Geography and geology are boring in themselves – to most of us. But when they get together in the wine glass they can dish up one hell of a treat. I’m talking about a wine many consider to be the most exciting discovery of recent times. These local offerings were overlooked, left to their out-of-the-way tradition, right up until clued-up wine experts started noticing they were some of the freshest, most mineral, most appealing and alluring wines being made anywhere. They are the wines of Etna, on the slopes of Sicily’s tempestuous volcano.
In this stunning landscape lava flows have created mineral-rich ‘black lands’ that nourish a distinct tradition of elevated, elegant Sicilian wines – a style that is quickly becoming cleaner and more cosmopolitan. But among the influx of new expertise and investment, long-time locals still enjoy some of Italy’s quaintest and most beautiful vineyards, where “ancient vines sit on rock as if… resting after years of hard work” and “little shrines with statues of the Virgin Mary are placed throughout… warding off dangerous lava flows.” (Monica Larner).
Like the people, the deceptively noble local grapes are perfectly adapted. The better known are the reds of the Etna Rosso DOC, the minor grape being Nerello Cappuccio while reds are dominated by the amazing Nerello Mascalese – a possible future legend.
Etna’s top red
Nerello Mascalese is named after the Mascali plain, which leads from the nearby coast up the foot of the mountain. Thus the grape’s origin maps onto one of Etna’s special geographical features – encompassing the fruit generosity of warm, low-lying vineyards while stretching 1200 metres up the hill, to much lower temperatures and high day-night difference – allowing this late-ripening grape to bring out delicate aromatics and flavour definition.
These wines may show red berry characters that some might call ‘pretty’, but the grape is actually quite dark skinned – hence the ‘Nerello’ part of the name. Under the right circumstances it can be used to make wines of considerable density, texture and structure. But rather like Nebbiolo (with which it is often compared for its aromatic complexity and acid structure) the colour compounds can turn brownish rather quickly. Which may be why some producers tend to soften the fruit-loading, making Etna Rosso best known for a light and open-knit ‘Burgundian’ style that showcase freshness, fine tannins, subtle aromatics and incredible mineral layering.
A likely genetic link to Mascalese is Sangiovese, the widespread noble grape of the Italian mainland. This would explain a lot: fresh acidity, bright red-dark fruit and a detailed aromatic of fruits, herbs and minerals.
But comparisons to fine Burgundy are more common. And bearing that in mind, what is most exciting about Etna is the price: standard ‘estate’ Etna Rosso from top producers like Planeta (a beautifully accessible and modern example we recently imported) can sell in New Zealand for a mere $30 something. Even top single-vineyard wines – of staggering dimension, character and potential – can sell for little as $50-$70. Compared to Burgundy they can be hugely savoury and mineral at a much younger age, while likewise compared to Barolo they are no less intense or complete, simply much more generous. And all this with a Mediterranean charm and X factor that runs circles around both these classic styles on sheer drinkability.
The multi-faceted whites of Etna
The appellation has more white grapes to call on – including Sicilian mainstays Grillo and Catarratto. But like the Rosso, the Bianco wines are led by a single star that dominates the blend – Carricante. Able to hold and maintain acidity through Etna’s long ripening period, Carricante finally delivers plump fruit into a beautifully expressive nose and palate. The result is a wonderfully complete white wine that is weighty yet fresh and structured, mineral yet silky and simply delicious.
Moreover, like its red stablemate Nerello Mascalese (of which it is presumed to be a parent grape), Carricante seems to have an amazing, innate, local ability to convey mineral character. Imagine a white with the voluminous aromatic of a Pinot Gris – and sometimes it’s rich, silky texture – but with the bright acidity of a Chablis, and with even more minerality than this most famously lime-mineral classic. Wouldn’t that be a perfect bianco?
The effortless mineral nuance of Etna is something smart investors would travel the globe to achieve. And that is literally what has happened ever since this ancient tradition was ‘discovered’ by the rest of the world, about ten or fifteen years ago. Winemaking is the same everywhere, but distinctive terroir is worth the risk. As Mount Etna’s volcanic activity continues to threaten European air traffic, the stoic locals – newcomers and old – must weigh an inevitable threat of destruction against the sublime advantages indispensable to their trade – a unique and favourable terroir. And on Etna, the terroir is all about volcanic minerals. Or is it?
The jury is out on how volcanic soils affect flavour (see an upcoming blog on minerality). But after conducting a large tasting, Julia Harding MW of Jancisrobinson.com notes that volcanic whites have a chalky texture, while reds have a “smoky/stony aroma (one that might be described as ‘mineral’).” This rings true, but The Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner challenges certain of our assumptions when she reveals that the trouble winemakers have keeping colour brightness in Nerello Mascalese has led some to overly exclude oxygen exposure, meaning the local wines have lurched from an older style of too much oxidation to a more recent one of too much reduction (lack of oxygen). This has resulted, she says, in ‘clumsy sulfur flavours’ lately becoming misidentified as a volcanic terroir characteristic. Hmmm, there goes one of our our minerality claims.
But the great thing about Etna is that, even if you dismiss the ‘myth’ of minerality the place is still extraordinary. After all, another advantage of volcanic soil is that it’s free draining – so the vine ‘feet’ stay dry in their cool elevations, encouraging deep root growth and other virtues. Of course elevation itself can be highly prized – and at 1200 metres Etna is one of the highest in Italy. Also the auspicious position beside the sea – from which the mountain receives a constant, shimmering reflection (rather like a hillside above Germany’s Mosel River) means these otherwise cool grapes get the UV they need while ripening nice and slow, keeping acid backbone.
Finally, enjoying this cool spot in a place such as Sicily – where the Mediterranean climate wraps perfect conditions around it much of the year – creates a background of harmony and balance that you can almost bank on.
We recently decided Etna was too good to overlook, and despite it’s small reputation in New Zealand we began importing a range of wine from the Planeta portfolio. Though the family have deep roots in Sicily, Planeta were a major ‘new wave’ producer who began introducing the myriad of local traditions to the world in the form of bright, modern, silky and superbly balanced examples.
Planeta’s Etna Rosso and Bianco are both beautifully typical, albeit stylistically focused on the defined aromatics and delicacy rather than the intense structure or ‘sulfur’ minerality of less outward-looking or cosmopolitan labels. Planeta also offer a step-up level called ‘Eruzione’, which are a little broader and fuller-fruited but likewise composed of single-varietal Nerello Mascalese and Carricante.
As the climate warms and sun-baked Mediterranean producers look into the future with trepidation, the prospects for Etna shine even more brightly. Not only does Etna have a dark-side to the north – which tempers ripeness – but vineyards are already being developed at elevations above the Etna boundaries, to achieve the same cooling effect. The results from these sites are already good, and local producers are lobbying the authorities to extend the boundaries to include them. This would raise the DOC limits less than half way up the mountain. With the region’s cachet also rising they will be successful, no doubt. And in the coming years, decades, and centuries, we can only get excited and speculate at the likely global significance of this unique Mediterranean mountain, its hitherto obscure terroir, and its unknown local grapes.