It’s often said that the best wines are made when the vines have to struggle. That may surprise you but, if you make life too easy for them, with rich soils, plenty of sunshine and warmth and liberal amounts of water, your grapes will ripen quickly, but not pick up much flavour. Or, the vine will make plenty of leaf growth, shading your grapes so they won’t ripen properly. Either way, the result will be nothing special.
But, plant your vineyard on poor, rocky soils, where the vines have to fight to get every little drain of moisture and the picture is very different, assuming, that is, that you are somewhere with enough sunshine and warmth to ripen the crop.
And, of all the fine vineyards of the world, one of the best examples of this kind of challenging terrain is found in eastern Sicily, on the slopes of the still active volcano, Mount Etna. Amazingly, despite the constant threat of volcanic eruptions, there are vineyards planted all over the mountain and the growers have to face the fact that, to make the wine they want, they need to accept also the danger.
It’s something I thought about when I opened a bottle of Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Rosso recently (Wine Society, £12.50). Grown in volcanic soil overlooking the sea, about 650 metres (2000 feet) up, it’s made from a blend of traditional local grape varieties, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. Delicious and elegant, it’s a red with lovely bitter cherry flavours together with hints of thyme and other fresh herbs. Although rich and satisfying, it’s not at all heavy and would make an excellent accompaniment to red meat, game or hard cheeses.
But, when you open a bottle, do think of the struggle the vines – and the growers – have been through before this wine gets to your glass.