Etna Wines, Taste Sicily’s Volcanic Treasure
Despite being in the wine trade for a number of years and considering myself an equal opportunities drinker, I am still subject to some preconceptions.
I’ve done well to fend off any snobbery expected of my industry – I can enjoy generic supermarket wines with the rest of them – and I am not behoven to perceiving Bordeaux and Burgundy as the be-all-and-end-all of fine wine (though they can be bloody amazing of course).
No, that’s not the problem. One issue is that I – like many people – have a specific image in my head of countries I’ve never been to, and while that’s not normally a problem for most people, in relation to wine it can be a big deal.
Given that wine is the essence of its locale in a bottle, then having an incorrect prejudice to what a country or region would typically produce can adversely skew your approach to wines from it.
So, for example, because I’ve never actually been to the island, any mention of Sicily for me brings to mind those evocative scenes from The Godfather, with parched, scorched hillsides sparsely populated with sheep, ruins, and sweaty, morally ambiguous peasants.
Surely they can’t make delicate, balanced wine in this heat? And don’t even think about trying to make a palatable white!
The truth, of course, and as always, is significantly different.
The Oxford Companion to Wine helpfully points out that in terms of climate and geology, “Sicily is often, rightfully, considered a continent itself”, with climatic variations ranging from the “distinctly alpine Mount Etna”, to “the subtropical on the island of Pantelleria, which is closer to Tunisia than it is to the province of Trapani to which it administratively belongs.”
Sicily does of course have an arid core consisting of nothing more than scrub, but this is only one aspect of this multifaceted island. Throw in better vitification and vinification, the introduction of modern methods and education, and Sicily as a whole is increasingly making itself known for quality wine.
But today though, it’s the aforementioned Mount Etna to which we turn our attention. Etna has seen an enormous rise in popularity of late, resulting in huge investments and an influx of newcomers all keen to explore the cool volcanic terraces and the decades-old, untouched bush vines, with some even over a century in age.
In this age of planned, measured, commercial production, Etna wines are a blast from the past, a relic from a bygone era, and wine geeks are jumping in with both feet.
Up, Up, and Away
Mount Etna itself is located in the north-east of the island, near its pointy extrusion, and north of the ancient port city of Catania. Standing at 3330 m, it’s still active, making winemaking here something of an extreme sport.
The Etna DOC was the very first in Sicily, created in August 1968, though like many things in Italy, its history stretches centuries earlier than that. But, and again like many things in Italy, winemaking in the area was largely abandoned due to emigration.
An offshoot of this desertion, however, has resulted in vineyards that were largely frozen in time, with gnarled old vines hosting ancient, local varieties the norm rather than the exception, which can be the case almost everywhere else.
The Etna wines-producing zone arcs around the eastern side of the volcano – or forms the shape of a sickle, as some poetically put it – stretching from Randazzo in the north to Santa Maria di Licodia in the south, with roughly the reds performing better in the former and the whites in the latter.
This shape provides a wide range of possibilities when it comes to choosing a site for a vineyard: the altitude, gradient, aspect (which way the vineyards face) and variations in the soil can all be mixed and matched to provide for varying styles of wine.
And no piece on Etna is complete without mentioning the soil. Given this is a volcano, the soil is, well, volcanic – which as you’d expect isn’t the common-or-garden type and is, in places, black as the night. Whether it is this unusual soil that gives Etna wines their distinctive hint of smokiness – or indeed, whether it’s the actual smoke emanating from the volcano itself that’s the cause – is hard to know.
Vineyards located around 1,000 m elevation or more are a regular sight here, providing a naturally cool respite from the baking Mediterranean heat. Winemaking at altitudes such as this is not uncommon but are still quite extreme – for comparison, Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil, tops out at 1,038 m, while Lugnaquilla in the Wicklow Mountains is 951 m. Imagine yourself atop those Irish treasures and then visualise how you might go about planting and tending vines there – not easy, is it?
So farming at this altitude bring with it its own complications, as you’d expect, particularly in terms of logistics, all of which lead to increased production costs and, therefore, pricier wines. But what you get is truly unique wines from an exceptional locale and with history – authenticity you might call it – and for that they provide great bang-for-your-buck.
Hello Hello, Nerello
In terms of red wines – for which Etna is most famous – there are two stars of the show: Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, though plantings of the former outnumbers the latter by six-to-one. Another ancient variety called Nocera is also present but in such minuscule quantities it’s rarely mentioned in relation to Etna.
Nerello Mascalese, also known as Nerello Calabrese (because the Italians LOVE synonyms), is thought to be a cross of both Sangiovese – whose most famous home is Chianti in Tuscany – and an obscure grape called Mantonico Bianco.
Mascalese is the real king-maker here, and 80% of it is required as a minimum in all Etna Rosso DOC wines. Its Sangiovese father is quite evident in its crunchy red fruit character, sour cherry inflections and taut mineral palate, and with age it can even take on characteristics that some liken to good Pinot Noir.
Nerello Cappuccio, meanwhile, is softer and fleshier, providing some ‘meat’ to the ‘bones’ of Mascalese; and Nocera, should you want to get to that level of detail, is apparently crisp and elegant, though you’re more likely to find it in larger proportions around Messina in the far north-east.
And, yes, white Etna Bianco DOC is produced here too, with Carricante (minimum 60%) and Catarratto (no more than 40%) mostly favoured. But put aside any cliché regarding watery or tangy, flavourless wine, for the whites from this region can be characterful and intriguing.
Wines from Mount Etna really are truly special, and if you’re one to blanch at paying over €20 for a wine then you should seriously put aside your fears and pick one up. Because of Etna’s challenging, unforgiving situation, winemaking there is a labour of love by default, so you’d be safe buying pretty much any wine with the Etna name on the label – but if you’d like some guidance then you certainly won’t go wrong with any of the below.
Three to Try
Benanti, Etna Bianco DOC
Giuseppe Benanti was among the first Etna producers to look at Carricante seriously back in 1988.
His Etna Bianco has the requisite white flowers and tropical fruit expected of an Italian white, albeit with a smoky tinge and flinty minerality that speaks of the unique terroir it’s from.
Tenuta delle Macchie, ‘Guardoilvento’ Etna Rosso DOC
Made from 100% Nerello Mascelese from vineyards located 750 m up Etna, this expression is on the beautifully friendly and ripe end of the spectrum.
What hits you first is the fragrant woody herb aromas, followed by bright red ripe fruit. The palate is lively yet earthy, and so very moreish. A great example of an Etna Rosso.
Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etna Rosso DOC
This is a little weightier and more austere than the Guardoilvento, with more of a smoky minerality to the fore, though it still leaps from the glass with bright red raspberry fruit.
95% Nerello Mascalese with 5% Nerello Cappuccio, this is a deft wine that’s very Pinot Noir-like in its texture and flavours. A sublime, serious wine.
Don’t ask him what his favourite wine is though – that’s like asking what his favourite song is (although the latter would most likely involve U2).
Richie is also an avid food lover willing to give an opportunity to all cuisines: instead of getting carried away by trends or gimmicks, he cares about real food, that’s tasty and made with pride.
Richie has been involved in the wine industry since 2008 and is currently studying the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits.