In the late 1980’s, Francesco’s son Gugliemo decided to build a winery to produce his own wine from the family vineyards instead of selling the grapes to the cooperative. His success in selling this wine “sfuso” (in bulk) to locals and restaurants prompted him to shift his focus to quality wine production, improving his father’s vineyards and embracing lower yields. Gugliemo was joined by his brother Enzo in the new venture and thus, in the mid-90’s the first wines labeled as “Cottanera” were born. The name Cottanera comes from an ancient village positioned alongside the family vineyards, along the banks of the river Alcantara.
The brothers began by planting international grape varieties, but the focus soon turned to traditional Etna grapes, and Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Carricante vines were planted, emphasizing the importance of these local varieties. Though a niche market remains for a pure Syrah wine, in 2012 the estate’s Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines were grafted with the noble variety Nerello Mascalese, offering Cottanera new possibilities for this indigenous Etna grape.
The Cottanera philosophy is perhaps best captured in a quote by Gugliemo, “In looking to the future we can but consider all that we have received. Land, as I was taught by my father, is invaluable, as it is the beginning of all, and is what we will become.” After the death of Guglielmo, Cottanera is now guided by his brother Enzo and Gugliemo’s children Mariangela, Francesco and Emanuele.
Indeed, this undeniable importance of the land is evident in the attention and care the estate dedicates to each particular vineyard. According to tradition, almost all work in the vineyard (including harvest) is carried out by a team of local families, with a predominance of women, and this know-how continues to be passed down generation to generation.
“Historically our estate has always employed local families, since the days when my father was producing hazelnuts and had just a small number of vines. This tradition has continued over the years, and some of the families that worked the land when my father first acquired it, are still here, the grandchildren tending the vines today. This is a unique characteristic of the Etna region. There also happens to be a remarkable availability of feminine labor at Cottanera. We’ve noticed that women have a particular competency for those activities that require gentleness and patience, essential in the care of vineyards.”
Though Cottanera is not certified organic, the estate practices sustainable agriculture, imposing as little impact on the land and environment as possible. No chemical herbicides are used and natural products, such as copper and sulfur, are preferred. However, if intervention is necessary in order to save a vintage, the agricultural team acts in the best interest of the overall well-being of the vineyard in order to maintain the health of the vines.
Resting about 700 meters (2,296 feet) above sea level over lava alluvial and clay soils, the Cottanera vineyards are positioned in 5 different “contradas” (local districts) – Cottanera, Diciassettesalme, Calderara, Zottorinoto and Feudo di Mezzo. In 2011, after changes regarding the production methods of Etna DOC, the geographic area of origin of the grape could be indicated on the label, highlighting the differences and singularities between the various Etna contradas, giving a voice to the wine and the territory itself. Indeed, Cottanera strives to express these differences, through both the work in the vineyards and in the cellar.
Enzo says, “Each vineyard has its own particular characteristics, based on its location, geography, exposure, soil type, variety and age. All of these factors are independent of human intervention. Each wine is born of a complex interaction of diverse elements – soil, the vineyard, climate – that is different each day. Based on these interactions, we expect what type of wine can come out of this combination – it’s all about finding the ideal balance. Then in the cellar, based on the type of product, contrada by contrada (single-vineyard), we establish and carry out the protocols for that specific wine. Obviously there is no hard-and-fast rule, and the process can be modified year by year, depending on the characteristics of the vintage. The grapes are always different. Our objective is to produce the best result with what we have ‘tra le mani’ (in our hands) and to the best of our capabilities.”
The vineyards and winery are located in Castiglione di Sicilia (province of Catania), where all phases of production, from harvest to bottling, are carried out. Cottanera is one of the largest estates on Etna with roughly 65 hectares (160 acres) of vineyards on a 100-hectare (247 acres) estate, all positioned on the prestigious northern slope of Mt. Etna, home to most of the volcano’s best-known wineries. Cottanera and the Cambria family endeavor to create a center of modern, innovative viticulture, with the goal of improving the quality of vineyards on Mt. Etna and producing wines that tell the stories of this unique territory.
“We own the largest number of hectares (at the moment) of all the wineries in the Etna region, so we undoubtedly feel a certain responsibility to represent Etna in the rest of the world. ‘Ci mettiamo la faccia.’ It’s our face/name that is on the bottle, so we have to do all that we can to ensure the absolute highest quality. There is a certain spirit and pride in the knowledge that each bottle is a product of our vineyard, our land. Today Etna is enjoying a significant expansion, especially in terms of notoriety and media attention. As producers, we all need to work together to capture this market. When a consumer drinks a glass of Cottanera, they have to remember it – we want make a wine that stays in his/her head. Thankfully, the overall quality of Etna wines has significantly increased over the last few years. We need to continue the trend of making quality wines, always with an eye to improvement.”
Cottanera produces a wide variety of wines for a total of 11 different labels, between red, white, rose’ and sparkling wines. Indeed, each wine has its own unique narrative, based on the distinctive characteristics of each singular vine. When asked which wine most represents Cottanera, Enzo says, “I would have to say that the wine we find most often in our thoughts, the wine at the zenith of our production, is the Zottorinoto. This is the wine that receives the most attention, with an almost maniacal care and attentive selection in the vineyards and cellar. The vineyard itself is the estate’s oldest (over 60 years) and is located at an incredible altitude (over 2,500 feet!). It’s not an easy vineyard, we produce a mere 2,000 bottles a year because it’s simply not possible to make any more. We produce this wine only in the vintages in which the combination of characteristics come together to create the wine that represents what Cottanera strives for: excellence.”