The Wines of Mount Etna: From High-altitude, Volcanic Vineyards Come Wines with Attitude
Making Wine in the Shadow of a Volcano
Among Italy’s numerous and vibrant wine regions, the Mount Etna region in northeastern Sicily seems an unlikely site for producing any wines let alone quality wines. Mount Etna is an active, fearsome volcano that has erupted from time to time, sometimes savagely, for thousands of years. Nonetheless, it is one of Italy’s hottest wine regions, so to speak, and vintners are now scrambling to purchase vineyard property in the region.
As if proximity to Europe’s most active and fearsome volcano wasn’t enough to make growing grapes here a daunting proposition, there are other intimidating considerations.
Etna’s primary wine producing zone rises up the slopes of Mount Etna to an elevation of 3,500 feet and higher - the highest commercial vineyards in the world. Such high-elevation vineyards present some unique problems for vintners. The steeply-sloped, terraced vineyards are difficult to navigate with mechanical equipment so most of the tending and harvesting of the vines has to be done by hand, a time-consuming and expensive proposition. Winters at these high elevations can also be harsh and the summers hot and dry. You have to be committed, patient and tough to run a winery on Mount Etna.
So, what is it that makes this area so attractive to winemakers? Why are they stumbling over one another in their rush to establish vineyards here?
First and foremost is the fact that Etna’s soil is rich with volcanic nutrients that are very hospitable to growing grapes. The high elevation vineyards are also an inviting environment for growing grapes. Grapevines at these high elevations benefit from the hot Mediterranean sun while the warm Mediterranean breezes are conducive to an extended growing season. Significantly, there is also considerable variation between day and night-time temperatures at these high elevations. Such temperature variations work to the benefit of grapes in that it not only facilitates berry growth and coloration but also promotes complexity in grape flavors.
So if you don’t dwell on the vicissitudes of the unpredictable volcano next door, Mount Etna is actually an excellent area for growing quality wine grapes. This area has, in fact, exerted a powerful pull on winemakers for centuries and vineyards have flourished here as far back as the 6th century BC when the Greeks first colonized Sicily. Ancient writers and poets sung the praises of Mount Etna wines.
Despite its long and illustrious wine history, Mount Etna wines faded into obscurity for most of the modern era. Even though Mount Etna received DOC status in 1968, Sicily’s first, enlightened winemaking and critical acclaim came late and reluctantly to the Etna region. It wasn’t until very recently that the Etna region began to reestablish its reputation as a premier wine growing region.
If any one development can be cited as marking Etna’s entry into the modern winemaking mainstream, it probably would be when Giuseppe Benanti began producing some serious wines from local varieties grown on his farm in the Etna region in the early 1990’s. His wines received great critical acclaim from wine cognoscenti and consumers alike and focused attention on the Mount Etna wine region as a source of quality wines. His success also caught the attention of other winemakers and precipitated a land rush for vineyard properties that reached a critical mass at the turn of the century.
Today there are a number of quality-oriented wineries in the Mount Etna area and more are on the way. Just about every major Sicilian winery as well as some marquee-name wine producers from mainland Italy have been buying up land and vineyards in the Mount Etna area.
For example, Marco de Grazia, a highly-regarded American exporter of quality Italian wines decided that the Etna region looked promising and was where he wanted to start his own winery. He bought land there and founded Tenuta delle Terre Nere (which roughly translates as “farm of the black earth”) and has since 2002 been producing several outstanding Mount Etna wines. Other boldface names in the wine world, such as Antinori and the wine consulting superstars, brothers Riccardo and Renzo Cotarella, have either already bought land or are reportedly planning to do so.
Another attractive feature of the Etna region from a winemaking perspective is that some of the vines in Mount Etna’s vineyards are extremely old. Etna’s rich volcanic soil also contains a high concentration of sand, a combination that has proved to be highly resistant to the phylloxera root pest that decimated other European vineyards in the late 1800’s. Vineyards throughout Europe were wiped out for an extended period by the phylloxera root louse but Etna’s vineyards with their volcanic, sandy soil were spared. The result is that some of Mount Etna’s grape vines are well over a century old with some reaching the two century mark. While these ancient vines may be gnarly and fragile, they produce some amazing wine grapes.
Mount Etna’s Grape Varieties and Types of Wine
The wines of the Etna region are primarily dry red and white wines but also include a few rosato (rosè) wines. Etna Rosso (Etna red) wines are blended wines. By regulation they must have a minimum of 80 percent Nerello Mascalese (neh rel’ loh mahs’ kah ley’ zeh), a little-known indigenous variety that is produced only in the Mount Etna region. It is a deeply colored, thick-skinned variety that contributes gritty tannins and vibrant acidity to the Etna Rosso blend.
The junior partner in the blend is another indigenous red variety, Nerello Cappuccio (neh rel’ loh cah pooch’ cho) which must comprise at least 10 but no more than 20 percent of the total with other local red or even, surprisingly, white grapes making up the difference. The Nerello Cappuccio contributes spicy aromas, red berry flavors and perhaps a touch of elegance to the Etna Rosso blend.
Etna Rosso wines come in a variety of styles that can vary from traditional to modern to, well, unconventional. They can vary markedly from one producer to another depending on the individual producer’s style as well as from one geographic area of the volcano to another.
