Exclusively grown on and around Mount Etna, Carricante is a variety that loves mountainous altitudes and is potentially one of Italy’s greatest cultivars.
The word Carricante refers to “loading up” the cart or the donkey with the copious amounts of grapes this variety can produce when left to it’s own devices. This ancient wine grape from eastern Sicily, is thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna for at least a thousand years.
The Etna DOC, covers the slopes of Mount Etna, the 3,330 meter active volcano that dominates the northeastern corner of Sicily. This wine production zone arcs around the eastern side of the volcano, from Randazzo in the north to Santa Maria di Locodia in the south.
Ages of volcanic and seismic activity have created soils just about as diverse as they come. Containing no fewer than 46 different lava types, the volcanic soils of Carricante vineyards feature strata of different geological origins and contribute unique flavors to the fruit. Etna’s volcanic soils contain a mixed pool of essential minerals and elements that are inherently imperative to growing high quality grapes. These minerals include Magnesium, Phosphorus, Sulfur, Silica, and Iron.
The graduated topography creates a smooth spread of micro-terroirs, as the land climbs up from near-sea-level to more than 3,940 feet. The highest of Etna’s vineyards now rank among the highest in Italy (and even the world). Because of these micro-terroirs, the soil composition of Etna vineyards depends on which side of the volcano it is produced. To the north, volcanic soils mixed with white sand are found; while in the east there is mainly steep, precipitous soil (40%). The resulting low yields there bring exceptionally high-quality wines.
Experimenting with vineyard sites further and further up the volcano’s slopes, Etna wine producers are investigating the effects of the richer, blacker soils as well as the increase in altitude.
Carricante is a one-zone variety, as it is only found on the slopes of the Etna volcano, in the countryside around towns such as Viagrande, Randazzo, and others. In the nineteenth century attempts to transplant Carricante elsewhere on the island were made, but have not fared well. The extremely specific growing conditions required for Carricante vines to thrive make this grape a unique, exclusive variety.
Carricante is the main player in the DOC wines Etna Bianco and Etna Bianco Superiore, in which it can be blended with small percentages of other local white grapes such as Minella and Catarrato. High quality Etna Bianco wines are blends, a minimum 60 percent Carricante, or 80 percent for Etna Bianco Superiore. There are also monovarietal wines labeled with the name of the cultivar. A number of Carricantes are blended with small or large amounts of Chardonnay, which can help soften Carricante’s angular profile, but greatly changes that unique experience that it can deliver.
Primary - Grape Influences
Carricante, at roughly 146 hectares in 2009, is only the thirty-first most planted variety in Sicily, though almost one third of those vines are more than fifty years old. Carricante clusters are usually medium-large, cylindrical-conical, and long, with elliptical berries covered with little bloom. There are at least two clones, CR-7 and Regione Siciliana 2, and at least two known biotypes (simply called A and B) that have been studied. Neither is particularly resistant to common vine diseases. Most producers try planting selections of old vines whenever possible.
Commonly alberello-trained bush vines, well-adapted Carricante responds well to the high diurnal temperature variations that characterize the climate around Mt. Etna. The grapes ripen slowly and steadily through their long growing season, retaining their trademark high acidity well into September. In cooler seasons, Carricante grapes can still be seen on vines even into early October.
"Carricante is described as very refined and pure in mineral aromas and racy lemony flavors, complicated by aniseed, green apple, orange flower, chamomile and unripe apricot."
From almost anywhere on Etna’s slopes, looking eastward will reveal just how much light the glinting Mediterranean reflects back up onto the vines. Local growers make much of this effect, which is similar to those reported around Lake Geneva and along the Mosel. It helps to ripen the grapes more completely, even at cooler, higher altitudes. Ripeness is almost never a concern in Sicily, famous for its hot, bright, persistent sunshine. But Etna’s higher slopes are almost the only place on the island where temperatures fall sufficiently low to cause concern for ripeness.
When tended to properly, it yields wines of great longevity with a very intense mineral character. Carricante thrives on the volcanic slopes of Etna, clasping crooked crags where little else can flourish.
Secondary - Fermentation Influences
Carricante wines are characterized by low potassium, very high total acidity and very low pH due to high malic acid concentrations. For this reason, it is necessary to ensure malolactic transformation, something that Sicilians already knew in the eighteenth century. Etna vintners used to barrel-age Carricante wines on their less so that malolactic fermentation would kick in and soften the wines’ sharp acidic edge. This is also why many producers choose to harvest it as late as possible (late September or early October).
The berries are often selected and placed in small cases to be transported whole to the winery where they are destemmed and left at a temperature of below 9°C in stainless steel vats for 24 hours. After pressing and clarification, the fermentation takes place at a temperature of 18°C in used barrels of 225 liters for at least 2 weeks, Batonnage (lees stirring) for 8 months, and bottling the following June.
If harvested too early, the acidity is all too apparent in the wine, but can sometimes countered by lees contact and malolactic fermentation and/or partial barrel aging.
A great Carricante is best described as a dry Riesling look-alike, when five to ten years old, it expresses very obvious flinty, diesel-fuel aromas just as Riesling does. It is very refined and pure in its graceful mineral aromas and racy, lemony flavors, complicated by aniseed, green apple, orange flower, chamomile, and unripe apricot. It is one of only a handful of Italian white wines that age well, benefitting from 10 years or more. It’s penetrating aromas, saline flavors, and extremely high acidity are something not everyone gets used to, but those who do are usually hooked for life.
- D'Agata, Ian. "Native Wine Grapes of Italy