An influx of growers and winemakers over recent decades has meant that the vinous potential of Etna's unique volcanic terroir is finally being fully realised. Exciting times, says Simon Woolf.
Etna fact file
Vineyard surface 3,181ha (656ha DOC)
Annual production 78,500hl (12,572hl DOC)
Etna Rosso: min 80% Nerello Mascalese, max 20% Nerello Cappuccio
Etna Rosso Riserva 4 years’ age (including at least 1 year in wood)
Etna Bianco: min 60% Carricante
Etna Bianco Superiore: min 80% Carricante, from Milo only
Grape varieties for DOC wines
Red grapes: Nerello Mascalese (2,454ha), Nerello Cappuccio (24ha)
White grapes: Carricante (140ha), Catarratto (22ha), Minella, Grecanico, Insolia
Etna, 1988. Tumbledown stone wineries punctuate the terraces of abandoned alberello vineyards. Cheap Nero d’Avola fills the tankers heading north. After enjoying a few rounds of golf near Rovitello, captain of industry Dr Giuseppe Benanti repairs to a local restaurant with a friend. In a moment of pride Benanti orders a bottle of the local rosso, but it’s disgusting: oxidised, thin and tannic. ‘Christ,’ he thinks. ‘Surely we can do better.’
The region has developed explosively since that lightbulb moment, expanding from a mere five quality estates to 110 today. Benanti’s restrained wines have won international repute. As the buzz around Etna wine reaches fever pitch, new producers are crowding onto the market and most major Sicilian estates (Planeta, Cusamano, Tasca) have a stake on the mountain – but is the fuss deserved, or is Etna at risk of overheating?
The benefits of altitude
There’s no doubt that Etna’s volcanic soils and high elevations produce exciting wine. Nerello Mascalese is the main protagonist, producing pale reds with good structure, perfumed berry fruit, and wild, gamey flavours. Comparisons with Nebbiolo are apt – there’s a similar tension between highly strung acids and assertive yet refined tannins. Etna is Sicily’s only cool-climate region, littered with ancient, ungrafted vineyards, making top wines that can be as regal, complex and ageworthy as anything further north.
Etna’s whites sometimes outdo the reds when it comes to longevity. Carricante, the major white variety, possesses a Riesling-like ability to age, mutating from nervy saltiness to honeyed, smoky maturity, without any assistance from oak. Try Barone de Villagrande or Benanti’s Bianco Superiore to appreciate this classic style.
Etna Bianco still suffers from a lack of definition, however – the DOC allows up to 40% of lesser white varieties, and the wines span the gamut from lean and angular, to aromatic and Sauvignon-like, or fat and fruity. The superiore area around the village of Milo retains more stylistic consistency – maybe the DOC area is just too broad?. Ciro Biondi of C & S Biondi feels it’s simply a matter of time. ‘It will take another 40 years for producers to really understand our terroir,’ he says.
Andrea Franchetti (Passopisciaro) and Marco de Grazia (Tenuta delle Terre Nerre) are the showmen who turned the world onto Etna. Arriving in the early 2000s, both were looking to replicate their respective successes in Tuscany and Barolo. Franchetti initially had little interest in Nerello, admitting ‘It took me 10 years to learn that it’s a high-quality variety.’ Nerello isn’t easy – low yields are vital to avoid a mean, astringent mess, and new oak does it few favours – something most producers now thankfully seem to have learned.
Franchetti’s former oenologist, Australian Anna Martens, suggested vinifying the single-vineyard sites separately, and the five Passopisciaro ‘contrada’ wines demonstrate Nerello’s brilliance at transmitting terroir. Martens moved on to set up Vino di Anna, where she produces ultra-natural field blends and experiments with qvevri (clay amphorae). Her rustic but likeable wines are almost the polar opposite of Franchetti’s slick, polished bottlings.
Contradas are ancient estates, usually coinciding with specific lava flows. Each has variations in soil, aspect and nuance, not unlike Burgundy‘s climats. Franchetti feels they are crucial to Etna’s future: ‘We’re lucky to have the contradas – they’re far better defined than Burgundy’s old feudal system.’ While de Grazia is fond of pushing the Burgundian metaphor, this frustrates Giuseppe Benanti’s son, Antonio, who took over running the estate with his twin brother, Salvino in 2012. ‘We shouldn’t be trying to imitate Burgundy or Barolo – Etna stands perfectly well on its own,’ he insists.
