Years ago my family rented a villa in Sicily for a wonderful summer vacation. Borgo Degli Aranci was the name of this incredible estate where those fortunate enough to stay there are immersed in orange groves and olive trees. It felt like a natural paradise.
This experience was one of my first encounters with Mt. Etna, as the volcano towered over the villa as if it was watching our every move. I’ll never forget the view first thing in the morning when the clouds broke, it was spectacular. We spent some time hiking in the national park on the mountain and playing around in the old (or recent in some cases) lava flows that show off the power of this beauty. Walking in these old flows is what I’d equate to being on the moon, it just looks so foreign.
This incredible area is home to some of the hottest wines in the world as big names from throughout Italy and Europe have rushed to invest in vineyards and plant their flag on Mt. Etna in the last 15 years. This investment and new attention is due to the one of a kind terroir found on Mt. Etna. Eruptions and lava flows are constantly shaping this terroir (and sadly destroy vineyards in some cases) which helps make it so unique. Lava flows create different soil compositions, thus creating incredible diversity even among neighboring towns and/or vineyards. This has led many to push for a cru type system seen in Burgundy, where the parts of Etna are broken down by Contrada (Contrada in Italian means district or quarter; you see this a lot in Sicily).
Vineyards on Etna are built in typical Sicilian fashion on tiny stoned in terraces that find a way to scale up towards the peak of the mountain.
Grapes have to be harvested by hand as these terraces hang on the mountainside for dear life. Not that there would be much in the way of machinery on Mt. Etna. Even despite gold rush of sorts in these last fifteen years the little villages on the mountain have been famous for being trapped in time like a lot of the island seems.
My enthusiasm for Etna comes from the fact that international grapes varietals are almost non-existent on the volcano. Nerello Mascalese is the star red varietal, with Nerello Capuccio playing a more minor roll. Nerello Mascalese is often compared to Pinot Noir as it produces lighter colored reds. What stands out to me is the fact that these two varietals only have the potential to produce incredible wines on the slopes of Mt. Etna, elsewhere the wine wouldn’t be the same. That is what makes Italy’s wine map so unique!! Carricante is the main varietal for the Etna Bianco wines with Catarratto
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being a blending partner and more minor star.
The climate on Mt. Etna can be compared to Piedmont or Burgundy and Etna wines certainly have a Burgundian style. In some cases grapes are grown at almost 1,000 meters (about 3,500 feet) of elevation. Wines at such elevations will take on lovely complexities and maintain high levels of acidity due to day/night temperature variations that allow grapes to slowly reach their full maturity.
Like the views from Linguaglossa looking down on beautiful Taormina, the wines from Etna are simply beautiful. With complexities and nuances that differ from property to property this region is a testament to terroir. Assuming Mt. Etna continues to amaze with eruptions and ash sent into the sky we can rest assured that the this region will continue to benefit from the magic of Etna.
photo credits: Salvo Foti, Vinography