Etna, or Why I’m a Lava Lout – Part 1 of 2
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, and as we climb to 3,050 metres, it’s too dangerous to ascend further.
Downwind, the air fills 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 the base camp, Piano Provenzana. It contains the wreckage of old ski tows and buildings engulfed by lava and ash. In a blue haze, the vineyards lay below, garlanding the lower slopes.
Under the Volcano
A little vulcanology is in order. Etna is a Stratovolcano. Hence Etna’s pyromania creates explosions, unstoppable lava, ash clouds and 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 del Bove, a collapsed caldera. Earthquakes and tremors are frequent, and her height changes with each new eruption.
Eruptions aren’t just at the top, either. New vents open up frequently on the lower flanks, which 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.
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 are thick chestnut, larch, beech and oak stands. This vast area has been a National Park since 1987. Hence there is no logging or hunting.
Meanwhile, the oldest European tree, 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. Yet, it has endured, a symbol of resistance.
The soil and climate bless Etna with produce. Almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and sweet chestnuts are abundant. Around Bronte are red pistachios. Figs, apple and pear orchards, citrus groves, 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 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, which were continued afterwards by various subsequent invaders. So it goes.
Etna was Sicily’s most significant area under vine by 1890, capitalising on Mediterranean export markets when Phylloxera devastated France. But then it was Etna’s turn to suffer. The relentless 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, with two World Wars and mass emigration.
The abandoned burnt-blackened terraces and lava-engulfed buildings are readily visible today while glinting wires denote newer vineyards. Ruinous farm buildings and the occasional handsome Villa dot the landscape. Heroically built lava-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 subtle reminder of Etna’s destructive power. Meanwhile, there is another good reason to visit; the ongoing Etna wine revolution.
Field blends are in the oldest vineyards, where different varieties coexist, 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.
Modern vineyards wire train the vines in rows and are big enough to accommodate small tractors. However, although this is labour-intensive and costly, traditional albarello bush vines produce the best quality grapes – the bushes get more exposure to the sun and, being trained low, also benefit from the warmth of the soil at night.
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 enshrined traditional practice and administrative convenience rather than encouraging excellence. The grapes allowed by the DOC must either be indigenous to Etna or at least Sicilian.
Etna DOC – grape varieties
White: Etna Bianco
Carricante (min. 60%). Catarratto (sub-varieties Comune or the better quality Lucido), max. 40%. Trebbiano, Minnella Bianca and other Sicilian white varieties are also allowed up to 15%
White: Etna Bianco Superiore
Carricante (min. 80%) and Catarratto (max. 20%)
Red and Rosé: Etna Rosso, Rosso Riserva and Rosato
Nerello Mascalese (min. 80%). Nerello Cappuccio, aka Nerello Mantellato, (max. 20%). Other local varieties (inc. whites) allowed up to 10%
Spumante: Nerello Mascalese (min 60%). White and Rosé styles, all Metodo Classico. NV requires a minimum of 18 months of maturation, and Riserva a minimum of 48 months.
At between 450 and 1000 metres altitude, the Etna DOC follows a broad crescent around the contours of Etna. It runs from inland Randazzo in the northwest through Milo in the east, then around to Biancavilla in the southwest. The western side of Etna is considered too wet and is instead an area of Pistachios. As of 2018, 67% of DOC production is Rosso or Rosato, with 30% Bianco and 3% Spumante. By 2022 the Etna DOC area under the vine had expanded to some 1,118 ha*.
Etna’s glory is the leading local varieties, Nerello Mascalese in red and Carricante in white (aka Cabanese Bianco). They can make great, age-worthy wines.
Allowing inferior grape varieties can potentially traduce DOC quality. For example, the DOC Rosso still allows blending with white Trebbiano, though this is now uncommon. In contrast, the DOC Bianco Superiore has a higher minimum of Carricante.
The Etna DOC only includes some of the best vineyards, though there are now 133 Contrade (roughly, “Cru”), and mapping activity continues. (2022- now 142). Sometimes, the DOC boundaries look drawn randomly, following roads and bisecting single vineyards. As a result, some great wines use the broader IGP Terre Siciliane or Sicilia DOC designations.
This is with good reason. For example, the grapes may be from outside the DOC zone, as mentioned above. Alternatively, varieties or production methods may not fit the DOC rules.
For example, where it is warmer, e.g. at Linguaglossa, Alicante (Grenache) grows. It is local here, though it has yet to be discovered when it first reached Sicily or who brought it. One theory is that it came by ship with Admiral Nelson, who had a villa at Bronte. There are other Sicilian natives on Etna, red Nero d’Avola, and whites such as Zibibbo (Muscat Alexandria), Inzolia, Grecanico, Malvasia, plus the local Minnella and ubiquitous Trebbiano.
Indigenous or International?
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 excellent wines.
Etna’s challenge now must be to avoid the black hole of internationalism and its dead-end future. Given Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, the Etna terroir’s uniqueness, all the different Contrade and the influx of dedicated winemakers, international dominance can be avoided, with those grape varieties instead adding some welcome light and shade.
As is often the case, the key is terroir, by which winegrowers can express this sense of place, so that’s the subject of Part 2; Why Etna is the Burgundy of the Mediterranean.
Map/Location Tip: try the Satellite View and zoom in. The lava fields are spectacular.
*Updated for 2022 data obtained from the Consorzio Tutela Vini Etna DOC