The Great Mount Etna

  • By Mattia Cianca
  • 31 Oct 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
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Etna view - Credit : Courtesy of Benanti Winery

In Andrea Bacci’s 1596 book “De Naturali Vinorum Historia the deliciousness of the wines produced on the hills surrounding Catania is attributed to the ashes of the volcano, Mount Etna. Sometimes referred to as the “Island within the Island”, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Mount Etna is located on the eastern coast of Sicily and is the highest active volcano in Europe.

There are three main factors that make these wines so unique: the volcanic soils (pebbly and gravelly or sandy and ash-like), the age of the vines, and the considerable diurnal shift, which can often see a variation of 25 - 30 degrees between day and night temperatures. Here we find some of the oldest vineyards in Italy, some of them more than 100 years old and still un-grafted.

GEOGRAPHY

The soils of Mount Etna are the result of a volcano which was born from submarine eruptions some 600,000 years ago. Over the centuries, through a combination of lava flows and falling ash, it has reached a height of 3,300 metres above sea level.

Each layer of this ash and/or lava is quite different in terms of both physical structure and chemical composition. Consequently, each square metre of land can be distinct from its neighbours, and this is the basis of the diversity of wines Mount Etna can offer.

The Etna DOC area, the first designation of origin in Sicily (1968), has a semicircular shape that extends from north to south-west, ranging from 450 to 1,000 metres above sea level.

THE GRAPES

Nerello Mascalese 

This grape is the red flagship of Etna wines. With a very long history that dates back to Roman times, it is the most common grape variety in the Etna region. The grape cluster is long and compact and its wines are characterized by a high total acidity, a light ruby ​​red colour, high fruit intensity, and a firm tannic structure.

Minimum of 80% for Rosato and Red Etna DOC.
Minimum of 60% for Rosato and White sparkling.

Nerello Cappuccio

Nerello Cappuccio grape bunches are compact and of a medium length. The berries have a very dark blue skin. It has a long vegetative cycle and is very late ripening.The wines have a moderate alcohol content and good total acidity. They are characterized by an intense red colour, a floral nose, and a pronounced cherry quality.

Maximum of 20% for Rosato and Red Etna DOC.

Carricante

Carricante is an ancient variety that is usually planted at the highest altitudes where Nerello Mascalese sometimes struggles to fully ripen. It is mostly planted on the east side of Etna, where it grows from the top of the volcano towards the sea. The berries are medium-sized with a green-yellow skin colour. The wines have a straw yellow colour with green reflections, and are characterized by intense flavours of citrus and salty minerality.

Minimum 60% for the Bianco Etna DOC.
Minimum 80% for the Bianco Superiore.

Catarratto
One of the oldest white grape varieties, Catarratto possesses a great personality and character as well as being vigorous and productive. The vines are traditionally short-pruned with only a few bunches per plant in order to obtain better aromatic concentration.
The bunches are of variable size and the wines offer a vibrant acidity with a good balance of citrus and minerality.

FOUR DIFFERENT EXPOSITIONS

  • North (Castiglione di Sicilia, Randazzo) 600 - 1100 metres above sea level. This area enjoys a mildly humid climate, a factor that has influenced an evolution of the soils towards very fine granules and particles  which ensure excellent water retention and a good supply of organic humus. These are very fertile soils that are particularly suited for the production of red wines.
  • East (Milo) 600 - 950m metres above sea level. The tiny municipality of Milo is the only area permitted for wines labeled Etna Bianco Superiore. This steep vineyard overlooking the Ionian Sea is composed of numerous small terraces with dry lava stone walls; only Carricante is grown here. The climate in Milo is rather rainy and humid. 
  • South-east (Viagrande) 450 - 650m metres above sea level. This area is less humid with soils that have evolved into lighter material with a high draining capacity. The roots of the vines reach considerable depth in search of water. Grapes ripen a little earlier here than on other parts of the mountain, giving birth to wines that are soft, elegant, and age-worthy. This area has historically been planted with Nerello Mascalese.
  • South-west (Biancavilla, S. Maria di Licodìa) 800 - 900 metres above sea level. Thanks to the formation of soils on relatively recent lava flows, the southern slopes tend to be geologically younger. These are extremely fertile soils that benefit from a warmer and drier climate that is not tempered by sea breezes. Here both white and red grapes produce some very expressive styles.

Etna view - Credit : Courtesy of Benanti Winery