Etna terroir, the Burgundy of the Mediterranean – the Lava Lout Returns, Part 2 of 2
The Etna Terroir
Part 1 of this article described how a Sicilian volcano bestows natural gifts to create the Etna terroir. But Etna isn’t one terroir; there are many variations. Welcome to the Burgundy of the Mediterranean.
Etna’s volcanic soils are free draining, and low in humus. They are full of minerals, especially iron and potassium. New ash and lava fields decompose quickly into sciara. Its chemical makeup varies by location, changes annually and is prone to rainwater erosion. The mud created after rain clogs up tractor engines and may deter Phylloxera. Meanwhile, this rough terrain quickly breaks machinery.
Altitude is key
By usual standards, the vines grow at high altitude, from around 400 metres. In general, Nerello will ripen up to about 1,000 m and Carricante to about 1,250 m. So the grapes have long and slow ripening seasons. Planting high avoids the most brutal heat of summer. The newest vineyards are ascending higher still. Consequently, harvests are some of the latest in Europe, with early November not unusual. But this risks inclement weather.
High altitude also means diurnal variation. In summer, daytime heat gives way to cool nights under clear skies. The black soils help keep the vines warm at night with re-radiated heat. The ripening grapes thus retain fresh acidity and complexity. There is also evidence that the intense sunlight reflected from the Mediterranean also aids grape ripening.
At these southerly latitudes, rain (and snow) is mostly in winter, arriving on prevailing westerly winds. But Etna is so massive it makes the weather, which can change rapidly. Thunderheads bubble up in summer, and violent storms ensue, while heat differentials create cooling breezes. The inland western flanks around Bronte and Adriano are the wettest. Instead, red pistachios grow there in preference to grapes. The eastern side at Milo and Vilagrande is drier but has higher humidity as it’s nearer the sea. There the vineyards are being engulfed, not by lava but by suburbia.
The Golden Triangle
Arguably, the finest Etna terroir lies on the north side. It’s much drier and breezier there, reducing pests and fungal disease pressure. That makes organic cultivation easier too. In fact, the biggest pest is free-roaming sheep and goats. Unsurprisingly, there are many fences!
The best northern vineyards follow the SS120. It’s the old Roman road connecting the wine towns; Randazzo, Solicchiata, Passopisciaro and Linguaglossa. Sometimes known as the Golden Triangle, if there was ever a Classico DOCG zone in waiting I’d say this is it.
The Ferrovia Circumetnea – the effortless way to explore vineyards
The Ferrovia Circumetnea narrow-gauge railway, built in 1888-89, is a gem, literally encircling Mount Etna. Part of the line is now the Catania Metro. The Randazzo to Catania anticlockwise route takes about two hours. Travelling the other way is better by far, as it goes through the Golden Triangle. Take the train from Randazzo clockwise to the old seaport of Riposto. Engulfed by lava several times, (as recently as 1981), the repairs are easily seen, as naked cuttings through the lava.
The line snakes through the vineyards from Randazzo. It leisurely follows the contours until it descends towards the sea at Piedimonte Etneo. There are plenty of stops throughout, including the wine towns. The locals flag the train down and alight whenever it intersects a road, which is a frequent occurrence.
Steam locos ran until 1963. The FIAT diesel trains that operate now date from 1938. These have green, red or orange livery and red leather seats. Warning – there is no air-conditioning!
There are half a dozen trains per day, Monday-Saturday, with the one-way trip taking 75 minutes, costing about €10 return. There is no better way of seeing the Etna terroir. Vineyards, citrus groves, lava fields, towns and villas. All set against Etna, the Alcantara valley, and the Ionian sea as a stunning backdrop.
Etna wine producers – old
The improvement in the quality of Etna’s wines has occurred at all price levels. Refreshingly, the larger producers are as important as the coterie of boutique wineries that hog the limelight. The everyday wine drinker will find great value and much to enjoy.
The early pioneers of rejuvenation included Benanti. They had made wine years before they started commercial activities. They inspired Sicilians like Alberto Graci and Salvatore Foti. Foti became a consultant for the increasing number of Etna wine producers, including Mick Hucknall’s Il Cantante, celebrity wine fans. Then there are good producers such as Áitala, Gambino, Rocca d’Api and more.
Old traditional winegrowers have modernised and invested in quality. Examples include Barone di Villagrande (1727), Tenuta Scilio (1815), Scammacca del Murgo (1850), Antica Vinai (1877), and Nicosia (1898).
Etna wine producers – and new
High-profile wine companies from other parts of Sicily have invested in Etna. Where once there were a dogged handful of producers there are now perhaps 90 in total. Sicilians that have expanded to Etna include the likes of Planeta, Tasca d’Almerita, Gulfi, Firriato, and Corvo.
At the luxury end, winegrowers from other parts of Italy are exploiting Etna’s potential. Andrea Franchetti has established the Passopisciaro winery. Another is Marco de Grazia with Tenuta della Terre Nere. The Cambria family from Napoli run Cottanera. Now Angelo Gaja is moving in from Piemonte.
The Belgians have joined in too. Frank Cornelissen has Cornelissen, while Trente Hargrave and Filip Kesteloot own Terre di Trente.
Single vineyard wines from the local Contrade (or local districts) show a clear sense of place. They include Arcuria, Malpasso, Favazza, Guardiola and Feudo di Mezzo. One day these could become established Cru’s, in a similar way to those of Barolo or Barbaresco.
The future’s so bright …
Winemaker Marco de Grazia made a bold statement on the back labels of his Etna DOC bottles. In short, he said that Etna is “the Burgundy of the Mediterranean”.
Initially, I didn’t understand until I visited. After all, volcanoes don’t glower over Burgundy. Those soils are limestone, and the principal varieties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And Etna has no clearly defined hierarchy of villages and individual sites.
But his meaning is more subtle and is now clear to me. Nerello and Carricante can make wines of great beauty but they have the added gift of revealing the land beneath. Just like Pinot, Nebbiolo and Chardonnay.
The winning formula on Etna is to grow Nerello and Carricante; concentrate on Cru wines from contrade and focus on the vineyard. The Burgundy comparison makes sense. Could Randazzo, Linguaglossa and Passopisciaro one day equal Gevrey, Montrachet and Vosne? Perhaps it’s time for an Etna DOCG.
… I gotta wear shades
The Etna Renaissance still has a long journey ahead. There is a precedent not far away. A little further north towards Messina is the small sister-DOC of Faro. It was rescued from oblivion by Palari and is now one of Italy’s great reds. Nerello is the grape. One day Etna terroir will rival the great Italian regions of Piedmont, the Veneto, and Tuscany. And perhaps Burgundy too.
All this talk of Etna wines makes me hungry, so here’s an authentic and easy recipe for Spaghetti Alla Norma, the ideal match for Etna Rosso.
Note: I wrote this Etna article, published by Jancis Robinson, in 2008. But as Etna terroir continues to develop and excite, I’ve kept a watchful eye. Rewritten and updated, I’m still a Lava Lout! Anyway, who wants yesterday’s papers …