Nestled on the slopes of Europe’ highest active volcano, an exciting new wine region is waiting to be explored.
Always keen to expand my wine knowledge to regions still under the radar internationally, I’ve recently set my eyes (or should I say, my palate) on the exciting Mount Etna region in the eastern part of Sicily.
When you think about Sicily, Italy’s largest island, wine might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But the area around Mount Etna is not new to winemaking at all. During the 19th century, wine was one of the region’s main economies. At that time, the total vineyard area in the province of Catania reached almost the size of the total vineyard area across the whole island today.
Like so many other wine regions across Europe, Mount Etna wines did not survive the outbreak of phylloxera unscathed (though due to the sandy soils were much less affected compared to other European vineyard areas, thus still spotting a good number of old vines) while the final bow to the area happened when land reforms in the 1950s prompted local farmers to give up on vines and plant other crops instead.
Fast forward, and a new breed of winemakers is turning the area back into an intriguing place for winemaking and local wine experiences.
Background: Mount Etna Wine Region
The rebirth of Mount Etna wines was predominantly led by winemakers flocking to the island from other regions of Italy and beyond as they discovered the huge potential of the rich local volcanic soils. With a handful of already established wineries in the area also contributing to the area’s rising fame.
Mount Etna vineyards are stretching across the northern, eastern, and southern slopes of Mount Etna, and they also climb all the way to almost 1,000 metres high (around 3,300 feet), thus including some of the highest altitude vineyards in Italy and the world.
What makes wine production exciting in the area is the combination of rich and very diverse volcanic soils, proximity to the Ionian Sea, old vines, and high altitude. The result are exciting wines in a wide range of styles, from red to white and rosé.
Leading Mount Etna grape varieties
Red grapes dominate the slopes of Mount Etna, with around 65-70% of all vineyards planted with red varieties. However, white grapes are catching-up as they proof to do extremely well in the local climate.
Grape varieties are dominated by indigenous red and white grapes with some international varieties also grown in smaller quantities.
The leading grape variety on Mount Etna remains Nerello Mascalese, an ancient red grape which is considered close to Sangiovese, the leading Tuscan variety and could possibly be a cross of Sangiovese and another unknown variety.
Nerello Cappuccio the other indigenous red variety belonging to the Nerello family is grown in smaller quantities. In wine production, the grape is mainly used to add colour and alcohol to the wine.
Wines made from the Nerello Mascalese grapes typically fall somewhere between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, offering some of the typical characteristics of those wines: light in colour, fruit-forward red fruit notes and notable tannins.
White grapes planted on Mount Etna are dominated by two local varieties: Carricante and Catarratto. While the latter is the leading white variety in Sicily overall, it only plays a minor role in Mount Etna wines.
Different to red Etna wines which are typically blends, many of the white wines coming out of the region are made 100% from Carricante. The grape variety is indigenous to Sicily and typically yields light and acidic wines. Meanwhile, Etna whites from high-altitude vineyards made predominantly from Carricante are typically lean, crisp, and acidic. Those from lower-located vineyards instead are typically full-bodies, with a creamy texture and balanced acidity.
Mount Etna DOC
Sicily’s first official appellation was created in 1968, and today there are more than 200 wineries in the area.
To bear the Etna DOC label, appellation rules require red wines from Mount Etna to be made with a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese and a maximum of 20% of Nerello Cappuccio. It’s also allowed to add other grape varieties up to a maximum of 10%. Typically, those would be the two local dominating white grape varieties Carricante or Catarratto.
There is no minimum aging requirement for Mount Etna red wines although they will be typically aged between nine to twelve months in oak barrels prior to bottling.
White Etna DOC wines are required to be made with a minimum of 60% Carricante and 40% of other local white varieties.
However, not all Etna wines are made according to the Etna DOC rule. Mainly because rules are based on a mix of minimum-maximum quantities of grape varieties appearing a bit random and restricting the usage of vines grown above a certain altitude. Which would exclude to use the grapes from some of the area’s best high-altitude vineyards as well as being free to fine-tune flavours by varying the amount of different grape varieties from vintage to vintage to obtain the best quality.
Mount Etna Wines to try
Mount Etna wine come in a wide variety of styles, and some of the leading wines are produced outside the Etna DOC label, to allow greater flexibility in blending.
To find the best bottles, it’s therefore not necessarily the DOC classification you should consider but also the winery behind the bottles.
If you are new to Mount Etna Wines, below I have listed five wines currently between my favourites, all from leading local wineries.
Donnafugata, founded in 1963 by Giacomo Rallo, a fourth-generation winemaker, owns vineyards spread across all over Sicily and nearby Pantelleria island. Today led by Giacomo’s sons José and Antonio, the winery produces a large range of excellent wines of which several hail from the vineyards on Mount Etna.
Donnafugata Sul Vulcano Etna Rosso DOC is made from 100% Nerello Mascalese. The bright ruby red wine offers aromas of wild strawberries with hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, and wood. Fresh, strong tannins and good acidity. This is a wine with subtle elegance and lively finish. Pair with pasta, lamb or beef.
Donnafugata Sul Vulcano Etna Rosato DOC is made with 100% Nerello Mascalese Rosato from vineyards on the northern slopes of Mount Etna. It’s a delicate light salmon pink, offering aromas of red berries, with hints of white flowers and Mediterranean herbs. Dry, medium bodies with medium acidity, a nice freshness, and a medium-length finish. Pair with raw shellfish, white meats, vegetarian dishes, and light cheeses.
Accredited with being the first zero impact winery in Italy, Firriato Winery is with much reason regarded as one of the most renowned wineries in Sicily. Founded in 1985 by Salvatore di Gaetano and Vinzia Novara, Firriato today owns more than 300 hectares of vineyards.
Firriato Cavanera Etna Bianco is made from a blend of Carricante and Catarratto with delightful aromas of apple, white fruit, and yellow field flowers. Delicate balance between fruit and acidity. Pair with poultry, gnocchi, pasta and goat cheese.
Firriato Cavanera Etna Rosso is a blend of 60% Nerello Mascalese and 40% Nerello Cappuccio made with grapes growing on a high-altitude vineyard. The wine offers aromas of red fruits along with notes of ripe peaches, rose petal, nutmeg, and black pepper. Long-lasting, complex, and nuanced, it has a unique metallic minerality. Pair with a mushroom risotto, spicy lamb or venison.
Firriato Le Sabbie dell’Etna Bianco, literally translating into ‘sand from Etna’ is made from a blend of Carricante and Cataratto grown at around 700 metres altitude on sandy Etna soils. It offers complex aromas of pronounced floral notes of yellow mimosa and broom, with underlying fruity nuances of ripe pear and white peach. Full aroma with a long fresh and spicy finish. Pair with fish and seafood as well as white meat.
Founded in 2007, Tenuta Tascante belongs to well-known Sicilian family Tasca d’Almerita. With a winemaking history of over 200 years, the move to make wines from Mount Etna vineyards with the opening of Tenuta Tascante was certainly one not surprising. With vineyards located between 600 to almost 800 metres high, with some of the vines dating back to the early 1960s, Tenuta Tascante has quickly become one of the leading Etna wineries over the short time of its existence.
Tascante Ghiaia Nera Etna Rosso is made with 100% Nerello Mascalese. Fruity, with aromas of red fruits like raspberry and strawberry followed by notes of spice and leather. Light bodied with pronounced acidity. Dry, medium-length finish. Pair with pasta, beef, or lamb.
Are you familiar with Mount Etna wines? What is your favourite?