On Italy’s island of Sicily, below a sometimes smoking Mount Etna volcano, the city of Catania bustles with traffic—thrashing motor scooters and dovetailing slipstreams of honking cars. There are color and nobility within this city of endlessly long boulevards on subtle inclines. Colorful open-air markets sell live, wiggling lumache (snails) for five Euros a kilo, smoked provolone cheese in the shape of miniature tied sacks, and bastardoni—cactus figs from the mountain village of Bronte (which also supposedly grows the world’s tastiest pistachios).
Above this city, the slopes of Mount Etna constitute a different world. This land is appreciated for silence and beauty, as well as its excellent winemaking potential. There are key reasons why Etna—from which only 5% of Sicilian wine is produced—is today considered fiercely attractive for viticulture.
Stratovolcano Etna rises about 10,900 feet (3,320 meters) above sea level—depending on eruptions—adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. It is called an island within an island, due partially to its unique microclimates.
In the book Volcanic Wines, author John Szabo tells how wine has been produced on Mount Etna for 3,500 years. Its quality was renowned within the Roman Empire. Yet costs of hand harvesting low-yield grapes led to a decline in production in the 20th century, a trend that dramatically reversed during the past two decades.
A current (and past) attraction of Mount Etna’s vineyards relates to disease.
In his book Dying on the Vine – How Phylloxera Transformed Wine—author George Gale tells of how, in 1866, vineyard leaves within St.-Martin-de-Crau near Arles, in the French Rhone Valley, turned dark red by the end of July. This effect radiated outward, like a spreading ‘drop of oil.’ By the next year these vines had all died. This sickness was named la nouvelle maladie de la vigne. Within 50 years it spread to Africa, South America, Australia and throughout the U.S. (from where it originated, in eastern states).
This plant disease was later named phylloxera, after minute-sized aphids found munching vines and roots. In Paris, a national phylloxera commission was established at the Academy of Sciences. Vineyards were divided into three categories—uninjured, partially harmed and completely harmed. Infected vines were uprooted and burned.
Yet in 1869, 20 acres (8 hectares) planted in the medieval and walled French town of Aigues-Morts survived, while vines outside the walls did not. A man named Bayle noticed that the surviving vines grew on sandy soils. He spread this word to farmers, who paid attention. He also purchased nearby plots of sandy hectares for 150 francs apiece, then resold them a decade later for 5,000 francs each. Sand, it was clear, was no friend of phylloxera.
Page 16 of Bulletin 903 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published in 1921 and titled ‘The Grape Phylloxera in California,’ includes these words:
“Vines growing in well-drained, very loose, and friable sandy soil, or one with a surface of blow sand several inches in depth, seem to be almost immune to the attack of phylloxera.”
A mature phylloxera larva is about three quarters of a millimeter long and half a millimeter wide. These aphids move from vine to vine either above ground or via subterranean cracks. Clay soils can dry and crack–providing passages for this aphid, whereas sandy soils do not.
Whether in Champagne, the Piedmont, Bordeaux, Barossa, California or on Mount Etna—there exist today patches of vines growing above sandy, clay free soils that never succumbed to the blight of phylloxera. Some are more than a century old.
Mount Etna can be a sizzling and spewing bucket of molten lava. Scorching magma rolls–like hot, thick paint–down slopes before cooling and eventually cracking into fragments rich in minerals. This provides what author Szabo describes as ‘free-draining sandy ash and rocky lava soils with practically no clay’ so inhospitable to phylloxera.
In addition to this absence of phylloxera on Mount Etna, an article in Decanter lists two other factors that contribute to this mountain’s uniqueness for winemaking: diurnal temperature variations (differences between hot days and cool nights) and complex minerality of volcanic soils.
These unique attributes attract winemakers to Etna. Yet all are physically constrained by the limits of the Etna denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) appellation—which is 2,350 acres (950 hectares) in size. There is simply a limited amount of DOC vineyard space available.
One way of breaking free of this limit (or of enhancing the pedigree of already classified wines) is by paying attention to another geographical classification.
