In 2005, Anna Martens went to Sicily with her husband Eric Narioo, who was looking for wines to import to the UK. They were both immediately taken with Mt. Etna. "The volcanic soils were so black," Anna said. She was smitten with beautiful old bush vines, the dramatic scenery, the abandoned vineyards. And after tasting some older vintages of wine with local producers, she realized how much could be done with the indigenous grape variety nerello mascalese.
In 2008 she found work making wine on the island, along the rugged slopes of Mt. Etna. Two years later, Vino di Anna was born - a few small parcels of black earth on the north face of the volcano, and a palmento that is nearly 300 years old. "The palmento is basically an old press made out of a wooden beam and several discs of stone," Martens says. They restored this relic to working order, and use it to make some of the wines, like her eponymous Palmento. "We foot tread for a few days. The fermenting juice drains out. Then we press the rest."
Anna works with truly old vines, with an average age of 60-70 years and some well over 100 years old. Before Mt. Etna, she was used to vines trained in the French styles, but her vines are bush trained, and some are as tall as she. "There's an elegance of tannins and purity these old vines can give." It's part of the reason Etna Rosso has been gaining such noteriety in the past decade or so. Somewhere between pinot noir and nebbiolo, nerello mascalese at its best is simultaneously fresh and austere, delicate and powerful.
A lot of that has to do with the grape's thin but course skin. That and the perfect marriage of climate and culture that turns nerello mascalese into Etna Rosso.
In addition to the star of the show, Anna's vineyards are co-planted with the supporting varieties alicante (grenache) and nerello cappucio, both of which are harvested and fermented along with the nerello mascalese in her wines. "I think of them as salt and pepper," she says, alluding to the complimentary relationship these supporting grapes have both to each other and to the wine as a whole.
Today Anna is well known for making her wines using another throwback, pre-industrial technology, the qvevri (KWEH-vree), an ancient type of vessel from Georgia, used for fermenting and aging wines. "I never set out to make wine in qvevri," Anna says. In 2012 a friend of Anna and Eric gave them a qvevri from Georgia and asked them to bring it back to Mt. Etna and vinify wine in it. "I was so pleased and excited by the energy of the wine that came out. I decided to have several more made by one of the few Georgian qvevri makers left."
The wine is taught and tense, and the time spent in these vessels only adds to that energy and tension. Vino di Anna does not use sulfur on the fruit or in the winemaking, and only adds minimal (1-2g) at bottling when deemed necessary. "We focus on the quality of the fruit in the vineyard. Not a single grape goes into the wine that we wouldn't want to eat." The meticulous care means lower production quantities, but shows up as utter precision in the wines. This is the vision that has won her high praise in Europe and the United States. "I want pure fruit, fresh fruit. I would rather make less wine of very good quality than make a larger volume and hide off-flavors." But in a sense, in Anna's thinking, the trends and nomenclature of natural wine are beside the point.
While she likes talking about how her wines are made, first and foremost, she wants people to enjoy her wine. "Natural wine should have energy, be wholesome, feel good."