Winemaking on Mt. Etna

Terroir

Thousands of mouths across a fifty-kilometer diameter on Mount Etna have spit lava from every different depth under the earth, covering the surface of the volcano where vines take root. Flowing lava — descending sometimes dense and slow, at times fast as water — eventually stops, spreading and hardening at various altitudes. After cooling for many years, these flatter areas over the centuries became established properties, each one producing a different taste of wine because of the different mineral origin of their soils and, more importantly, because of the grain that the lava had broken into during its cooling process: sand, gravel, powder, or rock. Under their same old names the properties became territorial subdivisions called contrade, and, with regards to the wine, they represent Etna’s own version of a cru. Cru, a word that suggests areas that bring a typical, recognizable flavor to its produce, finds an almost exaggerated example in Etna’s contrade. 

The arrival of new producers on Etna coincided with my own in 2000, and the focus has gradually turned more to individuating each contrada. Everyone’s winemaking since then has been showing the superiority of taste of the same handful of contrade that were considered the best before World War II, when winemaking was very active. The names of these areas are appearing increasingly on the labels in this renaissance of Etna wine.

Temperature

Etna is a volcano that rises 3,300 meters above the sea, covered in snow during the winter. During the summer, in the upper thousand meters, the cold temperatures remain, setting down everyday to triumph over the Sicilian heat. Temperature during the day on the northern side, where most of the vineyards are, is over 15°C lower than on the coast, and that cool weather prepares for elegant, full wines. The temperature at night is truly cold during the grape’s most important months, September and October, when it delays the grape’s ripening and adds resilience and sturdiness to the wines.

Light

Instead of originating from the sun above, light on Etna is diffused like tulle netting across the mountain so that it seems to emanate from the objects on the ground. It bounces between the sky and the two surrounding seas over the muffled horizons, and light rays dissolve into the specter of the black volcano. Indirect light is common to many of the great wine regions of the world, like the light reflecting from the sea and rivers of Bordeaux and that coming off the silver surface of the Rhine to the vines planted on the stiff cliffs above. Light surrounds every side of the leaves, stimulating vigorous photosynthesis in the vines, beaming in the colors of clothes, inspiring the viticulturalists.

The Wine

The red wine of Etna is of nerello mascalese, an ancient grape, rare except on this volcano, where it is still splendidly cultivated like a mountain grape in old and ancient bush vines. It has little color, large bunches with strong, thin skins, and it ripens late – for the vines planted at 800 meters and above, as late as November. The clear, pink color of the wine is from the variety, not from dilution; the berry is large, and instead of using the bitter skins, the wine is made from the juice, which is best when plants are not too stressed.

During fermentation, the nerello has notes of marzipan and a boorish, carnal quality, which are so pagan that the embarrassed winemakers let it fade; often, there’s a hint of nail polish when the yeasts are disturbed, but in every other sense, the fermentations on Etna happen easily because of the lack of pesticides, up to now, on the mountain. Notes of citrus and camphor come into the wine from the lava flows, and an aromatic acidity gives the impression of a sort of reddened white. When well made, nerello mascalese improves over eight years, then begins to age slowly, gaining hints of a sweet smokiness.

— Andrea Franchetti, excerpt contributed to Armando Rotoletti’s Etna: Wine and People (2015)