April 11th, 2024/ BY Michaela Morris

There’s Something About Etna

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Quench Magazine.

I clearly remember first tasting Marco de Grazia’s Mount Etna wines in 2005. He rhapsodized about the dark volcanic soil, the gnarly old bush vines amid petrified lava flows, wildflowers and broom, the stone terraces, and the energy of the mountain. It was the seed of my obsession. After finally setting foot, I have been making regular pilgrimages ever since.

Europe’s highest active volcano, Etna reaches approximately 3,300 metres. The peak is often shrouded by cloud, or smoke, revealing its majesty on a whim. 2,900 metres is as close to the summit as one can get without a guide. At these lofty heights, there is no vegetation; just relentless wind—as bracing as Carricante’s acidity—and the austere black stones that crunch underfoot—like the fine, gritty texture of Nerello Mascalese’s tannins.

Vineyards are located at more hospitable altitudes climbing from 400 to upwards of 1,000 metres. The balmy Mediterranean climate of Italy’s south along with the nearby sea collide with the sub-alpine environment of this active volcano’s slopes bringing wind, considerable rain, and significant diurnal temperature differences. The soil—from pebbly or gravelly pumice to sand and ash—is rich in nutrients, fertile, and very well-draining.

Wine grapes have been cultivated on Etna for millennia, dating back at least to the Greeks who colonized Sicily in the eighth century BC. As long ago as 1596, the ash of Etna was credited for the quality of wines coming from the Catania province. Following a planting boom in 19th century, phylloxera and two world wars led to economic decline and a rural exodus. Many vineyards were overtaken by forest and brambles. You can see the vestiges of this today as plots of vines pop up amidst the woodlands.

Even more evocative of the past are the palmentos. These rock cut basins, which were used to vinify grapes, are unique to Sicily, particularly in the island’s northeast. In north Etna alone, 50 2,500- to 3,000-year-old palmentos have been unearthed. Though no longer used for winemaking, they are incorporated into contemporary estates in various inventive ways.

Despite a decline in the 20th century, winemaking was not completely abandoned. Historic estates like Barone di Villagrande and Murgo have been making wine on Etna since the 18th and 19th century respectively. Furthermore, Etna was Sicily’s first DOC, established in 1968. But the region’s renaissance, which includes recovering vineyards—often featuring precious, old pre-phylloxera vines—is very recent.

“Under the ashes, we are still discovering new things. Some are worth it, others not,” states de Grazia. A US importer since 1980, he launched his Terre Nere label in 2002, kickstarting awareness of the region and helping accelerate its growth.

Since my first trip in 2011, the number of producers has almost doubled (to 390 today), and the amount of wine actually bottled has tripled. Nevertheless, the wines of Etna don’t even amount to 5% of Sicily’s production. Furthermore, the region remains in the hands of small, artisanal estates—almost half of which own less than 1 ha and 93% own less than 10 ha. However, everyone wants to have a piece of it, and large estates from other parts of Sicily— like Cusumano, Donnafugata, Planeta, and Tasca d’Almerita—already do.

As unique as the territory itself are its indigenous grapes. Nerello Mascalese takes the leading role in reds (which account for over half of Etna’s production). This late ripening, thick-skinned variety is well-endowed with tannins—sometimes astringent in nature, yet it yields relatively pale-coloured wines. Think texture, without weight. Sometimes playing a minor role, Nerello Cappuccio lends colour while softening Nerello Mascalese’s acidity and tannins.

In terms of whites (approximately one-third of wines produced), Carricante is the star. Racy and penetrating with mineral rather than fruity charms, it expresses citrus, mountain herbs, and blossoms. Blending partners, especially Catarratto, give a broader, lusher mouthfeel.

As for the remaining wines, rosato and traditional method sparkling—both predominantly Nerello Mascalese—represent eight percent and four percent respectively.