Frank Cornelissen and local expert Salvo Foti paved a different way for the new wave of producers, focusing on authenticity and tradition. Foti has lived and breathed Etna longer than anyone. His I Vigneri collective spreads the gospel of alberello (bush) training methods, while making a range of quirky and often delicious wines.
Giuseppe Benanti calls the new producer gold rush ‘the Etna spectacle’, citing ‘the many wealthy types who came to have a go’, but the return of Etna’s younger generation to old family vineyards is bearing fruit. Estates like Pietradolce, Girolamo Russo and Scirto are producing impressive wines focused on typicity rather than flamboyance. There is increased emphasis on organic agriculture and sensitivity in the winery.
Franchetti is positive when asked whether the boom could bust: ‘It’s the grapes, the soil and the volcano that are special here,’ he says. ‘Fashion can’t take that away’. The volcano could though, despite Foti’s assertion ‘We don’t fear Etna – it’s part of life for us’.
Reminders of Etna’s primeval power are all around: Fattorie Romeo del Castello’s vineyard near Randazzo ends abruptly next to a 10m wall of spoil from the 1981 eruption. This destroyed half the estate, yet after 30 years, wild vines are pushing up through the lava, just as Etna’s sons and daughters seek to remaster the wines.
Six of Etna’s new wave wineries
C & S Biondi
This small estate near easterly Trecastagni seems to raise the bar every year. Architect Ciro rebuilt his family’s abandoned vineyards in 1999, initially with Salvo Foti as consultant winemaker. Of their three contradas, San Nicolò is the jewel in the crown. Ciro and wife Stephanie have successfully innovated in recent vintages, adding a voluptuous oakfermented white (Chianta) and two characterful single-vineyard Nerellos to their established Outis label.
Fabio and father Dino work in construction, but their passion clearly stretches further. Dino purchased a few hectares of vines in 1970, initially vinified for home consumption, or sold as sfuso (bulk wine). They started bottling in 2012, and now own 10ha in Viagrande, spread around a stone winery built in 1698. The vineyards are a treasure – ungrafted, up to 150 years old and farmed biodynamically. The wines are joyful and uncomplicated.
Belgian Frank Cornelissen is legendary for his no-compromise approach, eschewing any vineyard treatments or sulphur in the winery. Cornelissen’s purism has brought him both a cult following and controversy. Arriving in 2000, he now has 17ha spread across several northern contradas. His recent vintages show increasingly focused, terroir-driven wines. Magma, vinified from contrada Barbabecchi at 1,000m, is sensational if expensive.
One of Etna’s prodigal sons, Alberto Graci returned in 2004 and traded his grandfather’s central vineyards for high-altitude parcels on Etna’s northern slopes, including part of contrada Barbabecchi. For Graci, ‘sense of place’ is vital – everyone here has wine culture in their blood’. With hands-off winemaking (wild yeasts, little temperature control), the results are vivid and accessible. At local enoteca Cave Ox, order the Pizza Graci, Alberto’s lemon-zested creation.
Like Graci, Giuseppe Russo returned to his roots in 2004, abandoning a career as a concert pianist to tend the family’s vineyards. The organically certified estate comprises 15ha spread across four contradas around Randazzo. The Nerellos show real typicity and focus. The Etna Bianco is painstakingly harvested from a few white grapevines co-planted with the reds. The wines don’t make concessions to any kind of international styling, and are all the better for it.
Tenuta di Fessina
Given that Tuscan Silvia Maestrelli only established this estate in 2007, the wines, made by Piedmontese winemaker Federico Curtaz are remarkably assured. Maestrelli says the finer volcanic sand around Rovitello is key for freshness and refinement. Curtaz brings elegance and tension to both reds and whites, the latter including a standout Etna Bianco Superiore. The Erse wines, for earlier drinking, and lighter wallets, are a true delight.