On Sicilian Time, Part 3: Murgo

Coming full cerchio at the foot of Mount Etna

From Castellammare del Golfo to Agrigento and Ortygia, we rounded out the Woodman family’s 2011 Sicilian wine adventure in the northeast of the island, at the tony resort town of Taormina, a collection of winding alleys and narrow stairways perched high on a ribbon of cliffs above the azure Bay of Naxos and the Ionian Sea. Somewhere due east over the horizon are the Ionian islands of Greece. But from a table at the Wunderbar Caffè—made famous by a canoodling Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton—my attention was drawn south to a particular feature in the distance, nearly obscured by clouds and haze: Mount Etna.

There, on the gentle early slopes of that very active volcano (trust me, I checked), the soil is hyper-fertile, dusted on occasion with ash that occasionally flutters down like gray snow. From where the gondola drops you amid the barren, black, moonlike surface of the mountain, we hiked up, up, up and then I pushed on solo until I reached one of those signs that essentially tells you, “You’re on your own from here.”

The wind was extraordinary, but I could see Sicily in nearly 360 degrees—above, Etna’s steaming, sulfurous breath and far below, in the town of Santa Venerina at her feet, Murgo’s grapes warm on the vine.

The Scammacca del Murgo family welcomes guests to visit Tenuta San Michele, where you can eat, and most importantly, drink the fruits of their labor, transforming feudal properties into profitable vineyards and olive groves. The Murgo wine portfolio (Murgo.it) includes both sparkling (spumante) and still wines, much of which relies upon indigenous grapes.

“Etna is the Burgundy of the Mediterranean,” Murgo’s Maria Teresa Gassmann said, noting its elegance and subtlety. “I think our wines have a strong connection to this place.” The lava and volcanic sand offer great drainage and impart the wines with a distinctive minerality. Here the days are warm, the nights cool, and there is no need for irrigation.

She started us out with bubbles: 2008 Murgo Brut, 2005 Extra Brut and 2008 Brut Rosato, spumante all made in the traditional method from 100 percent nerello Mascalese, a pinot noir-like grape. The extra brut spends nearly five years on the lees, so it has some real character.

From here we explored the whites, beginning with the 2009 Etna Bianco—a 70/30 blend of Etna’s native carricante and Sicily’s native catarratto bianco grapes. While this wine bears the elevated D.O.C. status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), my favorite white, the 2008 Arbiato, is a simple but simply irresistible I.G.T. (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), a blend of chardonnays aged in new oak, used oak and stainless steel. The nose is sweet and overwhelmingly floral, with honeysuckle and orange blossom, yet the finish is surprisingly dry. Murgo’s chardonnay vineyard was planted in 1994, but this is Arbiato’s first vintage, and also the only white wine I brought home from this trip.

My favorite red of the day, too, was neither the rarest nor the most expensive, yet another example of simplicity trumping the overly complicated. The 2009 Etna Rosso is an oaked and unoaked blend of 85-90 percent nerello Mascalese, and 10-15 percent nerello Mantellato. Here we find all the flavors of the area: minerality, red berries, black pepper and clove. Murgo has been making an Etna Rosso since 1982, and today it continues to be Murgo’s most important product.

A night later, at a small restaurant on Taormina’s Corso Umberto I, with walls that nearly disappear to blur the line between outside and in, we got a hold of the 2008 Etna Rosso, said to be a spectacular year. Below us, wood smoke bellowed out from the kitchen. Somewhere between the smoke, that 2008 and my pesce spada alla griglia (grilled fresh, local swordfish steak) I understood that triumph of simplicity, I just got it. And as I would be departing Sicily a few days later, I also had to let it go.

Las Vegas may offer a lot, but even it has its limits; while the 2006 Brut is available at Carnevino in the Palazzo, neither of the two Murgo wines that so rocked my world is available here. So for the time being, my one bottle of Insolia and the memory of that meal are, like my growing cork collection, my souvenirs of Sicily.