Both Nerello Mascalese and Carricante possess a great ability to interpret Etna’s myriad of sites, which range in altitude, exposure, and soil structure due to different lava flows. To capture this diversity, the Etna DOC adopted the naming of contrade on labels. Legally recognized in 2011, these geographical districts are larger than a single vineyard but smaller than administrative townships and are based on old cadastral maps. In September 2022, the Consorzio released its first official contrade map after updating boundaries to reflect the resulting shifts of recent eruption activity, increasing the number of contrade to 142 from the original 133.

Most producers embrace the map as a point of departure. “But it still expresses too little in terms of the terroir,” says up-and-comer Giulia Monteleone. She explains that the next phase is to identify the diverse soil, exposition, and microclimate of each.

For the uninitiated, and even the wellversed, 142 contrade are a lot to digest. A first step to understanding Etna’s diversity is exploring her four slopes. The wine region forms a backward C around the volcano starting in the north and moving clockwise to the southwest.

The largest number of producers—and contrade—are found in the north. Though cool, this part of Etna is protected from rain and hail by the Peloritani and Nebrodi mountains. DOC wines are permitted up to 800 metres and the slopes are gentler than those to the east. The soil is predominantly associated with more recent lava flows—from the Mongibello era. This is definitely Nerello Mascalese territory and a treasure trove of Etna’s most profound Rosso. That said, Carricante is increasing.

Vineyards on Etna’s north slope | photo credit: Lincoln Clarkes

Continuing east, vineyards overlook the Ionian Sea. They become steeper with increased altitude; terraced slopes reach 900 metres. Here, warm mists from the sea meet cold mountain air. “It is one of the rainiest parts of Italy,” says Carla Maugeri. Carricante dominates, particularly around Milo, which is the only township permitted to produce Bianco Superiore. These are among Etna’s most thrillingly vertical, age-worthy whites. Those who do grow Nerello Mascalese in Milo vinify it as a rosé, “if they are wise,” remarks de Grazia.

Etna’s eastern slopes looking out to the Ionian Sea | photo credit: Lincoln Clarkes

On Etna’s southeastern flank, vineyards also enjoy a view of the sea and are bathed in its breezes. However, it is much less rainy, and full ripeness is easier to achieve.

Farthest from the sea, the southwestern zone is characterized by hot winds, less rainfall, and intense luminosity. It also boasts the greatest diurnal temperature differences. DOC vineyards rise from 600 to 1,000 metres. In the westernmost township of Biancavilla, the lava flow comes from the older ellittico period, according to Masseria Setteporte’s Piero Portale. “This is similar to the soil in a small area of Randazzo in the north, but the difference is full sun.” Both give mineral-driven, tense wines, but those from Biancavilla show more obvious fruit ripeness.

For all its potential, Etna is not without challenges. Most obvious is that it is an active volcano. Frequent eruptions have curbed expansion. One of the most recent, dramatic blasts was in 1981. On the northern flank, the unexpected eruption saw lava flow just miss the town of Randazzo. While homes were largely spared, vineyards weren’t as lucky. Less devastating, but also destructive, is what falls from the sky. As an example of Etna’s fury, in February 2022, she spouted a lava fountain 1 km high and 1,000°C in temperature. “When there is a massive explosion, it cools quickly to pumice. Bigger pieces can do damage like hail,” explains Margherita Platania from Feudo Cavaliere.

Working on Mount Etna requires mental flexibility, according to Monteleone, “the awareness that things can change, how the very contours of the volcano change. The unexpected that can and does occur—a rainfall of ash, small earthquakes—are part of the game.”

The instability of Etna is reliable—and ruled by Mother Nature. However, the future of her wine region will be guided by the producers. On my most recent visit, talk surrounded a possible elevation to DOCG status, which the consorzio is actively pursuing. “Etna and her wines merit it,” asserts Monteleone, while noting that it should be a means, not an end, to help communicate the territory better. Alberto Graci adds: “What is more important is that the region is united in its desire to make great wine.”

