Why Benanti is Essential
In wine terms, the turnaround of the Etna DOC on Sicily — which truly gained steam in the 2000s and 2010s — has been nothing short of astonishing. Things do not move fast in Italy, and when you are talking about an industry that relies on slow-growing plants on the wind-beaten slopes of Europe's most-active volcano, notions of time and speed are ... well, a little different.
But in the 1980s, the ingredients were all there — not just for a turnaround, but for Etna to become an upper echelon wine growing area. Abandoned terraces and ancient pre-phylloxera vines were everywhere, and most importantly, underneath them, lay a unique volcanic soil that was untainted by agrochemicals. What had been missing was a dedication to quality and the pride of place to promote it, something that Giuseppe Benanti brought in spades when he kickstarted his winery in 1988. It is fair to assume that without him — and his twin sons, Antonio and Salvino, who now run the estate — the Etna we know today would be very different.
From the start, Benanti's focus was on those old vines and the indigenous grape varieties they yielded. Today, local grapes are all the rage, and rightly so. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, no one in the international wine press would have batted an eyelash had Benanti uprooted the Nerello Mascalese in favor of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay and a quick buck. Instead, he doubled down on the local grapes, hired a talented young enologist in Salvo Foti and worked with consultants from Piedmont and Burgundy to give these grapes the special study they needed. By the late 1990s, Benanti's wines were garnering enough attention that others were coming to Etna, and they were seeking his advice. The trajectory was set, and while Etna (the mountain) today yields a panoply of wine styles from a gamut of different grape varieties — including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it must be said — the headline will always be Etna Rosso and Etna Bianco, the volcanically pure wines from Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, respectively. Benanti's groundwork gave us this gift.
Change is the only constant on Etna. It spews ash and lava, and it rumbles to life and shakes the ground from time to time. And the wines are a moving target as well, even though the industry is reaching a new phase in maturity. There continues to be a parade of new producers, some of them chasing points instead of pursuing terroir with patience.
Through it all, Benanti's wines have stayed at the top of the heap. I can't decide if they are meticulously made or carefully ushered into existence; each wine has sharp details and no stray threads, speaking to craft; but their wildness could only come from the volcano and its varied soil and extreme weather. I've tasted Benanti wines at trade tastings, in restaurants and ever-so-slowly at home, and they shine so much more in those last two contexts. They are deep, thoughtful and intriguing, and it helps to not have a lot of noise surrounding them to hear what they say. But once you cancel out the noise and go in for a taste, they register for what they are — some of Italy's most profound wines.