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Etna smouldering

Etna, or why I’m a Lava Lout – Part 1 of 2

It’s how the Earth was made. At 3,343 metres (10,968 feet), Mount Etna (Mongibello) spits, snarls and smokes. All around is ash, black as death. Above us, the summit has four active craters, caked with yellow sulphur. Etna erupts almost continuously. As we climb to 3,050 metres, it’s considered too dangerous to ascend further.

Downwind, the air is filled with the stench of sulphur. It’s noisy too; hissing, explosions, rumbles, the fall of pumice and the pattering of ash.

But oh, the views! The Ionian Sea and beautiful Taormina sparkle a few kilometres to the east, while 1,500 metres below is base camp, Piano Provenzana. It contains the wreckage of old ski-tows and buildings engulfed by lava and ash. Far below in a blue haze lay the vineyards, garlanding the lower slopes.

Under the Volcano

A little vulcanology is in order. Etna is a Stratovolcano. It means that its pyromania takes the form of explosions, unstoppable lava effusions and deadly pyroclastic flows. Now half a million years old, Etna has grown up to become Italy’s largest mountain south of the Alps.

Etna shapeshifts constantly. There are over 300 easily visible rips, craters and vents. The eastern flank contains the immense chasm of the Valle de Bove, a collapsed caldera. Earthquakes and tremors are frequent and her height changes with each new eruption.

Etna moonscape

Etna’s moonscape: ash and pumice

Eruptions aren’t just at the top either. New vents open up frequently on the lower flanks, and it is these that pose the most danger. Already in this short century, they have threatened entire communities. Throughout history, Etna has overwhelmed towns and villages. Indeed, the UN classes Etna as one of the 16 volcanoes posing the most risk to life and property. Here’s a spectacular YouTube video of some recent minor events.

Etna, bringer of life

Nevertheless, as well as a destroyer, Etna gives life. Incredibly fertile soils form quickly from the lava and ash. Plants colonise quickly. Only the very top of Etna is a desert. Below 2,000 metres, there are thick stands of chestnut, larch, beech and oak. This vast area has been a National Park since 1987. Hence there is no logging or hunting.

Meanwhile, the oldest tree in Europe, a sweet chestnut nearly 4,000 years old, still thrives at Sant’ Alfio. Called Il Castagno dei Cento Cavalli, or the Hundred-Horse Chestnut, it’s seen enormous destruction. It has endured, a symbol of resistance.

The soil and climate bless Etna with produce. Almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and sweet chestnut are abundant. Around Bronte are red pistachios. Figs, apple and pear orchards, groves of citrus, olive and the ubiquitous prickly pear abound. The juiciest peaches are from Mojo Alcantara, while honey is a speciality of Zefferana. Tap water, naturally filtered by the lava, is delicious; it comes laden with volcanicity. And then there are the vines.

Etna’s wine history

The Ancient Greeks made wine on Etna, though wine-making dates back much further. The Romans extended the vineyards; then this was continued by a variety of subsequent invaders. So it goes.

Etna was the largest area under vine in Sicily by 1890, capitalising on Mediterranean export markets when Phylloxera devastated France. But then it was Etna’s turn to suffer. The inexorable spread of Phylloxera reached Etna ten years later. In the ensuing crisis, vineyards became abandoned, and exports collapsed, though a few vines remained unscathed. More catastrophes followed, such as Etna’s eruptions of 1928, 1949 and 1971, two World Wars and mass emigration.

The abandoned burnt-blackened terraces and lava engulfed buildings are easily visible today. These alternate with the glinting wires that denote newer vineyards. Ruinous farm buildings and the occasional handsome Villa dot the landscape. Heroically built stone walls mark the field boundaries. In between, heaps of volcanic stones called turritti allow the passage of a plough.

Today prosperity has returned, driven by tourism. Summer beaches and winter skiing have been the principal attractions. The local towns are benefiting, their streets paved by smooth lava and flanked by baroque architecture. Ornately filigreed balconies overlook bustling piazzas piled high with produce. But medieval buildings are rare, a more subtle reminder of Etna’s destructive power. Meanwhile, there is another good reason to visit; the ongoing Etna wine revolution.

