One of the simplest pleasures in Sicily is sitting down for a light lunch, basking in the sunlight and enjoying a glass of fine Sicilian wine.
Perhaps the only thing that could make this experience any better is if the wine in question was made from grapes harvested from Europe’s largest active volcano and one of the most active volcanos in the world, the formidable Mount Etna.
It may seem an unlikely location for a vineyard, but for the Mannino family, Etna Wine is their heritage, and they have been producing quality Sicilian wine since 1800!
Although I’d spent a lot of time drinking wine in Sicily, I hadn’t actually ever taken the time to learn about Sicilian wine, and so when Federico from Tenute Mannino di Plachi reached out to me and invited me to experience a Sicilian Wine Tour, I couldn’t say no.
A Sicilian Wine Tour at the Base of Mount Etna | Wine Tasting in Catania
The estates of Tenute Mannino di Plachi are divided into 3 areas, or zones: Le Sciarelle, Tenuta del Gelso and Podere Pietra Marina.
For my Sicilian wine tasting, my boyfriend and I arranged to meet Federico at the Tenuta del Gelso at 11:30 one sunny August morning to see what Mount Etna Wine had to offer.
Tenuta del Gelso is located just 10 minutes from Catania Fontanarossa Airport and 20 minutes from the centre of Catania. Unfortunately, there is no public transport connecting Catania with Tenuta del Gelso, and so it is necessary to either rent a car and drive there, or take a taxi.
We opted to take a taxi and paid €30 one way with Catania Taxi. Although €30 is expensive for a 20 minute ride, the other companies were quoting us €40 so I recommend using them! We booked by texting on WhatsApp, in English.
The history of Tenute Mannino di Plachi
When we pulled up at Tenuta del Gelso 20 minutes early, Federico was ready and waiting with a big smile and an elbow bump (he also wore a mask while speaking to us).
Federico is not part of the Mannino family himself, but he has worked at the winery for so many years that he may as well be, and his passion for wine and agrotourism shine through with every word he says.
After a friendly welcome, he led us to the beautiful garden area at the front of the property and began telling us all about the history of Tenute Mannino di Plachi.
Back in 1800, the Baron Franz Mannino began supplying wine and citrus fruits to other parts of the world such as North America and the rest of Europe, winning prizes in various World Wide Expositions.
After a huge grape sickness in Europe in the early 1800s where most of the grapes were destroyed, Sicilian aristocrats, seeing that their grapes had not been affected, invested money into wine production, and as a result Sicily (and Calabria in the South of Italy) began producing wine for the whole of Europe.
Federico grinned as he told us that the English were among the first wine buyers in Sicily, and back then the focus was always on quantity rather than quality, with buyers only caring about the alcohol content and not about how the wine actually tasted (classic Brits!).
These days, Sicilian wine is much more focused on flavour and complexity, crafted to be enjoyed rather than guzzled down as part of a mission to get obliterated.
Tenuta del Gelso
Tenuta del Gelso is a huge 65 hectare plot that primarily grows citrus fruits, but also cultivates olives, wheat and vegetables such as artichokes. The old rural house at the heart of it all, surrounded by luscious gardens, is called the ‘palmento.’ The palmento is one of the oldest and biggest in the area and is where the grapes were turned into wine in days gone by.
In the past, the Mannino family would actually live in the palmento during the harvest season, and everybody had their part to play in the wine making process – the men would pick the grapes, the women would bring them inside and the children would crush the grapes with their feet on the upper level of the palmento, dancing and singing as they did so!
The ground floor level was used for the fermentation and bottling process, but now, of course, due to health and safety, the wine is no longer produced in the traditional way and so the palmento currently functions as both a guesthouse and area for Sicilian wine tastings. That being said, traditional processing techniques are employed at Tenuta del Gelso, such as manual harvesting and natural ageing in oak barrels, and it still produces a staggering 150,000 litres of wine every year!
As Federico explained the wine making process to us, he led us slowly around the palmento so that we could visualise how it would have been in the past.
When he’d finished, he led us to a beautiful table in a little alcove where we would enjoy the tasting itself.