Some of the wines produced in the high-altitude reaches of the Etna Rosso DOC will be nuanced and subtle, reflecting their patrimony. These wines prize elegance over power Other Etna Rosso wines will have the structure, substance and tannins evocative of a fine Barolo. While most Etna Rosso wines don’t require ageing and can be drunk when young, others - like Calabretta’s 2002 Etna Rosso and Salvo Foti’s 2010 "I Vigneri" reviewed below - require long ageing to tame the wines’ assertive tannins.
The Etna Bianco (Etna white) wines must have a minimum of 60 percent Carricante, a little-known, indigenous white variety that is grown exclusively in the Etna region. While 40 percent of the blend can consist of other authorized local white varieties, some of the best Etna Bianco wines are made entirely of Carricante. Oftentimes produced from grapes grown at the very highest reaches of the Etna DOC zone, Carricante-based wines can be lean, crisp and acidic. Other Carricante wines can be more full-bodied with a creamier texture and the wine’s trademark acidity balanced with generous fruit flavors. It all depends on who makes it and where its made.
Review of Etna Wines
Some Etna wines to look for include the following (in alphabetical order by producer):
Benanti, “Pietramarina” Etna Bianco Superiore 2007 (about $44)
This white wine is made entirely of Carricante grapes from 80 year old vines grown at about 3,100 feet elevation. This wine doesn’t spend any time in wood - it matures for a short period in stainless steel and then spends about 10 months in the bottle bottle prior to release. This is an elegant, energetic and long-lived white wine that will benefit from additional ageing.
Benanti, “Rovittello” Etna Rosso 2005 (about $28)
The Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes are from 80 year old vines on the north side of Mount Etna at about 2,500 feet elevation. The wine spends a year ageing in small oak barrels and 10 months in the bottle prior to release. This is a generous and fruity wine with a good tannic structure such that it needs some time in the cellar to soften its tannins.
Massimilano Calabretta, Etna Rosso 2002 (about $28)
This wine is made from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes hand-harvested from vineyards on volcanic, rocky soil at 2,500 feet. Calabretta is a very traditional producer that believes in long maceration and extending ageing in large oak casks. This Etna Rosso is aged in oak for 4 years. It is an elegant, structured and long-lived wine with a velvety fruit flavor profile reminiscent of a fine Brunello.
Contino, “Nero e Nero” Etna Rosso 2009 (about $22)
This Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio blend is sourced from old-growth vines on volcanic soils, fermented in stainless steel then aged for eight months in French oak barrels. Its spicy aromas and red berry flavors are balanced by spritely acidity and firm tannins.
Cottanera, Etna Rosso 2009 (about $23)
Cottanera’s ’09 Etna Rosso is made from the traditional Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes grown in the estate’s Solicchiata vineyard on Etna’s northern slope at 2,300 feet above sea level. Cottanera’s Etna Rosso wines are frequent recipients of Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri awards. It is a complex, favorful and very reasonably priced wine.
I Custodi, “Aetneus” Etna Rosso 2007 (about $32)
This 80/20 Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio blend shows the influence of Salvo Foti, who served as technical consultant for I Custodi winery. It is matured in new and used small oak barrels for 24 months. This intense wine has ripe fruit flavors and prominent tannins and would be an ideal companion at a dinner featuring steak or a game dish.
Planeta, Carricante 2010 (about $30)
Planeta is one of Sicily’s most famous, quality-oriented wine producers. It is also a large producer with several vineyard properties spread thoughout the island. This wine is made entirely of Carricante grapes from the estate’s Sciara Nuova vineyard, at an elevation of 2,200 feet, on the northern slopes of Mount Etna. This medium-bodied white from the great 2010 vintage has pronounced citrus notes and the finesse and tart acidity you would expect from a high-altitude white wine as well as plenty of fruit flavors to assuage its crisp acidity.
Salvo Foti, "I Vigneri" Etna Rosso 2010 (about $46)
Salvo Foti is a leading figure in the natural wine movement in this part of Sicily and has seved as a technical consultant to several major wineries on the island. His wine-making process is as natural and minimalist as it can get - natural fermentation with no temperature controls, no fining and no filtration of the wine. The 2010 “I Vigneri” is full-bodied and juicy with prominent tannins that will benefit from some further ageing.
Tenuta di Fessina, “Il Musmeci” Etna Rosso2008 (about $65)
This single-vineyard wine is dedicated to the Musmeci family who previously owned and lovingly tended the vineyards. The wine is made from hand-selected bunches of nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio grapes from selected 80 year old vines. The wine is fermented in stainless steel and then aged in a combination of medium and large casks for 14-15 months prior to being bottled where it spends an additional two years ageing.
Terre Nere, “Calderara Sottana” Etna Rosso 2010 (about $48)
The Tenuta delle Tere Nere estate has approximately 68 acres of vineyards. The Calderara Sottana is a single vineyard wine produced from grapes harvested from 50 to 100 year vines. The wine spends 18 months in new and used oak and is bottled unfiltered. The 2010 “Calderara Sottana” looks, smells and tastes like a fine Burgundy.
Terre Nere, “Guardiole” Etna Rosso 2010 (about $48)
This is another single vineyard wine from Terre Nere. The steeply sloped and tightly terraced Guardiole vineyard lies at an elevation of about 3,000 feet, one of Europe’s highest vineyards. This is a long-lived, complex and structured wine with firm tannins and a long, pleasing finish.