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Q&A with Azienda Agricola Biondi: a Winemakers’ Personal Perspective on Mount Etna

Q&A with Azienda Agricola Biondi: a Winemakers’ Personal Perspective on Mount Etna

I came upon my first Biondi wine by accident. Homemade pasta with fresh clams was on the menu for dinner, and I needed to bring an Italian white wine that would blow the mind of a die-hard red wine drinker. 

After consulting a few food and wine pairing experts, I narrowed in on Etna Bianco for the wine. Without knowing anything about Biondi at that time, I picked up a bottle of the 2019 Pianta by Biondi, a single-vineyard white wine composed of ninety percent Carricante and ten percent of other native Sicilian varieties. 

The wine was stunning – pure, distinct, green apple, Meyer lemon, and white blossom aromas, with high-toned minerality, added complexity from lees stirring once a week for eight months in old oak barriques, and concentrated flavors from high density planting at 8,000 plants per hectare. This was indeed a white wine to convert a red wine drinker and an Italian wine to convert a Burgundy drinker. 

Photo courtesy of Oliver McCrum Wines & Spirits.

Having now tasted the 2019 Outis Etna Bianco and the 2019 Outis Etna Rosso as well, it can be confirmed that there is something indeed special going on at Azienda Agricola Biondi. The Outis Etna Rosso, composed of 80% Nerello Mascalese and 20% Nerello Cappuccio, is an elegant, balanced wine that many would compare to Burgundian Pinot Noir, but with the distinctive sour cherry imprint of a classic Italian red. 

The Outis Etna Bianco was produced and aged in stainless steel, rather than oak barrels, as with the Pianta, but it exhibits the same concentration and length as the Pianta, with flavors of raw almonds, fennel, and green apples, and a salinity that lingers on the palate. 

The Biondi family has owned vineyards in the Mount Etna region since the 1600s, with the winery established at the end of the 19th century. Today, Biondi specializes in single-vineyard red and white wines from native Etna grapes that highlight the distinctiveness of the mesoclimate and soils in their three vineyards. 

Stephanie Pollock Biondi and Ciro Biondi with their dogs (from left to right – Elsa, Lupa and Spotty). Photo courtesy of Susanna Junnola. 

I sat down with proprietors Stephanie Pollock Biondi and Ciro Biondi, a husband and wife team who were introduced by a mutual friend at a dinner party, to get to know them and get their perspective on the wines of Mount Etna and the future of the region. 

TVP: You have a number of single-vineyard wines, and I noticed that you actually display the map of the vineyard prominently on the labels. What is the significance of single-vineyard wines for you? 

Biondi: On Etna, the soil is mightier than the grape. We have two single-vineyard reds planted on craters, one from an eruption 12,000 years ago, whilst the other is from a 125 BC eruption. They show a marked difference despite the 200-meter distance between the two vineyards and the method of vinification being the same. The native grapes on Etna express themselves differently owing to the soil composition, altitude, and aspect. 

The three crus have a map of the vineyard on the labels, and the two reds (San Nicolo & Cisterna Fuori) are very different from one another, being planted on craters from two different eruptions, therefore boasting different soil compositions. This, in a nutshell, is what characterizes Etna.

Photo courtesy of Azienda Agricola Biondi.
TVP: It seems that Etna whites, which are gaining immense popularity on wine lists around the world, are starting to diverge into two different styles – the lean, mineral-driven whites and the more full-bodied, textured whites. How would you describe the white wines of Biondi?   

B: We like to make wines that are pleasing to our palate, showing elegance and finesse. We make two styles of white – the Pianta, which spends some time on the skins followed by fermentation in oak, while the second wine, the Outis Bianco, is fermented in steel, which highlights the crispy, crunchy, flinty Carricante with its salty finish. 

TVP: What are your thoughts on the ageability of Carricante, the main grape of your white wines? 

B: Older vintages have intriguing aromatic notes with lovely layers. The citrusy crispness evolves with notes of honey and white flowers, which are found in the vineyards.

TVP: What are the challenges of grape-growing on Etna?

B: The main challenge would be being at the mercy of the weather. As we usually start harvesting towards the end of September and up to mid-October, when the weather breaks, there is a strong risk of rainfall which has led to reduced production, specifically in 2015. All the work is carried out by hand with the exception of the use of a ‘motozappa’ (a rotary tiller) which can only be used on the lower slopes as the upper slopes are too steep. The vineyards are planted on volcanic cones, which have steep sides. 

Ciro Biondi. Photo Courtesy of Azienda Agricola Biondi.
TVP: How has the wine industry in Etna changed since you started making wine? 

B: When we released our first vintage in 1999, there were only about eight other producers whose wines were available on the market. Since then, there has been a massive interest with well-known large producers from Sicily and elsewhere in Italy buying up vineyards and building their cellars. Furthermore, there has been an increase in local producers deciding to harvest and vinify their own grapes, rather than selling them to larger producers. The number of producers on Etna has risen to well over 200. Maintaining the quality and the price is paramount to us in Etna.

Etna is still being ‘discovered’, unlike other well-known wine regions, such as Piemonte & Burgundy, and there is a risk that it will be exploited by people who are only interested in a financial return rather than seeking to achieve excellence and respect for the territory. We’re curious to understand the passion that these newcomers and outsiders share with those who have struggled over the years to put Etna on the wine map. Time will tell, but we are optimistic that, in the future, Etna will become one of the iconic wine regions of the world.

Photo courtesy of Azienda Agricola Biondi.