“Our Italians” is a series of interviews conducted with local food artisans, experts and producers in some major Italian cities, but also those who practice their craft in smaller, rural, less visited parts of Italy. These passionate individuals are committed to sharing the best in Italian food, wine and traditional products, through family-owned businesses and small scale enterprises, and we’re here to introduce them to you.
Today we meet Massimiliano Calabretta, the owner of Calabretta Wines located on the north side of Mount Etna. The Calabretta family vineyards have been handed down from generation to generation. Calabretta is known as one of the first natural wine producers on Etna. We had the opportunity to meet with Massimiliano at his wine cellar and visit his vineyards in May.
Casa Mia: When and how did your family delve into the craft of winemaking?
Massimiliano Calabretta: It was many, many years ago. Around the year 1900, my great grandfather Gaetano Calabretta started with his first vineyards in Sciaranuova’s cru-zone between Passopisciaro and Randazzo. He was a stone carver but in his free time he cultivated vineyards. My great grandmother Donna Orazia helped him to sell wine in her shop in Passopisciaro. My family started to sell wine directly in Northern Italy – Liguria to be precise – in two shops from 1930-35.
After WWII my grandfather, Salvatore Calabretta, returned to Etna and married my grandmother Concetta. They bought new vineyards that I still cultivate to this day. Salvatore is now 98 years old.
The “craft of winemaking” of my grandfather is ‘Pista & Mutta’ fermentation. Grapes were pressed immediately and transferred 24-48 hours later into tanks. Today my winery uses this system for our Rosato. The “craft of winemaking” of my father is aging wine for long periods of time which he learned while working in a large winery in 1960. My “craft of winemaking” is found in the other styles of wines that Calabretta produces.
CM: What are the 3 biggest challenges you’ve faced as a winemaker?
MC: My personal challenges? Learning about wines and discovering my land! I live in Genoa, so I had to start from scratch learning about fermentations, discovering grape varieties and wines and experimenting with their aging both in barrel and bottle. I loved this challenge. It is the challenge of a lifetime.
The second challenge was and is winemaking using a traditional method. This means using a very low quantity of SO2 and letting the terroir shine through my wines. I believe letting the terroir be the focal point of a wine is a real challenge.
CM: In your opinion, why has the land on and around Etna been so rich for winemakers for decades, and why is it attracting a new generation?
MC: The terroir of Etna is one of the greatest of the world. It’s strange and unique. Only by tasting wine from its best cru-zones can one truly understand the nuances and differences. Here a wine is both refined and structured. Other key factors are the altitude (700-800 meters above sea level and up) coupled with unique climate conditions and the possibility of a true natural way of cultivation. Land, altitude, climate, wind, sun, and a variety of natural factors in addition to something spiritual all result in this magical terroir. The new generation of wine makers was surely attracted by these elements.
CM: Do you feel your family has achieved what they wanted from when they started making wine on Etna up until now, or are you still dreaming of expanding your wine offering or changing it?
MC: My family started to make wine so many years ago (1900) that in reality the market of selling wines has changed since then. However our philosophy, which spans 4 generations, has remained the same: respect for the terroir, highlight the natural aspect of wines and love for our vineyards.
I replicated our philosophy expanding to 5 cru-zones instead of 1, planting Nerello Cappuccio, Carricante and Minnella in addition to Nerello Mascalese, and by creating wines from both young vineyards and old vineyards. I wanted to offer a broader selection of wines while adhering to our traditional approach.
CM: What are your future plans for Calabretta?
MC: I would like to invite more customers and friends to our winery, connecting hospitality to wine tastings. Many customers enjoy visiting, tasting, and discovering and sharing our wines. I’d also like to preserve my family history by continuing to be a leader in the world of natural wine production.
CM: Please describe how your wine expresses yourself and your winemaking philosophy.
MC: Hee hee hee, I don’t know! I think everyone who tastes my wines can find in them the love for terroir, the passion for research and the care we put in the details. Wines are to be enjoyed … a wine is good if you love to drink another glass… and another again! In my philosophy you should be able to taste and smell the difference between two or more cru-zones, the diversity in quality of vintages of the same wine, the difference in aroma, flavors and bouquet between two grapes.
CM: If you had to recommend one Calabretta wine for consumers to taste to understand your style of winemaking which would it be? And what would you serve it with?
MC: ‘Vigne Vecchie’ to understand my unconventional style; Rosato “pista e mutta” for Etna uncoventional wines; Piedefranco, Elisir & Nerello Cappuccio for unconventional traits.
CM: Where are Calabretta wines available in the U.S.?
MC: New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington D.C., Maryland, Colorado, California, Massachussets and more.
CM: Is there anything that you’d like to share with our readers about Calabretta wines that we haven’t asked you about?
MC: In the vineyards I am salvaging all “old vines”, re-planting where it is necessary and maintaining the old system of cultivation: spraying sulphur and copper and no chemicals. We all should return to sustainable cultivation systems. Respect for nature is the key to our future. In the winery I don’t like or use modern invasive techniques and products. You can have good wines only with good grapes.
Stay tuned for more interviews in the “Our Italians” series.
Photo credits: Jay Cavallaro Photography
Gina Tringali – food lover, certified sommelier, coffee connoisseur, and passionate home cook – is a successful freelance food and travel writer and blogger based between Rome and Southern Italy. She is committed to discovering and sharing with fellow food enthusiasts Italy’s best culinary and wine experiences.