Tasting Wine on Sicily’s Mount Etna

I’m just back from leading my 10th wine tour of Sicily with my partners at Authentic Italy and Essence of Sicily. While we tasted our way from Palermo to Catania, stopping along the way at Planeta Foresteria Resort and Regaleali/Tasca d’Almerita, the culmination of the trip was Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest and biggest active volcano, and home to Sicily’s most exciting wines right now.

While the story of winemaking in Sicily is not new by any means, given that Greek settlers are believed to have planted grapes on the island’s southeast coast during the first century B.C., Sicily’s post-War wine evolution seems as if it were metaphorically linked to Etna, spitting forth in fits and starts, ever so slowly changing.  

“It was ruby red, yet tasted like fermented black cherries, and possessed a unique minerality that comes from that lava soil….”

Back in 1968, one of Sicilys first D.O.C. designations was awarded to Etna, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that things really started to – err – erupt around Etna, that it has become the most exciting winemaking region in Sicily right now. That’s not to say that Etna is making a lot of wine. Sixty percent of Sicilian vines are found in the province of Trapani on Sicily’s west coast (the other side of the island), and the most common grape varieties are Catarratto (used in the past for the production of Marsala) and Nero d’Avola. Syrah and Chardonnay represent the non-native varieties that have taken off during the current renaissance. Then there’s Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, native vines of Etna, weighing in with around 12,000 acres, which represents around four percent of all Sicilian production, almost all based between Catania and Messina on the east coast.  

But to understand how much has changed around Etna — where the number of wineries has increased ten-fold in a little over a decade — it might help to understand the proverbial landscape. If you look down from the air at Etna, which reaches into the sky 11,000+ feet (and ever-growing!) you’d see, of course, the crater, and it’s probably smoking, as it does all the time. But look around it, as the volcano spreads downward, you see vineyards dotting the landscape all around the mountain, on various levels and terraces. But the best vineyards, those designated Etna D.O.C. favor the northeastern and southern faces of the mountain, forming a backward letter “C” around the center, whose northern tip is Randazzo and southern tip is near Adrano, with the towns of Milo and Zafferana pretty much in the center of the curve.

The lion’s share of the D.O.C. goes to the production of red wines, Etna Rosso D.O.C., which must contain at least 80% of Nerello Mascalese and may include up to a maximum of 20% Nerello Cappuccio. Winemakers may also add up to 10% ‘other’ grapes, either white or red. And speaking of white grapes, Etna Bianco D.O.C. must contain at least 60% Carricante and max 40% Catarratto. Winemakers may also add up to 15% ‘other’ grapes, such as Minnella or Trebbiano.  

“That paradoxical taste, floral aromas into dense fruit and earth flavors, is what sets many Etna wines apart…”

While Etna Rosso wines are hot right now, it seems that for the better part of the 60 years after the Second World War, nothing really exciting happened viti-culturally on Etna. Then, as international pressure both forced and encouraged Sicily to step up its game in the last decade, producers across the island began to recast their wines. Some planted international varietals (i.e. Chardonnay, which has had great success with producers like Planeta, on the western side of the island), while many Etna producers looked at what was staring them in the face, and began to tame the wild bushes of native Nerello plants all over the place. Many of them decades – even hundreds – of years old. 

Now, while it’s remarkable and impressive to have access to old vines, it’s even more impressive to find vines that are genetically “pre-phylloxera.” Remember this term for the next time you’re on Jeopardy!, because it will come in handy. The phylloxera epidemic began in the mid-1800s when American and French vintners swapped vine cuttings — their cabernets for our concords! The only problem with our vines (besides that they make terrible wine) was that they were infected with microscopic aphids that managed to kill nearly every vine in Europe, except those perched at extremely high altitudes. Phylloxera hit Sicily in 1880 and wiped out most of the vines. Replanting with phylloxera-resistant rootstocks took until the 1950s to be completed. Yet, way up on Etna, at elevations of 4,000 feet, Nerello vines had no idea what all the fuss was down below.

Last week, I returned to Benanti, founded in Viagrande in the late 1800s, where many of these ancient Nerello vines are still planted in the old traditional alberello method, each vine independently supported by a pole. Vines grow to look like small trees with a lot more grapes than modern trellising would permit. At Benanti, as we hiked up Mount Etna, and saw red and green grapes, olive trees, giant cactus-pear plants and lots of aromatic hedges of wild herbs growing together. All of which came into the glass of 2014 Benanti Rosso di Verzella Etna Rosso DOC that they poured for me, brimming with aromas of tobacco, ash, and dusty sage. It was ruby red, yet tasted like fermented black cherries, and possessed a unique minerality that comes from that lava soil.  

That paradoxical taste, floral aromas into dense fruit and earth flavors, is what sets many Etna wines apart from, say, the classic deep, dark Nero d’Avolas for which this island is more commonly known. Wines made with Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio have a weightless quality that reminds you of both Burgundy’s Pinot Noir as well as Piedmont’s Nebbiolo. What’s so intriguing is that they tend to be lighter in color than you might expect, often ruby red. Then, you sip them, and they taste, well, darker.

I’d encourage you to ask your local retailer or restaurateur to show you their Etna Rosso offerings to discover a whole new ‘New Old World’ taste. Other producers I’d recommend include, Planeta, Donnafugata, Passopisciaro, Cottanera, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Girolamo Russo, Duca di Salaparuta, Tascante, Tenuta di Fessina, Pietradolce and Làvico. 

If you’d like to join Anthony Giglio for a wine tour of Italy, please contact him at anthony@anthonygiglio.com