Why Sicily's Mount Etna Is A Hot Spot For Wine Production

Firriato

Between 1786 and 1788 German philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe travelled throughout Italy. He then wrote his book titled, in Italian, Viaggio in Italia—or, Italian Journey. After passing through Verona, Venice, Rome and Naples he explored the island of Sicily, and wrote that in order to understand the entire country of Italy, ‘Sicily is the clue to everything.’

Italy is divided into 20 administrative regions—the southernmost being the island of Sicily. The region contains both eight percent of Italy’s land area as well as eight percent of the nation’s total population. The east of the island is distinguished by the largest active volcano in Italy—Mount Etna.

When he viewed Mount Etna in early May, Goethe remarked how ‘snow extends widely around the mountain and presents insurmountable obstacles,’ and noted how locals recommended that he ride by horseback to see remnants of the famed volcanic eruption of 1669, when magma flowed all the way to the city of Catania—10 miles (16 kilometers) away. Since that time when Goethe witnessed those gnarled volcanic slopes and published his book, the topography of Etna has continued to change. Another eruption in 1852 produced more than 2 billion cubic feet (56 million cubic meters) or debris that covered three square miles (7.7 square kilometers) of land, while in 1979 an eruption began that lasted 13 years.

(Publication of Goethe’s book—incidentally—apparently influenced a number of German winemakers to move to the eastern part of Sicily, where they practiced viticulture on the slopes of Etna.)

RP Photos

This volcanic capriciousness of Mount Etna means that its shape, height and geology have shifted multiple times due to countless eruptions in the past millennia. One result is the consequent richness and diversity of soil types along its slopes.

The wine designation for Mount Etna, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), was established in August, 1968. On a map the shape of this delineated region resembles a backward ‘C’ that curls around the northern, eastern and southern portions of this volcanic cone. When this map is overlain with one showing soil types it transforms to a conglomerate of rainbow colors—green, orange, amber, blue, violet—each indicating different varieties of particle types.

In addition to having rich soils, the height of Mount Etna—10,912 feet (3,326 meters) above sea level—combined with its proximity to the Ionian Sea affords this terrain with a massive range of microclimates.

This combination—diverse soils and abundant atmospheric conditions—makes the slopes of Mount Etna a playground for wine growers. Yet their work is not easy: summers can be scorching hot, while winters pummel the landscape with snow and rain. The topography prevents mechanized harvests, and hand harvests can be challenging on sloped terrain.

Although the DOC was established in the 1960’s, only in recent decades was there an explosion to the influx of international (and mainland Italian) vintners to the region. The complex geology and profusion of microclimates on the flanks of this peak has attracted winemakers from all over the world.

Firriato

‘Etna wine is a new phenomenon. It’s like the Bolgheri region in Tuscany,’ explained Chiara Gullo, who works with marketing Sicilian wines. ‘But,’ she added, thoughtfully, ‘people have been making wine on Mount Etna for centuries.'

How attractive is this terrain?

The Etna DOC is approximately 2,350 acres (950 hectares) in size and home to 289 wine producers. The land has turned pricey—approximately $70,000 per acre (€150,000/hectare) in some regions. Historically, wines produced around Mount Etna were typically shipped to other countries as blending components for wines; today, Etna wines have their own pedigree. Less than 10% of production from this DOC is now used as bulk wine.

Red grapes in the Etna DOC include Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, while whites include Carricante, Catarratto and Minella Bianca. Nerello grapes are genetically related to Sangiovese and produce wines generally well structured and tannic. Carricante is indigenous to Sicily and makes light and acidic wines, while Catarratto produces fuller bodied white wines that can include herbaceous and tropical aromas.

In addition to its range of soil types and microclimates, there is another notable historical and biological quirk associated with Mount Etna viticulture. Local thin volcanic soils, almost sandy in composition, did not allow the phylloxera root louse to develop here, hence many vines along these slopes were spared decimation when this louse wiped out the majority of Europe’s vines in the latter 19th century. Some pre-phylloxera vines that are now 150 years old—as identified via dendrochronological analysis—have been used to produce new vines that are not grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstock, as the majority of vines in Europe still are.

Additionally, notable diurnal variations in temperature along the slopes of Mount Etna provide the DOC with the capacity to produce vibrantly acidic sparkling wines.

Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato is the COO (and contributing winemaker) of Firriato wines, which has a winery based near Mount Etna. He spoke about the region.

Sicily is like a continent. In the entire world there are 12 orders of soils. Sicily includes seven of them. In our opinion Etna is not just a single terroir. The rocks are rich and this is truly mountain viticulture. The very deep soils mean very big median ages for vines. Vines for sparkling wines can be 50 to 60 years old.

RP photos

Di Monte Iato earned his MBA before working as chief information security officer for the Italian railways. He then met his wife—the daughter of the owner of Firriato wines—at a wine tasting at Château Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux. He is a spry and energetic individual who not only works with vines and all aspects of production, but constantly travels the world to relentlessly promote the terroir of Etna.

