I recently attended “Etna Days,” an international conference in Sicily, to learn more about the wines of Mount Etna. It was created and sponsored by the Etna Consorzio, the association of producers and grape growers, for Etna wines. Their stated purpose was to promote Mount Etna wines and facilitate relationships between producers and journalists.
Wines made from grapes grown in volcanic soils are gaining recognition for their ability to express a sense of the place where they were grown. Mount Etna is Europe’s largest and most active volcano. It is classified as a stratovolcano, built up of alternate layers of lava and ash over time. It began at the bottom of the sea and today is about 10,900 feet tall, a figure that changes with eruptions. Wine grape vines have thrived for more than 3,000 years, because of the soil created by the volcano. According to the Consorzio, the cultivation of wine grapes was likely developed by the Greeks in the 8th century BC. Evidence of ancient winemaking can still be found in large, natural stone basins where grapes were crushed by foot.
By 1885, the province of Catania had more than 90,000 hectares (222,394 acres) of vines. Phylloxera in the early 1900s reduced the number of vines to 40,000 hectares (98,842 acres). Today, there are 1,184 hectares (2,926 acres). Most of those vines are native to Mount Etna.
Wine grapes are grown at altitudes between 1300 and 3280 feet above sea level. In addition to its varying altitudes, Etna offers different advantages and challenges depending upon the aspect of the slope where grapes are planted. The eastern slope is the coldest and gets the most rainfall, perfect for Carricante, but not welcoming to red varieties. The northern slope is the home of Nerello Mascalese, although Salvo Foti, winemaker, wine grape researcher, Etna wine expert, notes in his book, Etna: The Wines of the Volcano, that in some of the oldest vineyards Grenache vines can be found, courtesy of the Spanish from the 15th century.
Most of Etna grapes are grown on the “albarello” training system, with each vine supported by a chestnut post. This system allows sunlight exposure to all sides of the vine. While most of the winegrowing areas in the world have adopted modern viticultural practices including chemical fertilizers, mechanization, and irrigation systems, viticulture as practiced on Etna is eco-friendly, according to Salvo Foti. The albarello-trained vineyards and steep slopes have inadvertently protected Etna from overdevelopment of vineyards and protected old vines.
I kept hearing the words “Contrada” or “Contrade,” which seemed to be interchangeable with “cru,” which in French wine terms means growth and usually refers to a high-quality vineyard or group of vineyards. I had a few discussions, some heated, about the contributions of a contrada to a wine. I asked, how is a contrada defined? Who determines the definition? How does it affect the quality of a wine? When I looked for definitions online, it seems that these areas are defined by local governmental bodies and are based purely on geography and roads. I was still confused after I got home, so I contacted my colleague and friend, Alfonso Cevola, an expert on Italian wines, and responsible for the blog “On Wine Trail in Italy.” He, in turn, sent me the following:
“By definition, a contrada is a rural administrative subdivision,” according to Ian D’Agata. He goes on to say, that “on Etna, the individual contrade borders are defined on the basis of geologic and social constructs. Geologic, because most contrade correspond to the paths of various lava flows that have occurred over the centuries; and social, since many contrada names refer to a fiefdom (such as “Feudo”) or an activity (such as Porcaria, or “where hogs are raised”).”
Etna’s native grapes are Nerello Cappuccio, Carricante and Minnella. As I noted in a column I wrote in 2013 after my first visit to Etna, “the star red grape, Nerello Mascalese, which is considered indigenous to Sicily, may have come from further reaches since DNA testing suggests a parentage of Sangiovese and a light skinned Calabrian grape called Mantonico Bianco.”
Carricante is grown only on Mount Etna and is considered one of Italy’s highest quality white grapes, capable of great longevity. Producers usually allow the grapes to fully ripen and go through malo-lactic fermentation to tame its high level of malic acidity.
Five wines are labeled Etna DOC. Etna Bianco DOC is made of a minimum of 60 percent of Carricante. Etna Bianco Superiore must contain at a minimum of 80 percent Carricante, grown in a commune in the city of Catania one the eastern slope. Etna Spumante Bianco is single variety Carricante. Etna Spumante Rosato is made in the traditional method with the second fermentation in the bottle. It must contain at least 80 percent Nerello Mascalese. Etna Rosso DOC and Etna Rosato DOC both require a minimum 80 percent Nerello Mascalese.
