Mount Etna: Hot for Volcanic Wines

Her volatile nature drives only the most intrepid winemakers to meet her match. But for anybody making wine on the slopes of Mount Etna — Europe’s most active volcano — the promise of Mother Nature’s elements far outweigh her fiery threat.

Mount Etna’s activity is ongoing.

Mount Etna’s activity is ongoing. (Courtesy: Vini Franchetti)

Just earlier this year, a most dramatic eruption from this fierce cone, which claims a chunk of Sicily’s northeastern side, spewed into the night sky. Yet, what seemingly would be an unlikely place to produce quality wines, wine producers of Mount Etna don’t dwell on the vicissitudes of its unpredictable nature; they embrace it.

Etna’s mineral-rich soils, composed of countless lava flows and ash, combined with indigenous grapes, high altitudes, microclimates and variation in day-to-night temperatures, are optimal elements to produce distinctively stellar wines.

Along the flanks of the volcano’s steep rise to 11,000 feet, vineyards grow to an elevation of more than 3,000 feet. The grapes of this region inherit extraordinary nuances from the volcano’s extreme elements. The towns are made entirely of black volcanic rock.

Harvest 2017

Harvest 2017 (Courtesy: Vini Franchetti)

“Because of Mount Etna’s unique growing conditions, it is viewed as an island on an island,” said Rose Johnson, an Italian Wine Ambassador (Vinitaly International Academy) and sommelier at Raos inside Caesars Palace. “Nerello Mascalese and carricante are Mount Etna’s signature red and white grapes and, in my opinion, two of Italy’s best. Nerello Mascalese stylistically is in-between a pinot noir and nebbiolo, and carricante can have the mineral notes and acid of a dry riesling.”

But this wine region always hasn’t had this star reputation. Throughout the 20th century, much of Sicilian wines from this triangular-shaped land mass just southwest of the Italy’s “toe” were co-opted by the north to blend components for gigantic wine houses.

The red wine of Mount Etna is of Nerello Mascalese, an ancient grape that is rare except on this volcano.

The red wine of Mount Etna is of Nerello Mascalese, an ancient grape that is rare except on this volcano. (Courtesy: Vini Franchetti)

Etna had been savagely erupting for thousands of years, making it difficult to cultivate, and many of its vineyards were abandoned 35 years ago when the cost of producing wine became too great. Then, new wine producers arrived and purchased the abandoned vineyards, acquiring the low-yielding, old vines every winemaker wanted. Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro and others, saw promise. 

Volcanoes are gloomy places, and when I arrived (in 2000), Mount Etna was even gloomier because it was an abandoned volcano,” said Franchetti.

He went on to describe how the wineries lie collapsed all over its slopes; stonewalled terraces were all but gone. 

“It seemed crazy to restore vineyards so high up the mountain — above, it was erupting — but I liked that they were planted so high.”

In recent years, Sicily overall has been experiencing a renaissance of wine culture, earning it a reputation as a relatively untouched territory for interesting wines from well-established varieties, as well as forgotten and undiscovered varieties. And, like a prima donna, Etna is headlining.

“Near Passopisciaro, many vineyards are picked bare, while the grapes are still hanging on my property,” said Franchetti. He described what his grapes look like at the moment in mid-October.  “The black clusters are of an opaque black; there, under the orange, brown, green and red foliage.”

Many of the vinesare extremely old on Mount Etna. While these ancient vines may be gnarly, they produce some of the most complex wines, which possess a surge of energy.

But that from which Etna benefits the most is passionate winemaking. Together, with the implementation of time-tested methods, a deep commitment to showcase the region’s natural gifts and reveal the true expressions of its terroir, producers are balancing their heritage while guiding the perpetually emergent modern palate.

And when a sommelier rhapsodizes about “volcanic soil,” one might wonder why that would matter. There’s one place in the world that can explain the emotion: Mount Etna.

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