Today Firriato owns six estates throughout Sicily (including an estate with hospitality facilities at Etna) and exports the majority of its production to four dozen nations.

The range of wineries within Etna is diverse (I reviewed wines from another regional producer in a recent previous article). Representative wines made from Firriato’s Etna slopes that would score mid 90's on a 100 point scale are highlighted below.

Firriato

Firriato. Le Sabbie dell’Etna Rosso. 2017. 

This DOC Etna red wine is made from ancient bush vines of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes growing on the northeast side of Mount Etna, and is aged in casks for one year. The nose includes strong aromas of plums, as well as green pepper and Oreo cookies. In the mouth—black cherries, Malteser chocolates and prunes. A fresh and lucrative mouth that coats the cheeks with a citric film. This is apparently their best-selling wine in the U.S.

Firriato. Cavanera Ripa di Scoriavacca (white). 2018.

€26.50/$30.00 [Excellent Value ♫♫]

This Etna DOC single vineyard white wine originates from 45 to 60-year-old vines of Carricante grapes blended with Catarratto grapes grown at an elevation about 2,460 feet (750 meters) on the northeastern slopes of Mount Etna. It includes aromas of candy, balsamic and flint. In the mouth it is unctuous with—as COO Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato said—‘markers of a volcano: sulfur and smoke.’ This is a balanced and coherent slipstream of restrained tropical fruit.

Firriato. Guadensius Blanc de Noir Etna DOC.

€25.00/$28.25 [Excellent Value ♫♫]

Made from old vine Nerello Mascalese red grapes grown on the northeastern slopes of Mount Etna and bottled for 30 months, this reflects how ideal the terroir along Mount Etna can be for producing sparkling wines—due to marked diurnal variations in temperatures. The nose is lively, edgy, creamy with a hint of strawberry aromas and is also as bracing as a sparkling wine from the Trentino highlands in northern Italy. This acidity is due to the high malic acidity level in the grapes.

Firriato. Signum Aetnae Riserva (red). 2014.

Made from 150-year-old pre-phylloxera grapevines on the estate, as determined by dendrochronological analysis performed at the University of Palermo, this is aged for two years in 700-liter tanks, then for another 18 months in the bottle. Only 3,500 bottles produced. This ruby colored red includes a deep, dark nose of black cherries. The taste is mature and includes a length that asks you to drink more—opening your salivary glands for a main course.

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Firriato

Between 1786 and 1788 German philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe travelled throughout Italy. He then wrote his book titled, in Italian, Viaggio in Italia—or, Italian Journey. After passing through Verona, Venice, Rome and Naples he explored the island of Sicily, and wrote that in order to understand the entire country of Italy, ‘Sicily is the clue to everything.’

Italy is divided into 20 administrative regions—the southernmost being the island of Sicily. The region contains both eight percent of Italy’s land area as well as eight percent of the nation’s total population. The east of the island is distinguished by the largest active volcano in Italy—Mount Etna.

When he viewed Mount Etna in early May, Goethe remarked how ‘snow extends widely around the mountain and presents insurmountable obstacles,’ and noted how locals recommended that he ride by horseback to see remnants of the famed volcanic eruption of 1669, when magma flowed all the way to the city of Catania—10 miles (16 kilometers) away. Since that time when Goethe witnessed those gnarled volcanic slopes and published his book, the topography of Etna has continued to change. Another eruption in 1852 produced more than 2 billion cubic feet (56 million cubic meters) or debris that covered three square miles (7.7 square kilometers) of land, while in 1979 an eruption began that lasted 13 years.

(Publication of Goethe’s book—incidentally—apparently influenced a number of German winemakers to move to the eastern part of Sicily, where they practiced viticulture on the slopes of Etna.)

RP Photos

This volcanic capriciousness of Mount Etna means that its shape, height and geology have shifted multiple times due to countless eruptions in the past millennia. One result is the consequent richness and diversity of soil types along its slopes.

The wine designation for Mount Etna, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), was established in August, 1968. On a map the shape of this delineated region resembles a backward ‘C’ that curls around the northern, eastern and southern portions of this volcanic cone. When this map is overlain with one showing soil types it transforms to a conglomerate of rainbow colors—green, orange, amber, blue, violet—each indicating different varieties of particle types.

In addition to having rich soils, the height of Mount Etna—10,912 feet (3,326 meters) above sea level—combined with its proximity to the Ionian Sea affords this terrain with a massive range of microclimates.

This combination—diverse soils and abundant atmospheric conditions—makes the slopes of Mount Etna a playground for wine growers. Yet their work is not easy: summers can be scorching hot, while winters pummel the landscape with snow and rain. The topography prevents mechanized harvests, and hand harvests can be challenging on sloped terrain.

