Producers on Mount Etna climb to greater heights with vigor and determination
Europe’s highest active volcano isn’t the only thing heating up Sicily’s Mount Etna. Thanks to the recent revitalization of ancient, abandoned vineyards on the mountain’s slopes, renewed engagement from local vintners and outside investment from some of Italy’s most prominent companies, the reputation of Etna’s wines is skyrocketing.
Among the newcomers to the mountain are Oscar Farinetti, owner of Eataly and a number of Italian wineries, and Piedmont’s Angelo Gaja. Earlier this year Farinetti purchased the 50-acre Tenuta Carranco estate in Solicchiata, simultaneously establishing a partnership with Etna local Francesco Tornatore, a businessman who produced his first commercial vintage in 2012 from historic family vineyards. In 2017, the Gaja family too joined forces with an Etna native, Alberto Aiello Graci, co-purchasing 27 acres of vines in Biancavilla on the southwestern side of the mountain.
“It was like they say in The Godfather,” says Aiello Graci. “He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.” The 50-50 partnership represents not only the opportunity to work with Gaja, but also to explore the potential of Etna’s southern terroirs in addition to Aiello Graci’s existing vineyards on the north side of the mountain.
Though Farinetti and Gaja finally gained a toehold on Etna after visiting for several years, both came late to the party; much of Etna’s outside investment took place about a decade earlier, primarily on the northern side of the mountain. Aiello Graci, 43, is already an old hand after returning to Etna to start production at his eponymous estate in 2004. In 2000, there were fewer than 15 producers bottling for commercial sale on Etna. Today, there are more than 100.
Yet the success of the new face of Etna is in no way guaranteed. In most Italian regions, when natives abandoned the countryside during the post–World War II era to seek work in urban areas, long-rooted vineyards survived, even though many were exploited for quantity-driven wine production through the 1970s and ’80s. As the push for quality in Italian wine increased in the 1990s, a foundation of old vines and winemaking understanding remained.
This was not the case on Etna. After the war, much of Etna’s vineyard acreage was abandoned and expertise in agronomy and enology specific to the region and its grape varieties dissipated.
“Nerello Mascalese and Carricante are new in premium winemaking,” says Patricia Toth, head of winemaking at Planeta’s Etna estate, referring to the region’s primary grape varieties. Planeta is a historic qualitative leader from Sicily, with six estates across the island; it purchased its first vineyards on Etna in 2008. “Previously they were produced at higher yields,” Toth explains. “It’s almost a research phase in Etna.”
The process of reconditioning old vines, waiting for young vines to mature and rethinking vineyard management and winemaking practices takes time. “We are a young producer,” says Aiello Graci. “And we have a lot of things we have to learn. But I think we are on the first step.”
In the past year I have tasted more than 140 wines from Etna, nearly two-thirds of them red, along with whites and a burgeoning selection of rosés, called rosatos. All categories include outstanding results of 90 to 94 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, along with two 95-point reds produced by Tenuta delle Terre Nere: the seamless Etna Prephylloxera La Vigna di Don Peppino 2016 ($105) and the gutsy Etna San Lorenzo 2016 ($60).
This tasting report encompasses 30 producers, a fraction of Etna’s total number of commercial wineries. But with overall annual production from Etna at only about 250,000 cases as of 2016, and many producers offering multiple cuvées, this represents a good snapshot of the scope of the region’s offerings in the U.S. market. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)
Etna’s reds are dominated by Nerello Mascalese, with a support role played by Nerello Cappuccio. Both grape varieties are indigenous to Italy, and their vineyard acreage is largely limited to Sicily and the slopes of Etna. The volcano peaks at about 11,000 feet; compared with the surrounding coastal plains, Etna’s vine-growing area offers a generally cooler climate, with significantly more rainfall, and a notable temperature swing between day and night promotes aromatic character and physiological maturity in the grapes.
