“The elders of our village always told me that in Menfi, the terrain changes with every step,” said Milena Rizzo, the young enologist from Palermo who guides Cantine Settesoli. The winery is one of the largest cooperatives in Europe: 2,000 members, 6,000 hectares of vines (all of Etna has only 500), about thirty vine varieties, and revenues of 55 million euros annually. The business, including members and their dependents, involves 70% of the families in the territory. The beauty of this corner of Sicily is dangerous on a day at the end of summer: sea and vineyards, rhythmic dialect cadences, intense flavors, wheat fields, and light that resembles an Instagram filter in the way it illuminates objects. Three hundred days of sun annually are normal, but 2017 was one of the hottest summers in decades. It hadn’t rained since February. Menfi is in the Agrigento province, deepest Sicily, facing south-west.
Sicily: defects and qualities
A retired journalist, as he outlined the continual exodus of the 20thcentury, mentioned that American actor Steve Buscemi’s family came from here. Young people left seeking a better future. Milena studied in Marsala, then went north to Asti and Alba, in Piedmont, before working in California and New Zealand. Then she went back to where she had started, Settesoli in Menfi – a returning Sicilian. “Viewed from outside, Sicily is an incredible land. You can see its defects more clearly, but also its good qualities. It becomes a motivation for showcasing this beauty, our culture, good food and wine, obviously. The young people who return to Sicily,” Milena continued, “don’t see a place that’s closed in, but rather a dynamic territory that has to open up to measuring itself against the world. Settesoli permits you to stay in Sicily but enjoy a global vision. We export to 50 countries. It’s a great opportunity.”
The average age of the Settesoli team has gone down dramatically, with many employees around 35 years old. “Many young people come back to take over the enterprises founded by their grandfathers and fathers, but they begin with a different sensibility. We created a group, Terroir, to give our members specific rules, to make them increasingly committed, offering technical help. Since 2014, we have enologists Alberto Antonini and Pedro Parra, from Chile, and we’ve carried out land-zoning and research into rare varieties that are disappearing, those of which we can locate only a few examples. We have found some indigenous varieties and we’re working on them. We’ve done micro-vinifications, but it takes time. We’ll launch them only when we’re ready to compete with the great zones of the world.”
Settesoli’s vineyards lie on an enormous stretch of terrain that includes five municipalities lying between zero and 600 meters above sea level. “We are focused on native Nero d’Avola, grillo, cattarratto, and grecanico, which is always the last one we harvest. We also grow international varieties that have adapted to our climate well. These grapes, like chenin blanc and petit verdot, lend freshness and acidity.”Milena explained that this year, in the first week of August, temperatures reached 45°C (113°F). At night, for a week, it never went below 32°C (89.9°F). “We began harvesting on July 24. We picked all the white grapes during the night. The timing was extremely tight. Yields were 25-30% below normal, but we see that the late-ripening varieties are better than we expected.”
The contemporary approach
The change in mentality is also obvious in a more contemporary approach to vinification, with the introduction of large barrels and a growing use of ‘live’ cement that is “able to maintain freshness and not have any impact on the aromatic range of the wine. We want to emphasize the crisp character of our wines, that minerality that we find in our valleys, the sapidity that lengthens the wines’ life.” The Mandrarossa line, a million and a half bottles annually, is the key brand. The project, launched in 1999, has been revamped, focusing on the best hectares, only those farmed organically (even if not certified). The challenge is to increase the value of each bottle, which is still too low, raise the flag of quality and thus distribute more wealth to members. The zone can, and must give more. There is still enormous potential to exploit. We swam in Menfi’s limpid, cool sea and downed a plate of hand-made pasta – twisty brusiate – alla Norma, with tomato, eggplant and salted ricotta. We ate fresh fish and visited heart-stopping archeological sites.
I asked Milena to name three places that would explain this land to an outsider. Her answers were firm and clear. “First of all, I would bring them to our vineyard on the sea, two hectares of syrah.” She’s right. When we had visited, the spot was so beautiful that we stood silently, just gazing, for 20 minutes. “Then I’d take them to the Magaggiaro Woods, in the upper part of Menfi. From there you can see all the hillside vineyards and get an idea of the depth of the space. And finally, thirdly, I’d go to Selinunte, the Greek acropolis with a view of the sea.” And thus, the outsider decided to remain.
Mandrarossa by the glass
Mandrarossa Urra di Mare 2016
All Milena’s sensibility is evident in this Sauvignon. Gentle in its aromatic impact, more about fruit than varietal green intensity, it is juicy and fragrant, with scents of thyme and white pepper on the finish. It calls for tuna carpaccio.
Mandrarossa Perricone Rosé 2016
This wine that struck us most. Open the screw top and find immediate pomegranate-blueberry fragrances and a light, flavorful palate with the almond finish typical of perricone. Fruity and fresh, with unusually easy drinkability. Sincere and energetic, it’s good on its own or sipped along with live music in good company.
Mandrarossoa Timperosse 2016
A monovarietal Petit Verdot, which we first sipped hesitantly, due to the difficulties of managing this variety and the many terrible results we’ve sampled around the region. Instead, this version displayed a spicy, very Sicilian profile with aromas of Mediterranean brush, rosemary, wild red berries. A fine tannic texture, good acidity, delicate, subdued herbal notes and a well-resolved finish.
Mandrarossoa Cavadiserpe 2016
Blend of merlot and alicante bouschet. A compact, juicy wine, with refined, pleasant herbaceous and red berry aromas, soft and seductive. With a little oxygen, the floral character appears along with a note of freshly ground pepper. We drank it slightly chilled with memorable grilled sardines – eaten with our fingers, of course. It was a perfect match.
by Lorenzo Ruggeri