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Etna Wines, Kissed by a Volcano

Flying into Catania Airport, one gets a landing with a view. I saw puffs of smoke escape intermittently from  Sicily’s famed sleeping volcano. The next morning, it was more energetic. A column of fumes from Mount Etna blasted into the sky, looking very dramatic against the blue sky and snow-capped mountain. An old man in the village wandered past.  “It was doing that last Sunday too,” he observed.  By the afternoon, the volcano was dormant again. Obviously  those who live in the villages on the lower slopes of the volcano are used to the vagaries of its moods and hold it in esteem — even with some affection. And for winemakers, Mount Etna provides the very foundation of the area’s distinctive wines.

Etna is quite different from the rest of Sicily. Rocco Trefiletti from the tiny estate of Aïtala summed it up best when he said “Etna is an island within an island.” The rest of Sicily is arid, and the red wines, based on Nero d’Avola, are rich and alcoholic. On Etna, water is provided by winter snow, and its wines have a unique character and flavor. Nerello Mascalese is the principal red variety; for white wine, it’s Carricante. Both are found only on the slopes of Etna.

The benefits of volcanic soil

The volcanic soil has a marked impact on flavor.  The DOC of Etna is shaped like the letter “C,” covering about 1,000 hectares (3.86 square miles). However, the slopes to the south are generally too hot, so there are virtually no vineyards there. The vineyards in the east tend to be a little too humid because they face the sea. The best are those on the northern side of the volcano around the villages of Randazzo, Solicchiata and Passopisciaro. Andrea Franchetti from the estate of Passopisciaro explained that the area is being mapped, with the recognition of specific contrade or crus.  The lava spills determine the character of each contrada, as the mineral mix of each lava spill is quite different, and consequently the composition of the soil varies. It may be quite powdery and sandy, or more stony and gravelly. Altitude can play a part too, with vineyards rising from 500 meters (1,640 feet) to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level.

A tour of vineyard and volcano

Winemaker Alberto Graci took me on a tour of his vineyard, Graci, which sits at 1,000 meters in elevation. As we drove, we had more dramatic views of the erupting volcano. The vineyard was a beautiful spot in the spring sunshine, with wildflowers and bird song, and church bells chiming in the distance.  These are old vines, some as much as 100 years old, and ungrafted, untouched by phylloxera, the pests that ravaged European vineyards in the late 19th century. These vines are planted on old terraces; the dry stone walls were built 200 or 300 years ago. Everything is done by hand; each vine is supported by a post. The grape varieties, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, with some white vines, are all mixed up together. Alberto’s terraced vineyard is just one of many, for the slopes of the volcano are covered with hidden terraces, many of which are now being restored.

Etna wines: unique in Sicily

The originality of Etna has brought outsiders to the region. Frank Cornelissen comes from Belgium.  I asked him:  Why Etna? His reply was passionate and telling.

“It is one of the few places that has all the ingredients: a relatively new and unique soil, ungrafted vines, a great climate with intense light and an ancient culture,” he said. Cornelissen wants to show soil; “the grape variety is the vehicle that goes with the soil.” He is one of the most original and talented winemakers of the island. He keeps his wine in glazed amphora, traditional earthenware containers because he is adamant that he doesn’t want a vessel that will alter the taste of wine. I spent a highly educational and thought-provoking morning with him, first looking at his vineyards and then tasting in his cellar.  The flavors are subtle, with fresh spice, tannins, minerality and elegance, and completely different from the rest of Sicily.

Marco de Grazie was also seduced by the charm of Etna. He was initially looking for a holiday home with a vineyard, but the project grew, and now he owns the estate of Terre Nere.  He makes several different contrade, each with a distinctive character. Guardiolo is the highest in altitude; Santo Spirito is lower. Nerello Mascalese ripens late and the higher you go up the mountain, the later the harvest. A comparison has been made that the wines of the lower vineyards of Etna resemble those made from Nebbiolo and the higher vineyards are similar to Pinot Noir, but for me comparisons are inappropriate.  The wines are unique, with a volcanic originality, portraying a fabulous combination of minerality, strength and elegance.

Photo: Sicily’s Mount Etna. Credit: Rosemary George

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.