Tenute Ballasanti – a new Etna adventure with deep roots
Tenute Ballasanti is a young wine venture, yet one with deep roots. It’s on the eastern slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, rising above the Ionian Sea.
Some years ago, I wrote about Mount Etna, covering the native grape varieties, unique terroir, and their renaissance in wine growing. The article also addressed the duality of living under one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes. While the mountain’s constant activity threatens imminent destruction, it also brings abundant life. To discover all those details, you can read them here.
The Etna wine scene is again thriving, attracting new and exciting ventures. An excellent example of this is Tenute Bellasanti.
The eastern slopes
Incessant eruptions have created a micro-mosaic of rugged soils based on primordial lava, pumice and ash. These are of different ages, depths, drainage, fertility and mineral compositions and continue to develop.
Meanwhile, the sheer size of Etna significantly influences the weather and climate. Its eastern slopes are the rainiest and most humid, and thunderheads often build up in summer. However, most rainfall is in winter, while southwest-facing aspects are in a rain shadow.
Constant winds temper summer heat and keep pests and diseases at bay. Altitude is critical, reducing temperatures and offering beneficial diurnal variation.
Grapes are the ideal crop despite the cultivation challenges. And while the upper mountain is barren, the slopes below 2,000 metres have incredible biodiversity; a rich mixture of woods, yellow broom, olives, orchards, prickly pear and Mediterranean scrub.
Etna DOC occupies a ⊃ shaped crescent around the northern, eastern and southern slopes, ranging in altitude between 450 to 1,000 metres. It’s a Goldilocks zone that has recently experienced explosive growth (if you’ll pardon the pun). As a result, the total area under vine in Etna DOC has expanded to 1,184 hectares with 142 Contrade (geographical districts). New vineyard authorisations have been suspended for now. This latest 2022 map* of Etna DOC shows how complex the Etna terroir is.
In addition, there are also high-quality vineyards outside the Etna DOC boundaries. These are often at higher or lower heights or contain grape varieties not authorised by Etna DOC. These areas are usually Sicilia DOC, a more inclusive designation covering the island.
Tenute Ballasanti is a young winery rebranding the former name of Berdivino, owned by Manuela Seminara and Fabio Gualandris. They focus on monovarietal wines made with Carricante (white) and Nerello Mascalese (red), the classic Etna varieties.
Meanwhile, Manuela is Sicilian, while Fabio is an astrophysicist from Bergamo. Manuela’s great-grandfather, Don Lorenzo, carved out their oldest vineyards in Giare. This was in the early 1900s when Etna exported red wine to phylloxera-devastated France. Since then, other local vineyards have been added nearby, in Sant’Alfio, Milo, Piedimonte Etneo and Mascali.
There are currently 5.5 hectares of vines making around 35,000 bottles annually. However, there is another 11 ha still to come on-stream, upping the potential to 120,000 bottles per year.
Their wine philosophy draws on local grapes, organic farming, and tradition to create high-quality monovarietal wines. The winegrowing team combines local knowledge with experience from other parts of Italy. For example, the winemaker, Gianluca Scaglione, is from Piemonte. Tenute Ballasanti is now looking for UK representation for exports. As we shall see, this should be straightforward. Italian retail prices are given as a guide.
Il Tenace, Etna Bianco DOC, 2020. 12.5%. Organic
Il Tenace means “tenacity”, referring to the nature of the vine and those that farm it. While Etna DOC Bianco is often a blend, the best examples are frequently 100% Carricante. These vines are Guyot trained at 700 metres in Contrada Chiusiti (pictured above) at Mascali. The old lava flows here funnel alternating winds; a cold, dry wind from Etna by night and the warmer humid Scirocco from the sea by day.
Caricante is known for its high levels of sharp malic acidity. Some Etna winemakers use secondary, malolactic fermentation to soften this. However, that’s not the case here, where the “malo” is prevented. Maturation is in stainless steel tanks, with subsequent ageing on the fine lees for 3-4 months. This picks up more aroma, flavour and textural complexity. After a natural clarification over winter, it’s bottled under a high-quality DIAM 3 cork.
This young wine is already irresistible. Pale yellow-green, the primary aromas are of lemons, but as it opens in the glass, yellow broom flower scents appear, as do hints of aniseed. The palate reprises these and adds green apples. The acidity is crisp, refreshing, and well-balanced with the fruit and moderate alcohol. There’s a more-ish iron-like mineral finale.
While drinking well, it should be a keeper, too, for longer than the cork might suggest. Ageing usually adds more complexity in the form of diesel aromas.
Versatile with food, Il Tenace proved an excellent match for Sea Bass served with a light olive oil and tarragon dressing. Retail price in Italy: €22.
Il Sublime, Etna Rosso DOC, 2020. 14.5%. Organic.
Etna Rosso DOC can be a blend, but this example is 100% Nerello Mascalese and is the flagship wine. It’s made with a rigorous selection of grapes from bush vines over 100 years old. These grow at 600 metres on the eastern slopes at Piedimonte Etneo. The grapes are destemmed given Nerello Mascalese has no shortage of tannins, with fermentation in steel tanks. Nerello Mascalese makes a notoriously pale wine, and there is no blending in of the Nerello Cappuccio often used to compensate for this. Maturation is in French oak, combining larger tonneaux and smaller 225-litre barriques for 18 months. It’s then bottled under a Diam 10 cork (suggesting expected longevity) and given another six months before release.
Given that this is a young wine, it was decanted for an hour before serving. It’s a very pale ruby with scents of sour red cherries and roses. A little wood influences the nose too, but that’s not intrusive. Meanwhile, the plate is elegant and poised, with a weightlessness that belies the stated 14.5%. It never feels heavy, thanks to juicy acidity and pure fruit overlaying a darker balsamic background. There are tannins for the long term, but these are fully integrated and harmonise well. A tobacco note appears with iron-like minerals on the long and satisfying finish. It’s delicious now but with future potential over a decade and more. In short, Il Sublime is just that.
Food-wise, this will accompany many cuisines. Try roasted vegetables, aubergines, lighter meats and sausages. This bottle paired superbly with Toad-in-the-Hole, the all-time simple Brit classic! Don’t knock it – the fruit matched the spicy sausage and sauce while the acidity razored the pudding. Retail price in Italy: €26
Il Temerario, Sicilia DOC Nerello Mascalese, 2019. 13.5%. Organic.
Il Temerario means courage and is 100% Nerello Mascalese. It’s a Sicilia DOC rather than an Etna DOC, from old bush vines in their oldest (Don Lorenzo) vineyard at Giarre. This lies just outside the Etna DOC boundary at 400 metres asl. After destemming, the grapes ferment in steel tanks. Maturation is again in French oak barriques and tonneaux, here for a shorter six-month period. Then, after bottling under a Diam 5 cork, there is a further six months of maturation before release.
The wine was once again decanted. It’s a deeper colour (relatively speaking), a light ruby red with garnet flecks. The aromas are more assertive here, with more balsamic influence, darker cherry fruit and violets. The palate is firmer, with a more pronounced tannic bite, though the body is lighter, with less alcohol. The wood ageing shows more, with some vanilla notes underpinning fresh dark cherry fruit. An intriguing “meaty” taste appears before a long fade, leaving an impression of iron and cocoa. This wine will develop further, though perhaps not for as long as Il Sublime.
While still recognisably Nerello Mascalese, it’s a different expression, forming a great counterpoint to Il Sublime. Comparing them clearly shows how Nerello Mascalese reveals a sense of place. Il Temerario represents the original wine of the estate made by Don Lorenzo a century ago. Indeed, the traditional red wines from this area were once known as “vini di Mascalucia” after the town of Mascali. Consequently, Il Temerario makes a fine tribute to those origins.
Best paired with something traditionally Sicilian, so how about Spaghetti alla Norma? Retail price in Italy: €24.
Meanwhile, the excellent quality of these wines means that Tenute Ballasanti can take their place at Etna’s top table and sit beside their longer-established peers. While that’s a much bigger table these days, there’s always a place for excellence. Tenute Ballasanti is a winery to watch out for, and I look forward to seeing these wines in the UK!
Via Coriolano, 12
95014 Giarre (CT)
Thanks to Manuela Seminara and Gianluca Scaglione of Tenute Ballasanti for sharing these bottles and their story
*Thanks also to the Consorzio Tutela Vini Etna DOC for their vineyard map.