Italy is one of the world’s most distinctive wine producing countries, largely because of the predominance of indigenous varieties used in wines across the country. You’ll quite often find a particular varietal planted in only one region or even a small production zone, such as Palagrello Nero and Palagrello Bianco in the Caserta region of Campania.
When it comes to Sicily, indigenous varieties, such as Grillo, Nero d’Avola and Frappato are also part of the viticultural landscape, but so too are international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay. Given the warm – or hot, depending on your viewpoint – temperatures and ample sunshine, just about everything ripens on the island.
That means the viticultural identity of Sicily is a bit foggy (even if the weather isn’t), as the best wines from here could be made from just about any variety. For years, quality wasn’t even an image one associated with Sicilian wines for the most part, thanks to the quantities of bulk wines produced. Thankfully, that image has all but disappeared, and quality is abundant, be it from local or international varieties.
These last ten to fifteen years, the identity of Sicilian wines has become more and more associated with the Etna production zone, named of course for its location near this iconic volcano in the island’s northeast. This has been an important step for Sicily’s wine identity, for numerous reasons. First, and I believe, foremost, this is a specific district that is bringing attention to Sicily; it’s not just Sicilian wine. Secondly, the wines are extremely distinctive, thanks in large part to the soils, derived from lava flow from the volcano. Finally, the style and quality of these wines – both white and red – is excellent, and in a few cases, nothing short of outstanding.
Let’s look at the whites and reds and the varieties used for production of the finest Etna wines.
There are three or four local varieties planted here, but the most common varietal for an Etna Bianco is Carricante. The name most probably is derived from the Italian verb caricare, meaning “to load.” Marco de Grazia, proprietor of Tenuta delle Terre Nere, situated at Castiglione di Sicilia, on the northern slopes of the volcano, share some of his thoughts on this grape type. “Carricante is another example of a varietal that found its home specifically here and nowhere else in Sicily. It surely works very well on volcanic soil. It is extremely sensitive to changes in climate and soil, and therefore yields far different wines in different areas of Etna, although like most white grapes it does better in cooler climates, and therefore at higher altitudes.” His Carricante vines are planted between 600-900 meters (1970-2950 feet) above sea level.
de Grazia produces three different versions of Etna Bianco; a classic, 60% Carricante, with the reaminder of the blend divided between indigenous varieties Cataratto and Minella, along with small percentage of Grecanico; this wine like many examples of Etna Bianco, is treated in steel tanks. He also produces two examples of Etna Bianco from contrade (single vineyards) that are aged in oak. “The wood adds a certain creaminess,” remarks deGrazia, “but I use steel for the basic bianco because I like it freshest, although to be honest, it gets better and better with a few years – up to five, six years of age.“
The various offerings of Etna Bianco from Tenute delle Terre Nere are among the finest available today; also look for the examples from Pietradolce, Alta Mora (Cusumano), Graci and Planeta.
Etna Rosso has become a remarkable category in a short time frame, as the finest examples are not only among the best of Sicily, but in reality, among the best red wines of Italy as a whole. The primary grape here is Nerello Mascalese, while Nerello Cappuccio plays a minor role; some examples are pure Mascalese, while others have 3-10% Cappuccio in the blend. As Mascalese delivers more fruit as well as intensity, it is the preferred varietal (a somewhat rare version of 100% Cappuccio labeled as “Laeneo” is produced by Tenuta di Fessina.)
One of the most respected and critically praised producers of red wines from Etna is Passopisciaro; the proprietor is Andrea Franchetti. “At Passopisciaro, we work only with Nerello Mascalese, an ancient grape, rare except on this volcano, where it is from and is still splendidly cultivated like a mountain grape in old and ancient bush vines,” he says.
Franchetti notes the importance of this grape as a late-ripener. “Here, the vines are planted at relatively high altitudes, even up to 1000 meters (3280 feet) above sea level. Temperatures during the day on the northern side, where most of the vineyards are, is over 15°C lower than on the coast, and that cool weather prepares for elegant, full wines. The temperature at night is truly cold during the grape’s most important months, September and October, when it delays the grape’s ripening and adds resilience and sturdiness to the wines.“
What has made the red wines of Etna so appealing is their similarity in some ways to Pinot Noir and Burgundy. This is especially evident in the wines of Passopisciaro, as the tannins are quite silky and aromas of strawberry and cherry call to mind Pinot Noir.
Recently however, more and more versions resemble a red wine from Piedmont in northern Italy, especially a Barolo or Barbaresco, produced exclusively from the Nebbiolo variety; this is an extremely tannic grape, which partially explains its longevity. The style of any red wine from Etna can be more perfumed and graceful like the wines from Passopisciaro or Girolamo Russo, or they can resemble Piemontese reds, as with Tenuta delle Terre Nere. There are other factors of course, such as vine age and soil, but the differences are often dramatic.
Regarding vine age, many estates here were planted 70, 80 or even more than 100 years ago; in fact there are even a few pre-phylloxera vines that are still producing (phylloxera is a louse that causes vine damage, with the most famous outbreak being in the late 1800s in many wine zones of Europe). At Terre Nere, de Grazia produces approximately 5000 bottles per year of a wine labeled as “Prephylloxera – La Vigna di Don Peppino” from a tiny vineyard of one-half hectare (about 1.2 acres). Although the exact planting date is not known, de Grazia estimates these vines are between 130-140 years old! While some of his vines are 80-90 years old, the prephylloxera vines are rare and produce intensely favored and deeply structured wines, albeit in tiny yields. This wine and a handful of others are symbols of the history and uniqueness of the Etna district, a wine production zone with soils of volcanic ash and pumice. To even produce wines from such earth is a challenge. To make them great is a reward.
The original article of Tom Hyland on Forbes, with complete tasting notes, here: The Wines Of Etna – Excellence from An Extreme Production Zone