Etna winegrowing

In the oldest vineyards are field blends, where different varieties coexist together, an ancient practice. Plots that predate the arrival of Phylloxera survive, with remnants of 150-year-old gnarled vines. The evil insect can’t reproduce as well in these black ash soils.

Etna wines - vines and terraces

Etna wines – vineyards and terraces

Modern vineyards wire train the vines in rows and are big enough to accommodate small tractors. However, albarello bush vines produce the best quality grapes, though this is labour intensive and costly.

Etna DOC

It was Etna that received Sicily’s first DOC in 1968. It restored some credibility to the region. But, as was often the case, the criteria used enshrined traditional practice and administrative convenience rather than encouraging excellence. Perhaps updating the rules is overdue. At least the grapes allowed by the DOC are all indigenous to Etna.

Etna DOC – grape varieties allowed
White: Etna Bianco
Carricante (min. 60%). Catarratto (sub-varieties Comune or the better quality Lucido), max. 40%. Trebbiano and the rare Minnella Bianca are also allowed up to 15%
White: Etna Bianco Superiore
Carricante (min. 80%) and Catarratto (max. 20%)
Red and Rosé: Etna Rosso and Rosato
Nerello Mascalese (min. 80%). Nerello Cappuccio, aka Nerello Mantellato, (max. 20%). Other local varieties (including whites) allowed up to 10%

At between 450 and 1,250 metres altitude; the Etna DOC follows a broad crescent around the contours of Etna. It runs from inland Randazzo in the north-west, through Milo in the east around to Biancavilla in the south-west. 85% of production is Rosso or Rosato, with 15% Bianco. Total DOC production of around 8,300 hectolitres annually is still massive. While the area under vine remains considerable, the maximum allowable DOC yields are high at 90 hl/ha. The best growers aim for less than half that.

Fortunately, the main local varieties, Nerello Mascalese and Carricante (aka, Cabanese Bianco) are Etna’s glory. They can make great, age-worthy wines.

Allowing inferior grape varieties traduce DOC quality. For example, the DOC Rosso still allows blending with white Trebbiano. In contrast, the DOC Bianco Superiore has a higher minimum Carricante content.


Furthermore, the DOC doesn’t include all the best vineyards. In fact, the DOC boundaries look drawn at random, following roads and even bisecting single vineyards. As a result, those wines are the theoretically lesser IGT.

Consequently, the proliferation of IGT can be with good reason. The grapes may be from outside the DOC zone as mentioned above. Alternatively, production methods may not fit the DOC rules. For example, maturing wines in new French oak barriques became a standard indicator of ambitious winemaking, though this has been dialled back as it doesn’t always suit Nerello. Nerello Mascalese can make a white wine too. Both Nerello and Carricante also make great Metodo Classico Fizz!

However, the biggest reason for IGT is the use of non-DOC grape varieties. Where it is warmer, e.g. at Linguaglossa, Alicante (Grenache) grows. It is indigenous here, though no-one knows when it first reached Sicily or who brought it. Some say it came with Admiral Nelson, who had a villa at Bronte. There are other natives too. Red Nero d’Avola and Cesanese; white Zibibbo (Muscat Alexandria), Inzolia, Grecanico and Malvasia.

International or Indigenous?

Inevitably, international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are present. You’ll also find Petit Verdot, Mondeuse and even Riesling. These, of course, are capable of making good wines. But they could come from anywhere.

Consequently, here’s the Etna challenge. Can it avoid the black hole of internationalism and its dead-end future? Given Nerello, Carricante, the uniqueness of the Etna terroir and the influx of dedicated new winemakers, I believe so. As is so often the case, the key is terroir. Winegrowers need to express this sense of place.

As is so often the case, the key is terroir. Winegrowers need to express this sense of place. That’s the subject of Part 2; It’s the Burgundy of the Mediterranean.

Map/Location Tip: try viewing the map in Satellite View and zooming in: the lava fields are spectacular.

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