The Etna denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) appellation was created in 1968. It was updated in 2011 via a ministerial decree that also lists 133 ‘contrade.’ Contrade (singular: contrada) are historical names of town districts, as well as parcels of agricultural land. With beautiful names—from Acquafredda to Zucconerò—these contrade are now used basically in the same way as ‘cru’ is for select French wine regions—meaning: a specifically delineated geographical region that (theoretically) can provide unique character to wines. Different land owners may own portions of the same contrade, and the name of a contrada can be placed on the label if all the included grapes were sourced from there.
Contrade therefore provide historical and geographical divisions, as well as a fresh marketing angle—a means of revitalizing an ancient land classification system by associating it with wine.
Filippo Zardetto, the export manage for Palmento Costanzo, explained.
“Contrade are the same idea used in Burgundy, or in Piedmont. There is a certification of single villages, called contrade. It’s an idea in Italy that is younger than it is in France. But it’s very important for differentiating terroir because Etna has a lot of different kinds of soil and slope aspects.”
Contrade do not necessarily coincide with the limits of the DOC appellation boundaries—which is shaped like a backward C that curls around this renowned volcanic cone. Producing wine that ticks three boxes–made within the DOC appellation, as well as within a renowned contrade, and from vines producing pre-phylloxera grapes–is no guarantee of high quality. But these factors are certainly indicative that higher quality is likely. Individuals or companies willing to invest in such tracts of land are usually serious about investments, and often conduct scrupulous due diligence research regarding the pedigree of vines and soils. Many are financially willing to hire top notch viticultural staff and purchase excellent equipment.
Consider the winery Palmento Costanzo. The word ‘palmento’ refers to a traditional stone press house for grapes. The Costanzo family’s 20 acres (8 hectares) of vines located on the north side of Mount Etna are within the DOC as well as within contrada Santo Spirito. They also include 120-year-old pre-phylloxera wines that grow individually, supported by chestnut stakes.
Owners Domenico and Valérie Costanzo are originally from the nearby city of Catania. After they purchased this winery, they rehabilitated various structures and produced a first vintage in 2011. Domenico spoke about their property.
“After we married we visited Burgundy, Tuscany, Piemonte, Stellenbosch, because we love wine. We also looked around Etna and fell in love with this place. We were lucky to find this property because it is not easy to find eight hectares in the same contrada, which we did. But to restore the palmento we had to follow strict rules. We had to respect the existing structure, and so all of the winemaking equipment had to enter through the roof.
“Our strength is having un-grafted, pre-phylloxera vines. Santo Spirito is a particularly windy contrada, and after rains the wind can do what the sun cannot to dry grapes.”
Dry vines are less susceptible to mildew or disease, making these winds generally welcome.
We spent time together one afternoon harvesting their 100 plus year old pre-phylloxera vines, which each stand alone, spaced between 1 and 1.1 meters (1.1 and 1.2 yards) apart. This allows each to receive maximum sunshine. Vines are not irrigated, so roots typically run deep. Each vine holds between two and six clusters of healthy and robust Nerello Mascalese grapes (red wine must contain 80% of Mascalese juice to receive DOC Etna Rosso status). Afterwards, as is customary, we sat outside and ate a traditional harvest meal that included chickpeas. This was followed by a dessert of granita—lemon ice—from a recipe introduced by Arabs to Sicily in the 8th century (it was originally made with snow taken from Etna’s slopes). By 4.30 p.m. on a mid-October afternoon, the burning warmth of day was rapidly replaced by cool winds—highlighting Etna’s daily temperature swings.
Sicilians are fiercely proud of regional identities. Discussions about whether a deep-fried cone of breadcrumb-coated rice is spelled arancina (as in Palermo) or arincino (as in Catania) can occupy hefty portions of a dinner conversation. That same dedication to territorial uniqueness applies also to viticulture, and keeps winemakers spellbound by the uniqueness of Etna’s slopes.
The rest of this article of Tom Mullen, with even the wines’ descriptions, is here: How Volcanic Soils Halted A Winemaking Scourge On Sicily’s Mount Etna