Sicilian Wines, “White Lotus” Vibes

The wines of Mt. Etna were already popular, but now they’ve *ahem* erupted into the mainstream.

It seems hard for me to believe, but I’m heading back to Aspen later this month to host a few wine seminars at what will be my 26th Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. A reporter from The Aspen Times reached out to me to ask if I had any photos from my first Classic, so I dug one up of my 24-year-old self, sporting a mid-90s goatee that was practically unrecognizable. But I digress. When asked to pitch an Italian-wine themed seminar, my first thought was Sicily (where I lead wine tours every June) and “The White Lotus,” whose second season was staged in the Sicilian town of Taormina, and they drank a lot of Sicilian wines. Did you happen to watch it?

“…grapes that grow in rich, volcanic soil—on an active volcano that still erupts regularly … possess amazing minerality and richness.”

Even if you didn’t, you’ve probably (err, hopefully!) come across a wine from Sicily at some point, as they are well established here in the US, especially the chalky, bright whites make with Grillo grapes, or the calling card red wines made with Nero d’Avola grapes. Over the past decade, however, wines from a specific region of Sicily, Mt. Etna, have been gaining a lot of momentum thanks to critical praise that has trickled down to the masses. What’s so special about them? Well, at the outset, they’re very, very different than those aforementioned sea-level wines. Apparently, grapes that grow in rich, volcanic soil—on an active volcano that still erupts regularly (the latest on May 14!) possess amazing minerality and richness. And we’re talking about sparkling wines, whites and reds alike.

“What’s curious about Sicily, in general, is that most of the wines are named by grape variety, just like we do here in the New World.”

What’s curious about Sicily, in general, is that most of the wines are named by grape variety, just like we do here in the New World (whereas most Old World wines are named by place). So those Sicilian sea-level wines like Nero d’Avola, Syrah, Chardonnay and Grillo are pretty easy to recognize and relate to comparatively. But Etna is a relatively new region and it’s organized like an Old World region in that there’s no mention of grapes on the labels, rather just Etna Bianco (white) and Etna (Rosso). For the record, white wines from this region are made with the Carricante grape, while reds are made mostly with Nerello Mascalese with a splash of Nerello Cappuccio. For your purposes, all you need to ask a retailer or waiter for is a white or red from Etna; they’ll know exactly what you mean.

For Aspen, I lined up eight wines that speak to me from Mt. Etna, while also keeping in mind what I saw the characters drinking on “The White Lotus.” I’m especially happy to be pouring an Etna Bianco from Planeta, a producer with several estates on the island, one of which is not far from Taormina, where the eponymous hotel is supposedly located. “Apparently, the wine has, like, a bunch of volcanic minerals in it,” says Daphne (played by Meghann Fahy) as she, her husband Cameron, and their friends, Harper and Ethan, head out to day-drink at Planeta. As the foursome gulps and gulps the delicious Carricante, Daphne Cameron (Theo James) make out like teenagers at the table, while super-awkward Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe) squirm uncomfortably.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll kick off with a welcome toast, pouring 2015 Murgo ExtraBrut Spumante Metodo Classico, followed by a trio of white wines: 2020 Planeta Etna Bianco; 2021 Tornatore Etna Bianco; and 2021 Idda Bianco Sicilia. I’m thrilled to share that Gaia Gaja, daughter of Italian winemaking legend Angelo Gaja, will be at the seminar to say a few words, as Idda is her project. Then, for a transition we’ll have a rosé, a 2022 Donnafugata Dolce & Gabbana ‘Rosa’ Rosato Sicilia, which, as you’d expect, has a gorgeous label designed by D&G. Finally, we’ll round out with three Etna reds: 2019 Alta Mora Etna Rosso; 2016 Tenuta di Fessina ‘Musmeci’ Riserva Etna Rosso; and 2017 Benanti Serra della Contessa ‘Particella No. 587’ Etna Rosso Riserva.

You should be able to find these wines pretty easily at your local retailer. But if you’d prefer to drink them at the source, I’d be happy to take you to Sicily next June!