The first day of the event offered an opening ceremony and over 200 wines available for tasting. A delightful and daunting task. The next two days, attendees were divided into groups of eight to visit wineries. My group’s first visit was to Antichi Vinai 1877. Founder Giacomo Gangemi started making wine on Etna in 1877. Like most Etna wineries at that time, they exported wines in bulk to wineries in Europe to be blended into local wines for body and color. Today the winery is in the hands of Giuseppe Gangemi and his daughter, Viviana. They make a range of white, red and sparkling wines. I was especially impressed with Antichi Vinai, Etna Rosso Reserva DOC, Koinè 2016. It is not produced every year depending upon the ripeness of the grapes. It is a blend of 85% Nerello Mascalese and 15% of Nerello Cappuccio, fermented in stainless steel, aged in two years in large Slavonian and chestnut barrels, and two years in bottle. It has rich, ripe black cherry fruit with balsamic notes layered with dried woody herbs. It has an opulent mouthfeel balanced with zesty acidity and burnished tannins.
That evening, I walked to an event near our hotel, arriving early and looking lost. Fortunately, I happened to meet a man who had wines in the event. He lead the way to the tasting introducing himself and his wines. He was Ciri Biondi, and his family has been making wines since the beginning of the 1900s from vineyards they have owned since the 1600s. One in particular stood out, Biondi, Etna Bianco DOC “Pianta” 2019. It was intense and more concentrated than many of the whites I had tasted. I noted that it reminded me of a white Burgundy. He then told me that he had met Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, who had shared a few white winemaking tips. The Pianta is primarily Carricante with a bit of Catarratto and Minnella fermented and aged in French oak.
The Rallo family of Donnafugata have five estates in Sicily, including Etna. Our host, Antonio Rallo, agronomist, winemaker and CEO, welcomed us with a tour of the alberello vineyards with a steaming Etna as a backdrop. When they acquired the estate, he said they had to replace thirty percent of the vines that were dead. Several of the structures were built of lava stones. Outside, the facility was rustic; inside the winery was sleek, modern and fully equipped. The wines are delightful, such as the “Sul Volcano” Etna Bianco DOC 2020, with its subltle aromas of citrus with mineral saline notes and elegant white fruit flavors that are softened by aging in a combination of tanks as well as second- and third-use barrels. It is 100 percent Carricante, which Antonio notes ages well.
In 2001, the Cusumano brothers, Alberto and Diego, acquired a farm in Partinico, Sicily to make wine from grapes like Nero d’Avola and Inzolia. In 2013 they bought three contrade on the northern slopes of Etna where they are making some of the smoothest, most integrated wines I tasted during my visit. The Alta Moro Etna Bianco DOC 2021, which is a varietal Carricante is elegant, lightly floral, and very smooth in the mouth—ethereal and seamless. Alta Moro, Etna Rosso “Guardiola” 2017 is a varietal Nerello Mascalese from a 2 hectare (just under five acres), single vineyard with 150 year-old albarello-trained vines at 800 meters (2624 ft). It is vibrant and structured with lush, juicy, dark cherry fruit, intertwined with notes of dried Mediterranean herbs, beautifully integrated with vibrant acidity and fine-grained tannins.
Etna Days was a comprehensive and well-organized tutorial on the wines of Mount Etna. Our last event was a hike on the slope of Etna, and it instilled in me even greater admiration and respect for the land and the people who live and work with the vines and wines. It also taught me not to underestimate this beautiful mountain. It was very windy, no surprise, but I almost got blown off my feet. I was taking a step—so I only had one foot on the ground—when a big gust pushed me from behind. If it had not been from a fellow traveler who grabbed around my waist, I would have gone flying. She and I held on to each other until we got on the bus. So, by all means, I encourage you to seek out wines from Etna at home. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Sicily and her majestic mountain, do not hesitate.