Sicily’s Mt. Etna region is rugged and arid, an inhospitable terrain of volcanic soil and brush that somehow manages to nurture the development of intense wines with both age-ability and finesse. Mt. Etna , the tallest active volcano on the European continent at close to 11, 000 feet high or 3330 meters, has a soil rich in minerals like copper, magnesium and phosphorous along with varying exposures and sea influences that contribute to as much (or more) as a 20 degrees Celsius temperature fluctuation between night and day. The warmth during the day helps to ripen the grapes, while the cool temperatures at night help to maintain acidity– key to the world class wines Etna is able to produce.
Etna received its DOC status in 1968, but the potential of the region was not understood until recently. Prior to the late 1980s, Mt. Etna was not even considered to be a high quality bulk wine producer, unlike other wine areas in Sicily. What changed Mt. Etna’s fortune was the desire of producers such as Benanti to begin the production of world class wines. Once the painstaking work of learning, or relearning Etna’s terroir began, word quickly spread of the regions potential.
Mt.Etna has a semi-circular shape spreading from North to Southwest, which means that the sun and sea influence can vary greatly between the most northern vineyards and southwest vineyards. This translate to harvests in the north taking place, on average, a month later than those in the south, while Etna, in general, harvests later than anywhere else in Sicily. Of course, the fact that Etna vineyards are located on altitudes between 450 meters to 1100 meters and that rain is practically absent in the summer, but can be very high during the autumn or winter period, all contributes to the concentration and complexity of Etna wines.
The best of the whites are made with some Carricante and the reds made predominately with the Nerello Marscalese and Nerello Capuccio grapes, all grapes native to Eastern Sicily, some tracing many hundreds of years back. The highest quality producing vineyards have old vines or even pre-phylloxera vines, predating the 1880s. Oenologists on Etna have hypothesized that the volcanic lava, ash and sand of the region have helped impede the louse from wreaking total destruction of the region.
There is a unique vibe here in Sicily–its people, terrain and architecture influenced by invaders that included the Greeks, Romans, the Germanic Vandals, the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and later by the mid -1700s even the Spanish came to Sicily and ruled for a time. Viewed as a bread basket by many of these conquerors, its Mediterranean climate and location only about 2 miles off of the mainland of Italy to the north and under 90 miles from the coast of Africa from its southern tip, contributed to its desirability by conquerors looking to feed its armies. Today, Sicily, and Mt. Etna specifically, are just starting to unlock the potential of its terroir and the results are exciting.
Below, just a glimpse of some of the outstanding producers responsible for putting Mt. Etna on the world class wine map:
The Benanti family had been producing wines on Etna since the end of the 1800s. However, it wasn’t until 1988 when Giuseppe Benanti decided to revive the traditions of the estate that Benanti turned its focus to making quality wines. The quest for world class wine production began with an in-depth and extensive 5 year study of the Etnean soils, the clones of the indigenous vines, followed by analysis of the best modern vinification practices. On completion of the study, Benanti was able to produce wines with a unique flavor profile; wines that highlight the ancient fragrance and flavors that are quintessential Etna.
To best understand the work involved with the learning the terroir on Etna and the role their long time winemaker Salvo Foti played Giuseppe Benanti described the process as follows:
“Foti, son of Etna, informed me that there was no knowledge regarding how the wine needed to be produced since the Etna wines that were barely on the market, even as bulk wine, were not of great quality. So, we asked the collaboration of Prof. Stefano Rocco from the Experimental Institute of Oenology of Asti (Piedmont) and Prof. Jean Siegriest, now sadly passed away, from the University of Beaune in Burgundy (France). Using their protocol, we conducted 150 tests until we were able to produce our first white wine for the company Benanti, the Pietramarina, Etna Bianco Superiore in D.O.C. followed by our red wine the Rovitello, Etna Rosso D.O.C.”
Check out the Pietramarina, the white wine made with Carricante that put Benanti on the map. Also delicious, Rovitello, Serra Della Contessa, and Majora.
A fruit tree in the Benanti vineyard
I Vigneri, Salvo Foti
Salvo Foti played a pivotal role in developing the wine region of Etna, not just at Benanti, but ViniBiondi and Gulfi before starting his own estate. Salvo’s focus has always been in the vineyard and with the exception of a copper and sulfur mix, no fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides are used. All grapes are harvested by hand and all work is done by hand or with a mule. Fermentation is done in open oak vats without enzymes and thermal control. Very little or no sulfur is used on the grapes or must. Bottling is done under the lunar cycle. Little to no filtration is used. The end result are wines that shows the unique terroir of Etna.
My favorite wine of the line-up was the 2006 Vinupetra made from Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Alicante and Francisis. The vines for Vinupetra are located around 700 meters on the north side of the volcano near the town of Calderara. The climate is very harsh and cold, the summers are hot and dry can be extreme fluctuations between night and day temperatures. Many of the vines are old with goblet trellising. This wine had lots of red cherry, red plum, strawberry, floral and mineral notes with a touch of vanilla and smoke. This wine had a velvety texture and finished long.
Tenuta delle Terre Nere
Marco de Grazia
Established in 2002 by famous Italian Wine Exporters/Brokers Marco de Grazia and his brother Sebastian, the estate is located on the northern slopes of the volcano, with vineyards between the village of Solicchiata and the town of Randazzo.
Given the extreme climate, the estate focuses on vineyard management first by farming organically and doing everything it can to ensure even and complete ripening of its grapes. Terre Nere produces 2 hectares of Carricante, 1 hectare of Nerello Cappuccio and 18.5 hectares of Nerello Mascalese and .5 hectares of other white berry varietals.
Tenuta de Terre Nere consists of over 30 hectares, divided into 10 parcels in four crus, with a total vineyard area of 23 hectares. Except for 6 hectares recently planted, the remaining vines are between 50 and 100 years old with a small pre-phylloxera parcel of vines aged 130-140 years old. The pre-phylloxera plot locatd in the Calderara Sottana is best known as La Vigna di Don Peppino, named after the vigneron who lovingly took care of these old vines for over 70 years.
Don Peppino’s house and the prephylloxera Vineyard he managed.
Volcanic rocky soil
The vineyards are located in Calderara Sottana, Guardiola, Santo Spirito and Fuedo di Mezzo and the elevations range from mostly 600-1000 meters in altitude. As might be expected, the soils are comprised of a combination of volcanic type soils; ash, sand and basalt pebbles, etc.
Check out the entry level Rosso and Etna Bianco, they are delicious and very affordable. But, of course, the whole range is excellent.
The Don Peppino prephylloxera selection
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