5 ‘dramatic’ wines from Sicily’s Mount Etna
To discover wines with dramatic pleasure, look no further than Mount Etna on the Italian island of Sicily. The region’s vineyards unfurl in a semi-circular crescent running from north to south on the eastern slopes of a very active volcano.
Lava from Mount Etna’s last major eruption in 1992 buried vineyards and homes. More recently the short-lived eruption in December of 2018 spewed black smoke and ash into the sky to close air traffic. Accompanying earthquakes caused property losses including damage to stone walled terraces in the vineyards.
At the same time, over the centuries the lava also has contributed to the area’s marvelous grape growing environment. As Master Sommelier John Szabo points out in his excellent book, “Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power” (Jacqui Small LLP; $45), evidence from 3,500 years ago during the time of the Phoenicians shows farmers cultivating vines on Mount Etna’s flanks for commercial wine production.
The region’s well-drained volcanic landscape allows vines to sink deep roots for just enough moisture. The relatively infertile basalt soils rich in magnesium and iron offer minimal organic matter to promote low yielding vines with better quality grapes.
Szabo notes that planting vines in a “sweet spot” altitude between 1,900 and 2,900 feet on the volcano’s face creates an optimal climate — neither too hot nor too cool. This permits salubrious Mediterranean breezes to regulate ripening grapes with vital freshness. The resulting fruit combines aromatic complexity, intriguing fruitiness and powerful concentration creating the potential for well-balanced, delicious final wines.
Even so, innate difficulties in working Mount Etna’s rocky slopes create another side to the drama. Until the last 25 years, shortages in manual labor made commercial production virtually impossible. Not enough hands were available to prune the vines, clear debris and preserve stone terraces, so many vineyard owners either abandoned the vines completely or maintained just enough to provide wine for family consumption.
In the 1990s the situation slowly started changing as outside investors recognized the value of Mount Etna’s distinct vineyards. The region’s unique indigenous grape varieties stand apart in global markets awash in Cabernet and Chardonnay wines. And Mount Etna wines, at their best, blend freshness and quality for value that appeals to consumers and sommeliers alike searching for delicious bottles with personality. You might say the wines have become “hot!”
So take a dramatic step toward pleasure. Try the following wines from Mount Etna, the place the Sicilians call “The Island On The Island:”
The 2017 Monterosso, “Volcano” Etna Bianco, Sicily (Available from Chambers Street Wines (chambersstwines.com); $29.99) comes from Aurelio Marconi, Giovanni Ferlito and Gianluca Strano, partners dedicated to recovering indigenous old vines planted on the volcano’s southeastern face. The partners farm organically with vines growing individually on traditional alberello stakes. This wine come from carricante, a white-skinned variety traditional to Mount Etna’s higher elevations.
The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks to capture freshness. The wine’s golden color offers ripe citrus and quince aromas. In the glass, ripe fruit balances with zesty acidity and mouthwatering, savory mineral notes with subtle saltiness. The wine finishes fruity, yet dry and refreshing. Pair this delicious bottle with grilled seabass with olive oil and peppers. Highly Recommended.
The 2017 Tenuta Tascante, “Buonora” Etna Bianco, Sicily (Available nationally for around $22; check wine-searcher.com for current availability) comes from central Sicily’s Tasca d’Almerita family, originators of the internationally popular Regaleali wines. The clan invested in Mount Etna in 2007, and for this wine they use carricante grapes grown high up on the volcano’s northern face.
The northerly terroir gives this delightful wine a light straw color with elegant citrus, floral and smoky notes. Fermentation and brief aging in stainless steel captured the fruit’s crisp citrus and natural savory flavors. The wine’s zesty, dry finish pairs well with grilled scallops with a beurre blanc and caper sauce. Highly Recommended.
American wine importer, Marco de Grazia, and his brother produced the 2017 Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etna Bianco, Sicily (Luxury 76177; $21.99) using grapes from old vines on their estate on Mount Etna’s northern face. The blend of carricante and other traditional varieties—-catarratto, grecanico, and minnella—creates a wine with citrus and floral aromas augmented with a hint of oak. The round, fruity flavors balance nicely with fresh acidity and creaminess. Pair it with grilled shrimp over pasta with spicy, red pepper flakes. Recommended.
The 2016 Tenuta Tascante, “Ghaia Nera” Etna Rosso, Sicily (Available nationally for around $22; check wine-searcher.com for current availability) comes from Nerello Mascalese, a red-skinned variety indigenous to the Mount Etna region. The vines toil at high elevation on the volcano’s relativity cooler climate northern face. The fruit ripens slowly while retaining marvelous freshness.
In the glass, the wine’s lovely light ruby color offers raspberry fruit and subtle earthy notes. Ample fruity concentration balance nicely with fresh acidity. The wine delivers just enough refined elegant tannins as backbone for the fruit. Pair this delicious wine with grilled skirt steak. Highly Recommended.
The 2017 Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etna Rosso, Sicily (Luxury 77753; $21.99) comes from a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes, a classic Mount Etna red “field blend.” The wine’s deep garnet color offers ripe dark red fruit and pleasant oak notes. On the palate, concentrated red fruit blends nicely with fresh acidity and firm tannins. Pair it with pasta tossed with olive oil, crispy beef and chopped tomatoes. Recommended.