MOUNT ETNA

The current hotspot of Italian viticulture is on the slopes of Europe’s largest active volcano, Mount Etna, in eastern Sicily.  There have been more high profile investments from leading winemakers here recently than anywhere else in Italy, all keen to reap the rewards of this unique volcanic terroir.

It might seem a risky venture, but it is worth it.  The quality and finesse of both the white and red wines is exceptional – producing such delicacy, elegance and minerality.  Etna’s grapes are unique too, with the two main varieties white Carricante and red Nerello Mascalese offering distinctive flavours.

Amazingly people have been taking risks here since neolithic times, as Etna’s slopes were probably first planted with vines as early as C8 BC.  In C19 there were 26,000 hectares of vines, but the mountain slopes were largely deserted throughout the C20, until in early 2000s winemakers began to descend on Etna again.

Today there are 1,291 hectares planted with 441 wine producers, which makes Etna DOC smaller than Bordeaux’ Sauternes.  It has a very diverse international community of winemakers – hailing from Belgium to Italy – with the most high profile producers: Cornelissen, Gaja, Franchetti-Passopisciaro, Graci, Terre Nere and Planeta – with natural wines a focus for some.

What is so interesting about Etna is that the different ‘contrade’, which are the 133 geographically defined terroirs on the mountain, are always changing.  After each eruption (the last was in 2021), the Consortium have to redraw the map – and they can date the soils from the lava flows (see above).

Vines are grown from 400 metres up to and over 1000m on four distinct slopes – and the aspect is all important.  The most planted is the north where the slopes are gentle and climate cool – most popular for red Nerello Mascalese.  On the eastern slope overlooking the Ionion Sea it is rainier and windier, with white Carricante bushvines on small terraces predominant.  The reflection from the ocean here makes a subtle difference to the terroir.

The south-east slope has several eruptive cones, all of which are now extinct – mostly planted with bushvines – but both white and red grapes ripen well here.  The south-western slope, furthest away from the sea, has menacingly hot winds with little rain and intense sunlight which tends to suit the red Nerello Cappuccio variety – with plantings up to 1000m.

With such a harsh climate and tough soils – everything is done by hand – nothing is mechanical, so the wines are never cheap.  Some vines are ungrafted as phylloxera is unlikely to penetrate the harsh soils.  The soils are a mix of gravel, black sand and not surprisingly – ash.  The large diurnal shifts in temperature (up to 25 degrees C) between day and night ensure a high natural acidity is retained in grapes, but like so many parts of Europe, Etna also struggles with a mix of extreme drought (as in 2021) and heavy rain and hail (as in 2022).

I particularly like Etna’s whites with their racy acidity, savoury notes and flinty character – with blends mainly from lightly aromatic Carricante, alongside indigenous Catarratto and Minnella.  Some wineries (like Planeta) even make rich zesty sparkling wines here too.

Don’t expect big buxom voluptuous reds from Etna, the wines are very delicate – but with such fragrance, texture, minerality and a completely unique flavour.  The red blends are stylistically similar to Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir, although Etna’s main grape Nerello Mascalese is genetically related to Sangiovese.  As an added bonus Etna’s wines can be drunk young, but they age well too.

I am delighted to see supermarkets and winemerchants starting to focus on Etna – one of the best value introductory reds is Lidl’s Etna Rosso ‘898’ (£9.99) if you can still find it on their shelves.

WINES TO TRY:

WHITES

ETNA BIANCO 2021 Planeta

£21 The Wine Society; Fine Wine Portobello

Fresh vibrant citric-fruited nutty 100% Carricante with a touch of oak from Planeta’s Feudo di Mezzo winery.

ETNA BIANCO SUL VULCANO CARRICANTE 2021 Donnafugata ***STAR BUY***

£34 Valvona & Crolla; Fine Wine Portobello

Very stylish, elegant, textural and slightly herby Carricante with 10 months in old oak adding complexity.

ETNA BIANCO Sentieri Siciliani

£22.95 Cork & Cask, Edin

Apple and pear notes with a smoky mineral undertone from this blend of Carricante and Cataratto grapes.

ETNA BIANCO OUTIS 2020 Biondi

£21-£24 Theatre of Wine; Bat & Bottle

From one of longest-established Etna growers, this impressive blend of Carricante, Catarratto & Minella hails from the south side; floral, apricoty, racy with a saline edge.

REDS

ETNA ROSSO 2020 Nicosia ***GOOD VALUE***

£12 Marks & Spencer

Typical of 2020 vintage this has warm baked fruits, bright cherry fruit notes, soft rounded palate – suit those who like Pinot Noir.

ETNA ROSSO ‘CAURU’ 2021 Torre Mora

£15.99 Majestic Wine

Cauru means hot in Sicilian; this red blend from two vineyards on Etna’s north-east slopes has upfront juicy fruits, dry grippy tannins and slightly herby finish.

ETNA ROSSO 2021 Graci ***STAR BUY***

£21.95 Berry Bros

From Etna’s iron-rich north-east slopes; beautifully perfumed, fresh, poised cherry fruit flavours and soft texture, from one of the leading wineries.

ETNA ROSSO SUL VULCANO 2021 Donnafugata

£29 Fine Wine Portobello

From Etna’s northern slope, this spicy minty elegant red with its smooth tannins and long finish illustrates how fine, elegant and original Etna’s reds can be.

By Rose Murray Brown MW   Published in The Scotsman 20 January 2024

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