Last month we explored the wines of Mt. Vesuvius in Campania. This article will explore the wines from Italy’s other famous volcano, Mt. Etna. Mt. Etna is in the eastern portion of Sicily. It is the highest active volcano in Sicily at just under 11,000 feet often capped with snow. It is a beautiful place and mystical setting.
Sicily is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Thru the centuries, many cultures have moved thru Sicily, stayed for a time, melded into the local culture, only to be replaced by the next group. Thus, Sicily has shown a remarkable tendency to adapt and change. More so than the rest of Italy, Sicily has developed the ability to absorb other cultures into its own ever-changing culture. That tendency is also evident in many of the wines produced there today. In Sicily, you can find many of the worlds most stylish varietals being made in modern methods and being made quite well. There are quality Chardonnay, Syrahs and other international varietals being made there. Yet, for all that, there are also the traditionalists in Sicily who have gone back to native varietals and are making fantastic wines that the world is just now discovering.
Historically, however, the wines of Sicily have, for the most part, never lived up to the beauty of their surroundings. Mt. Etna is in the province of Catania. The area has been farmed since ancient time. The Greeks conquered the area in 729 BC setting up outposts for trade. Shortly thereafter, they planted grapes and made wine. The poet Theocritus wrote about the vineyards on the slopes of Mt. Etna in the 3rd century BC. However, the viniculture there ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries. The wines were competent and drinkable for local consumption. In the twentieth century, a combination of wars and poverty kept the area from investing in winemaking for most of the century. As the rest of Italy was having a wine renaissance in the 1970’s, the wines of Mt. Etna remained mostly unaffected.
Of course, part of the reason for the centuries of commonplace wines had to do with the volcano itself. Growing grapes on the slope of an active volcano is not without some obvious risks. In addition, the soil is difficult to work. It is a combination of volcanic soils and sand. Quite a bit of sand. In a twist of fate, the soil may be the reason these wines will be stars of the 21st century. At the end of the 19th century, Phylloxera had destroyed much of Europe’s vineyards. The louse, however, was unsuccessful on Mt. Etna due to those same sandy soils. Phylloxera cannot exist in such a soil which prevented the louse from spreading. As a result, there are now some very old vines that are on their original and ungrafted rootstock, a rarity in Italy. Of course, the steep terrain combined with the sandy volcanic soil makes tending the vines quite difficult. It is hard for a worker to keep from falling, especially during harvest, when carrying baskets of grapes. The work is so difficult that it is often problematic employing harvest workers.
The Etna DOC was established way back in 1968 making it the oldest DOC in Sicily. It comprises the eastern, northern and southern slopes of Mt. Etna. Wines produced include rosados (rosé’s), dry white and dry red wines. The bianco or white wines are made from a minimum of 60% Caricante, a maximum of 40% Catarratto, with up to 15% Trebbiano, Minella and/or other authorized white grapes. If the wine is marked Etna Bianco Superiore it comes from the commune of Milo. The rosso or red wines have a minimum of 80% of Nerello Mascalese, a deep colored black grape with spicy notes mostly grown in eastern Sicily. The remaining 20% can be made from Nerello Cappuccio or a blend of at least 10% Nerello Cappuccio (also called Nerello Mantellato) and up to 10% other red or even, somewhat surprisingly, white grapes.
There are some producers whose wine should really be on a wine lovers map. First and foremost may be Dr. Giuseppe Benanti. He and his family had a pharmaceutical company headquartered in Catania (and Rome). In 1988, he decided to make wines from his family’s ancestral home near Mt. Etna, which included long since abandoned vineyards. Dr. Bananti engaged the services of a local enologist, Salvo Foti. Foti convinced him to use local varietals and train them in the traditional method known as Alberello, which required no irrigation. This method takes advantage of the fact that the vineyards, which are high in altitude, have very hot daytime temperatures while getting quite cool at night. The area gets a lot of rainfall and the volcanic soils all combine to provide fine growing conditions for these native varietals. As winemakers have modernized thru the use of better green harvesting techniques and more modern cellaring, the wines have improved too. In fact, the Italian Wine Guide, Gambero Rosso’s, named it as their 2007 winery of the year.
On perhaps the other side of the spectrum is Tenuta Terre Nere (“black soils”). This is the home winery of Marc de Grazia. Marc de Grazia is one of the giant names in Italian Wine. He has worked assiduously to discover and export some of the best wines made throughout Italy. Most of his wines tend to be modern in style. Tenuta Terre Nere wines are a fascinating combination of traditional and modern styles at the same time. His vineyards are on the north slope of Mt. Etna. Much of the grapes he uses are from vines that are so old they pre-date phylloxera and escaped the louse. The first vintage was 2002. Perhaps his best wine, Guardiola, comes from vines that are at the highest elevation (800 to 900 meters) of any red grape varietal in all of Europe. It is a deeply flavored and intense wine that needs a few years of cellaring. It sells for $35 or $40 dollars. They also make a Calderara Sottana, which is slightly more accessible. Also from very high altitude vineyards, some of the vines are well over one hundred years old. Calderara Sottana sells for $20 or $30. Finally a basic Etna Rosso wine is produced which can be found for $20 or less and is very good. In fact, all of these wines represent great values at their respective price points. All of these will be readily available.
There is one other wine I would like to mention here that hails from Sicily. It is not a DOC wine but it is made from the Nero Mascalese grape. That wine is Tenuta di Trinoro’s Passopisciaro (“step of the fish dealer”) made by Andrea Frachetti. I am not sure why they name their wine as such. This estate is more famous for their Tuscan wines. They also grow grapes on the northern slope of Mt. Etna. Passopisciaro is a hedonistic wine that can be drunk young but benefits from a few years of cellaring. It should be available for $30 or $40.
All of these wines can be drunk now, but they will benefit from a few years of ageing. They are ruby colored wines that present aromas of cherries and smoke (from the volcanic soil?). They have a nice streak of acidity but plenty of ripe fruit to balance it out. These are wines that work well with Mediterranean cuisine.
The wines of Mt. Etna are some of the hottest wines in the last few years. Even among the wine cognoscenti, they are only now starting to fill cellars and restaurant wine lists. Yet, as prices continue to soar for Napa Cabernets, Bordeaux blends and Burgundy Pinot Noirs, these wines represent true top end quality at affordable pricing. I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two. Please, let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.