Unveiling Etna: The Supreme Region for Volcanic Wines

By | 16 February 2024

This was my first time in Etna. It’s a remarkable place: a wine region in the shadow of Europe’s largest volcano, and one that is still very much active. The volcano dominates the place: wherever you are, you sense it; you are aware of it. People here are in touch with the value of life, something that comes from the uncertainty that a volcano brings.

Etna is big. It’s 3300 m high, and 45 km across at the base, and found on the east coast of the island of Sicily, north of Catania. As you fly into Catania, there it is, dominating the landscape.

And the terroirs here are not static, but are continually being added to. In many of the vineyards, you can reach down and pick up a handful of lapilli, a black ash that regularly gets deposited from eruptions, of which there are some 50 a year. These lapilli are small stones that fall out of the air after an eruption, and are between 2 mm and 3 cm in diameter.

The terroir of Etna’s wine regions consists of different layers of soil and rock from multiple eruptions, ranging from recent to ancient. Each lava flow or eruption is different, so there is quite a bit of variation. This is demonstrated clearly in cross-sections through the rock.

The topic of discussion here is the intriguing climatic conditions favorable for the growth of wine. Given its location, one would predict an intensely hot climate. However, due to the considerable height, the temperature gets balanced. The nearby sea, particularly towards the eastern parts, also helps in moderating the climate. The presence of a volcano increases the rainfall, making it possible for dry-grown vines. Intriguingly, the pest phylloxera was unable to rise above 400m, leaving many untouched, pre-phylloxera vineyards. The predominant white grape types include Carricante, Catarrato, and Grecanico Dorado. Additionally, the popular red grapes are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio.

The vineyards envelope the towering mountain in a horseshoe pattern, with significant presence in the north, east and south, and virtually non-existent in the west. Four slopes are observed with vineyards. The north sloping is less abrupt, housing most wine producers. The eastern slope faces the Ionian sea and is home to Cariccante plantings. It receives maximum exposure. The southeastern slope houses several extinct cones. The southwestern slope, distant from the sea, sees less rain and a high diurnal temperature range. The DOC was established in 1968 and currently has 142 Contrada (including the nine added in 2022), which are defined as UGAs (Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive), a legal geographic concept here. These are spread across 11 municipalities. The upper limit of the DO is 1000m, but intriguing vineyard plantings are observable above this.

In the last period of the 19th century, there were 52,000 hectares of vineyards here. The majority of wine generated was traded in bulk across the continent through the port. However, by the 1980s, only a handful of producers remained. Modern Etna experienced a rebirth through Dr. Giuseppe Benanti, a pharmacist who established his homonymous wine estate in 1998. Initially, he chose to work with global varieties. However, his sons Salvino and Antonio shifted to local varieties, thereupon steering the winemaking industry on that path.

Over the past few years, Etna’s wine region has witnessed substantial expansion. At a point, this growth became quite excessive. In a conversation with Marco de Grazia of Tenuta Terre Nerre, He expressed his opinion that the region may have accommodated too many producers. He highlighted the drastic increment in their numbers from 60 in 2013, to 130 in 2017, and 441 at present. The stats for a relatively petite DO – data from 2022 indicate that 1290 hectares are being cultivated, generating 5.8 million bottles annually.

Previously, the process of winemaking relied solely on the use of palmento, a type of shallow fermenter constructed from lava stone that harnessed gravity flow. The procedure entailed loading the grapes into the palmento, crushing them, and then pressing them. The juice or wine would then be transferred from the palmento to the fermentation or storage container. The norm was for each farmer to possess their own palmento and produce their own wine. However, in 1997, these practices were outlawed by European Union laws due to hygiene concerns. As a result, farmers were compelled to sell their grapes rather than wine, leading to a decrease in income. Salvo Foti, a prominent winegrower in the area, advocates for the reinstatement of these practices given their significance to Etna’s winemaking traditions. Despite the ban, some continue to utilise the palmento method in secret.

My recent visit to Etna, which included meeting with producers and sampling a wide array of wines at the Etna Day celebration, was indeed memorable. Beginning tomorrow, I will provide detailed notes on all the wines I tasted.

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