To be perfectly honest, I only went to Ayunta by way of a recommendation of a friend, Ian from Cork Culture. I wanted to go to someone that wasn't as established as the big 3 (Frank/Terre Nere/Franchetti) or someone I already knew (Girolamo Russo) but someone totally and utterly different. Ayunta, small "artisanal" winery also located in Etna, fit the bill.
And I am so glad I went. Even though the Sicilian wine scene is not at all established, Ayunta seemed like breath of fresh air with its small and scrappy one man operation. Filippo Ayunta is still an export manager for a big winery in north of Italy but Ayunta, in Sicily, is where his heart truly lies. Orginally from Agrigento on the other side of Sicily, he was formerly in wine sales around the world for most of his career. Somewhere in the beginning of the decade, he began helping harvest here and there in his native Sicily, when he struck up a relationship with a retired farmer and his fantastic plots of old vines in Calderara Sottana. Upon his death, his widow asked him to take ownership of his vineyards at a great price. Boldly, with little capital or actual winemaking experience, Filippo agreed.
Renting out the local winery, he has steadily been tweaking and producing his wines by trial and error, drawing on his past experiences in wine and his own philosophy. What is that exactly? He best described it as creating world class elegant wines using Etna Rosso grapes and terroir. Indeed he has kept the vineyards wholly as is, without pruning or any other modifications, except a few trellises to support some older vines. Although many winemakers claim to have old vine parcels, none of them had vine trunks as big as Filippo's! Perhaps you cannot judge just on sheer size alone but looking at them, Filippo guesses they are up to 300 years old each.
He is also singularly unique in acknowledging the history of the place. Even though "modern" Sicilian wine scene only got on the map since the early 2000s, winemaking has been there since antiquities. However there has been important timestamps such as Nelson's dominance over the wine production and how Navigabile or better quality "shippable" wines were exported out of Catania (and the name for one of his cuvees). Or how the vineyard is full of old vinis vinifera that goes beyond just Nerello Mascarese or Nerello Capuccio - there are varieties he has sent for verification that comes back as Grenache and even unknown. For him, conserving the vineyard and historical terraces and sheds on his plot is not just a matter of preserving terroir but also preserving a piece of cultural heritage in Etna. This is even more important as more big money from big winery groups pour millions of Euro into developing and expanding Etna Rosso.
Remarkably after the passing of the widow, he bought the house that overlooks many of the old farmer's plots and the attached palmento. The place could not have fallen into better hands. Clearly carved into the wall 1859, the winery is a clear piece of Etna history. Inside, you still have the original press and vats on the floor used for maceration. Via gravity, the wines then enter huge wooden barrels. The biggest finding for Filippo is that when cleaning on the cellar, on the back end of the wall is a stack of small wooden barrels that still have wine inside them dating from who knows when! I hope Filippo reaches out to me before considering opening the wines - what an opportunity to taste old 30-50+ year old Sicilian wines.
Going forward, Filippo's wines will be ones to look out for as his shifts his production from the rented winery to the original palmento next to his house, using the indigenous yeast that has been helping ferment wine since before the early 1800s. This will mark a shift as the wines will be made here instead of the local rented winery in town with native yeasts. The wines will still be made with the same approach, natural with little additives (just a teensy bit of sulfite before shipping). Even in a region with a diverse range of winemakers and idiosyncratic methods, Filippo Ayunta stands out with his piece of Etna Rosso heritage.
90% Carricante and 10% Cattarato. For some reason, this wine felt very different and "wild", even compared with other natural whites such as Frank Cornelissen's. Perhaps it's because the vines are grown amongst other red varietals, giving it alternative complexity and depth that is uncommon. Nevertheless, the acidity here is fresh and pleasant -- with notes of lemon and pear and touch of flint. Nothing overpowering but addictive.
90% Nerello Mascarese and 10% Nerello Cappuccio. Though the varietals are labelled as such, Felippo admits that there are actually more varietals present however technically not under Etna DOC guidelines despite the fact the vines are historically part of the plots he bought. This lends extra character and dynamism to his Etna Rossos, creating depth and layer that is little seen at this level of wines. Quite extracted, the alcohol is quite noticeable here but I wouldn't call it unbalanced. There is still enough acidity, structure and fruit to handle it and it's surprisingly fresh.
Calderara Sottana 2015
100% Nerello Mascarese. This is made up of Nerello Mascarese only from his Calderara Sottana parcels. Following what Terre Nere did in labeling theirs, Felippo decided to bank on the momentum of this burgeoning contrada -- which from a sales vantage is quite a smart decision. As this is a new bottling, the new labels are not yet printed but a picture of the new label can be seen on their website. Really intense wines from Filippo here -- the heavily extracted style is better suited for intensity here; dark cherries, plum and wet leaves are the predominant notes. Fresh and approachable -- this is equally lovely and I believe successive vintages will get better as Filippo finds his groove.
Calderara Sottana 2016
I lost my notes so I believe I have also tried tank samples of the 2016 that is not yet bottled (to be updated!). Here it's clearly refreshing, bright with great elegance. The flavours here are not as intense as the 2015s but it's still complex with red fruit and sweet spice. Pretty wine to match the pretty view from the house.
Wines tasted in early June 2018. To visit the winery, contact him through his website here.