodi derives from the custodians of the vines of Mt. Etna.   

The wine I’m sharing today, Pistus, comes from the vineyard, Moganazzi.  The landscape is aid out in an amphitheatre shape lined with dry stone walls facing the Nebrodi Mountains.  It’s located North of Etna in Castiglione di Sicilia at about 2300 feet above sea level.  As the center focal point is located an ancient palmento or press house.  The winery doesn‘t use chemicals or synthetics, but I didn’t see anything about particular certifications they have achieved.         

I Custodi delle Vigne dell’Etna 2017 Pistus Etna Rosso DOC – The word pistus means pressed.  This wine is made of 80% Nerello Mascalese with 20% Nerello Cappuccio.  The age of the vines are rather young at only 10 years old.  The original vines were 50 years old before they were replanted.  This wine spent maturation in stainless steel for 9 months with an additional 2 months in the bottle.  Medium bodied with aromas of blackberry and black cherry.  The darker berries are juicy and fresh on the palate with some earthiness and spice to the palette.  I like the choice to not use oak on this wine and let the profile of the Nerello grapes shine.  ABV 13.5% SRP $26

2017 I Custodi Pistus
The Pairing 

When I think of eggplants I always think of Sicily.  My trip there last October proved how they’re such a part of the local cuisine as I had it served frequently in a variety of styles, all delicious.  I paired the 2017 Pistus Etna Rosso with fried eggplant topped with freshly chopped tomatoes, a dollop of ricotta and grated pecorino with a sprinkle of parsley.  Simple, but delightful.  

Fried eggplant with Etna Rosso

For my volcanic wines around Italy follow along with my fellow wine lovers below.  If you catch us in time we will be chatting live about these volcanic wines this Saturday on Twitter at 11am EST with #ItalianFWT.  See you there!



  1. SO cool that you interviewed Ben. I knew him when he lived here (Monterey Peninsula, California) before he and Nadine moved to Sicily! ;) I still need to read that book.

  2. What a fantastic interview! I will look for Ben's book. This is such a fascinating DOC, I may look into his class!
    Your pairing is so elegant and delicious looking. I am horrible at overlooking eggplant in the market. This is so simple, I will pick some up and give it a try.

  3. Thanks so much for hosting and for sharing this interview with us.

  4. Great interview! I learned a lot in reading this and went right ahead and purchased the book. Now I'll just dream of the day I can visit the wine school!

  5. Another book to add to the 'to read' pile! Great interview, thanks for sharing!

  6. What a fascinating hike with Federico! Being a hiker, that's now on my list. And your interview- looked into Ben and his school when planning my trip that was canceled this past spring. One of the things he said, how the age and composition of volcanic soil can influence the profile of a wine... It'd be fantastic to do a tasting of several wines with him to see exactly how this plays out.

  7. Really enjoyed this interview - added so much to the background I had already gathered. Interesting how many variables there are on Etna. Didn't know you can see smoke coming out of the top. Whoa!