Despite a long history of grape growing, the wine region of Etna is still forging its identity. It has been two decades since de Grazia declared it the “Burgundy of the Mediterranean.” While this superficial comparison endures, it does not adequately capture Etna’s wines, nor does it convey what is so unique and fascinating about the region. There’s just something so incomparable about Etna.

Wines from well-established, superstar producers like Benanti, Cottanera, Girolamo Russo, Graci, Pietradolce, and Terre Nere are worth seeking out, but here are 10 wines from up-and-coming estates.

North Slope

Irene Badalà Etna Rosato DOC, 2021

100% Nerello Mascalese from the Santo Spirito contrada in Castiglione di Sicilia, vinified as a pink. It smells of delicate blossoms from mountain shrubs. Pomegranate and cranberry crunch on the palate with sneaky heft and concentration.

Cantine Russo Mon Pit Brut Rosé, 2017

One of Etna’s more convincing sparklers. Forty-eight months on the lees lends a subtle toastiness. Very savoury and appetizing rather than fruity with a slow-melting mousse.

M Cori Due Etna Rosso DOC, 2020

The inaugural release from a young agronomist/oenologist duo is a fi eld blend of 1935 plantings in the Mugunazzi contrada. Stainless steel highlights the spicy fruit and evocative florals. Fine sandy tannins cling to the palate.

Theresa Eccher Passione Etna Rosso DOC, 2020

Like the M Cori, this hails from the Mugunazzi contrada and is vinified without oak. Vines are less than 20-years-old, and 15% Nerello Cappuccio is blended for a splash of colour. So vibrant, pure, and light, Passione is diffi cult not to guzzle. All raspberry with tactile, fine-grained tannins.

Tenuta Boccarossa Etna Rosso DOC, 2019

Crafted from ancient vines of unspecified age in Randazzo’s Arena contrada, Boccarossa is fermented with lots of whole berries and aged in used barriques. It is wild fruited, but clean and gracious, expressing the untamed landscape and energy of Etna. Accents of iron and smoke to finish.

East Slope

Maugeri Etna Bianco Superiore DOC ‘Contrada Volpare’, 2021

Despite the hotter-than-average vintage, this is linear and steely. It juxtaposes peach and apricot with stony flint. The power and firm structure are impressive, equally so the balance and finesse.

Monteleone Anthemis Etna Bianco DOC, 2020

From a foggy 900-metre vineyard in the Sant’Alfio township neighbouring Milo. Fermented and finished in tonneau, it is somewhat reminiscent of white Bordeaux with nuances of honey and grilled herbs, but then that lean, sinewy body with green fruit and saline throughline take you to the eastern flank of Etna.

Southeast Slope

Terra Costantino de Aetna Etna Rosso DOC, 2020

Pretty, youthful, and fresh, this great value (mid-$20s), stainless steel fermented, aged Etna Rosso is lightweight with zesty acidity. It shows strawberry and rhubarb on a backdrop of sunbaked earth. Made from organically grown grapes in the Blandano contrada.

Southwest Slope

Feudo Cavaliere Millemetri Etna Bianco DOC, 2016

From a loft y elevation of almost 1,000 metres. Scents of chamomile, broom, and wild fennel waft from the glass. There is weight and muscle on the orange citrus palate with a tense and vertical backbone. No oak but long ageing on the lees amplifies the tactile texture.

Masseria Setteporte Etna Rosso DOC 2020

From the township of Biancavilla, where older soils are derived from eruptions dating between 15,000 to 60,000 years ago. It is scented with sweet herbs, spiced berries, and smoky tobacco. A midweight red with fleshy chewiness, this is off set by the stony mineral drive.

Michaela Morris is an international wine writer, educator and speaker based in Vancouver, Canada. She has worked in various capacities of the industry for over 25 years. Besides holding the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Diploma, Michaela is an Italian Wine Expert certified through Vinitaly International Academy (VIA) and leads seminars on Italian wine around the globe. Not surprisingly, her go-to cocktail is a negroni.

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