After we’d made ourselves comfortable, Federico poured the first glass of wine for each of us, and encouraged us to try it as he told us a bit about it.
Our first introduction into Sicilian wine was the Palmento ‘810 I.G.P Carricante Terre Siciliane 2017.
The grapes for this wine are the Carricante grapes, which are one of 4 types of grape that grow around Mount Etna. The Carricante grapes come from Le Sciarelle, which is located 400 metres above sea level in the southern part of Etna.
‘This wine is great for aperitivo,’ Federico explained, ‘because it has a good level of acidity for different types of food. It cleanses the palette.’
It’s I.G.P classification means that the family have less restrictions on how they produce their wine, thus allowing them to get more creative with the process. The Carricante wine is left for 6 months in still tanks followed by 8 months in the bottle. It is very easy to drink, and its flavours are the fragrant Genestra wildflower which grows on the Etna lava stone, and fruits including banana.
Next came the Etna Bianco DOC 2018, which is also from Viagrande and is made from two important Etna grapes – the Carricante (90%), and the Catarratto (10%), the latter of which gives the wine its DOC classification.
The skin is left on the grapes for 2.5 months to allow the tannins to give it a stronger, more intense taste than the Carricante wine. This is a wine rich in minerals brought about by the volcanic soil, and Federico advised us that while the previous wine was perfect aperitivo wine, this Sicilian wine is more suited for fish and shellfish dishes.
He grinned and disappeared, leaving us to linger over our wine and enjoy some of the foods that we’d been neglecting in our quest to learn everything about Sicilian wine.
Before us lay a beautiful antipasti platter full of organic Sicilian delights.
Cloudy Extra Virgin Olive Oil from the old Nocellara Etnea trees with a hint of spice, sun-dried tomatoes and juicy green olives, along with Brolo Salami and fresh Pepato and Provola cheeses from Ragusa made up our antipasti platter. An array of spreads – avocado marmalade, or the ‘guacamole of Etna,’ sun-dried tomato paste and a rich spread made from both black and green olives, complete with a basket of warm crusty bread.
For a sweet addition we had citrus marmalade made from blood oranges, mandarins, lemons, bitter oranges and clementines, all peeled individually by hand and blended with orange peel in orange blossom honey for a unique and delicate taste.
When Federico returned, it was with our first red wine, the I.G.P Nerello Mascalese 2013, made from the Nerello Mascalese grapes that grow on the North side of Etna, in the ancient vineyards of Castiglione di Sicilia, on sandy and volcanic soils.
As Federico explained the process of making this wine, we gave it a try.
I am not usually a red wine drinker so I wasn’t prepared to enjoy this wine as much as I did – Federico described it as being ‘a light wine that still feels full in the mouth,’ and I have to say that I agree with his description! With notes of red berried fruits, I found this wine very easy to drink, and it went really well with the meats and cheeses that we continued to nibble on.
Our fourth and final wine was the Etna Rosso DOC 2015, the most expensive and prestigious wine that we would be sampling.
The Etna Rosso DOC is made from the Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes, both of which are native to the black volcanic Etna soil which is rich in minerals. It is a dry wine, ruby red in colour and full in flavour with an earthy taste – to be honest I think it was wasted on my very unsophisticated palette! Having said that, my boyfriend, who loves his red wine, was a big fan!
Wine tasting in Catania – Final thoughts
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of Sicilian wine tasting at Tenuta del Gelso. Not only were the wines and nibbles delicious, but the magnificent palmento, lush scenery and wonderful company of Federico made it extra special.
Not only was Federico very informative about the history of the winery, the wine production process and the wine itself, but he was so friendly and welcoming that even grubby backpackers like us felt right at home and able to ask questions!
This wine tasting experience costs €40 per person. If you are a budget traveller or backpacker then this may be slightly out of reach for you, especially if you are relying on taxis to get you there and back.
However, if you are more of a mid-range traveller who wants to drink beautiful wines in an idyllic location at the base of a volcano, I really recommend a visit to Tenuta del Gelso!