Although the DOC was established in the 1960’s, only in recent decades was there an explosion to the influx of international (and mainland Italian) vintners to the region. The complex geology and profusion of microclimates on the flanks of this peak has attracted winemakers from all over the world.

Firriato

‘Etna wine is a new phenomenon. It’s like the Bolgheri region in Tuscany,’ explained Chiara Gullo, who works with marketing Sicilian wines. ‘But,’ she added, thoughtfully, ‘people have been making wine on Mount Etna for centuries.'

How attractive is this terrain?

The Etna DOC is approximately 2,350 acres (950 hectares) in size and home to 289 wine producers. The land has turned pricey—approximately $70,000 per acre (€150,000/hectare) in some regions. Historically, wines produced around Mount Etna were typically shipped to other countries as blending components for wines; today, Etna wines have their own pedigree. Less than 10% of production from this DOC is now used as bulk wine.

Red grapes in the Etna DOC include Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, while whites include Carricante, Catarratto and Minella Bianca. Nerello grapes are genetically related to Sangiovese and produce wines generally well structured and tannic. Carricante is indigenous to Sicily and makes light and acidic wines, while Catarratto produces fuller bodied white wines that can include herbaceous and tropical aromas.

In addition to its range of soil types and microclimates, there is another notable historical and biological quirk associated with Mount Etna viticulture. Local thin volcanic soils, almost sandy in composition, did not allow the phylloxera root louse to develop here, hence many vines along these slopes were spared decimation when this louse wiped out the majority of Europe’s vines in the latter 19th century. Some pre-phylloxera vines that are now 150 years old—as identified via dendrochronological analysis—have been used to produce new vines that are not grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstock, as the majority of vines in Europe still are.

Additionally, notable diurnal variations in temperature along the slopes of Mount Etna provide the DOC with the capacity to produce vibrantly acidic sparkling wines.

Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato is the COO (and contributing winemaker) of Firriato wines, which has a winery based near Mount Etna. He spoke about the region.

Sicily is like a continent. In the entire world there are 12 orders of soils. Sicily includes seven of them. In our opinion Etna is not just a single terroir. The rocks are rich and this is truly mountain viticulture. The very deep soils mean very big median ages for vines. Vines for sparkling wines can be 50 to 60 years old.

RP photos

Di Monte Iato earned his MBA before working as chief information security officer for the Italian railways. He then met his wife—the daughter of the owner of Firriato wines—at a wine tasting at Château Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux. He is a spry and energetic individual who not only works with vines and all aspects of production, but constantly travels the world to relentlessly promote the terroir of Etna.

Today Firriato owns six estates throughout Sicily (including an estate with hospitality facilities at Etna) and exports the majority of its production to four dozen nations.

The range of wineries within Etna is diverse (I reviewed wines from another regional producer in a recent previous article). Representative wines made from Firriato’s Etna slopes that would score mid 90's on a 100 point scale are highlighted below.

Firriato

Firriato. Le Sabbie dell’Etna Rosso. 2017. 

This DOC Etna red wine is made from ancient bush vines of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes growing on the northeast side of Mount Etna, and is aged in casks for one year. The nose includes strong aromas of plums, as well as green pepper and Oreo cookies. In the mouth—black cherries, Malteser chocolates and prunes. A fresh and lucrative mouth that coats the cheeks with a citric film. This is apparently their best-selling wine in the U.S.

Firriato. Cavanera Ripa di Scoriavacca (white). 2018.

€26.50/$30.00 [Excellent Value ♫♫]

This Etna DOC single vineyard white wine originates from 45 to 60-year-old vines of Carricante grapes blended with Catarratto grapes grown at an elevation about 2,460 feet (750 meters) on the northeastern slopes of Mount Etna. It includes aromas of candy, balsamic and flint. In the mouth it is unctuous with—as COO Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato said—‘markers of a volcano: sulfur and smoke.’ This is a balanced and coherent slipstream of restrained tropical fruit.

Firriato. Guadensius Blanc de Noir Etna DOC.

€25.00/$28.25 [Excellent Value ♫♫]

Made from old vine Nerello Mascalese red grapes grown on the northeastern slopes of Mount Etna and bottled for 30 months, this reflects how ideal the terroir along Mount Etna can be for producing sparkling wines—due to marked diurnal variations in temperatures. The nose is lively, edgy, creamy with a hint of strawberry aromas and is also as bracing as a sparkling wine from the Trentino highlands in northern Italy. This acidity is due to the high malic acidity level in the grapes.

Firriato. Signum Aetnae Riserva (red). 2014.

Made from 150-year-old pre-phylloxera grapevines on the estate, as determined by dendrochronological analysis performed at the University of Palermo, this is aged for two years in 700-liter tanks, then for another 18 months in the bottle. Only 3,500 bottles produced. This ruby colored red includes a deep, dark nose of black cherries. The taste is mature and includes a length that asks you to drink more—opening your salivary glands for a main course.

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