Many vintners consider elevations from about 1,900 to 3,300 feet to be the ideal zone for Nerello Mascalese. On Etna’s north face, many top sites and the heart of the Etna DOC are bounded above and below by two primary roads running at almost exactly elevations 1,900 and 3,300, bordered to the east and west by the towns of Linguaglossa and Randazzo. Vineyard acreage within the Etna DOC’s geographical limits has grown from 1,620 acres in 2015 to an estimated 2,340 acres planted by spring of this year; wines produced from sites outside of the Etna DOC production zone (but still from mountainside vineyards) are labeled as Sicilia DOC or Terre Siciliane IGT.
In this sweet spot for Nerello Mascalese, the clay- and sand-based vineyards found at lower altitudes (around 1,300 feet and higher) give way to volcanic conditions. Depending on the altitude and the age of the eruption on which the soil is based, the earth ranges from sandlike, compacted ash to pumice to gravelly pebbles to large chunks of deconstructed lava known as lapilli or ripiddu. These deep, porous environments encourage roots to dig far below the surface, seeking pockets of water, air and minerals.
“What I’ve seen on Etna—what really makes the difference—is the age of the eruption where the vineyards are located,” says Alessio Planeta of Planeta winery. “It’s not just contrada to contrada,” he adds, referring to historic crus, known locally as contrade (the plural of contrada), that delineate the Etna DOC.
Nerello Mascalese is a late-ripening variety marked by serious tannins in the skins and pips. Though Guyot and other vineyard training systems are increasingly utilized in the region, many of the previously abandoned vineyards have been restored to the traditional method: labor-intensive terraces planted with the individual bush vines known in southern Italy as alberello. This system provides 360 degrees of sunlight, helping to ripen the grapes and the tannins in the skins and pips, ultimately providing quality material for winemakers.
“The complexity of the phenolic ripeness is really the important balance that you can find here [on Etna for Nerello Mascalese],” says Tasca d’Almerita’s Alberto Tasca d’Almerita, comparing his experiences with Nerello Mascalese grown on Etna to his previous experiences growing the grape for rosé production at his family’s Regaleali estate in central Sicily. Brothers Alberto and Giuseppe’s interest in establishing an outpost on Etna began in 2004, when they purchased grapes from Etna and performed experimental micro-vinifications at Regaleali.
In 2009, intrigued and impressed by the results, they purchased and planted a 9.4-acre vineyard in the Piano Dario contrada, quickly learning how variegated soils, terracing and the finicky nature of Nerello Mascalese makes for distinctive challenges. The vineyard, planted entirely to Nerello Mascalese using cane-spurred training as opposed to alberello, is made up of 99 terraces climbing a 250-foot slope.
“Even on each terrace, each with only three vine rows, there can be different quality and character to the grapes,” says Alberto Tasca d’Almerita. “We need three to four passes through the vineyard in order to harvest everything at optimal ripeness.”
The best Etna red wines offer fine, Burgundian tannins and site-specific minerality paired with the wild herb aromatics characteristic of many Italian reds. Planeta’s Etna 2016 (90 points, $26) and Tasca d’Almerita’s Nerello Mascalese Sicilia Il Tascante 2014 (90, $55) are elegant examples in this style, while Girolamo Russo’s Etna ‘a Rina 2016 (92, $40) is similarly aromatic but more robust in structure.
For an interesting comparison of two reds from the same Guardiola contrada, seek out Tenuta delle Terre Nere’s ripe and minerally Etna Guardiola 2016 (93, $45) and Passopisciaro’s fresh and perfumed Terre Siciliane Contrada G 2015 (93, $80).
Wines from Etna are generally affordable, especially considering their overall level of quality, with the vast majority of bottlings available for $100 or less on release. But it’s also possible to find particularly good value from several producers. Cottanera, for example, produces a loamy, spicy red at less than $20, the Etna Barbazzale 2016 (88, $18), while for just a few dollars more you can find outstanding versions in 2016 from Pietradolce (90, $21) and Benanti (90, $22).
Senior editor Alison Napjus is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of Sicily.
For the complete Sicily tasting report, including scores and prices, read the full article, “Sicilian Success,” in our online magazine archives.