The excitable wines of Etna: White and red from Sicily’s volcanic slopes

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File photo. File photo.

Most of what Americans know about Sicily—mafia, garlic-laden red sauce, and the ba-da-bing wines that go with both—we learned from Godfathers I through III. Which is to say that we know nothing at all. This island, which stood as the Mediterranean port of call for wine as unfathomably early as 500 B.C., is experiencing a wine renaissance by way of progressive winemakers committed to resurrecting indigenous varietals and winemaking traditions on ancient terroir. The new takes are restrained, riveting, and unlikely to have ever filled Michael Corleone’s glass.

Resembling a grape cluster poised for a swift kick off the toe of Italy’s high-heeled boot, Sicily’s the country’s largest region and one of its largest wine-producing regions. Marsala—the fortified dessert wine that tastes of rum-soaked raisins—is to blame for Sicilian wine’s poor reputation prior to this recent revival. Even after the world caught on that Marsala’s better in a mushroom sauce over lightly sautéed veal cutlets, Sicily went about making big and blousy whites with Catarratto (one of the grapes in Marsala) and Chardonnay and banal and baggy reds with Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. All permutations were forgettable, and unfortunately, the only options until about 1990.

By then, the other two white grapes that made Marsala—Grillo and Inzolia—were being vinified dry with successful versions tasting grassy, fresh, and almondy. On the red side, producers began finessing Nero d’Avola’s wallop with Frappato, a fragrant little number from Vittoria. And because vineyards no longer needed to be close to the sea from which they ship, producers began to grow grapes away from the sun-baked coast and on the island’s lusher, hillier terrain. Irrigation, an utter necessity in the western regions where North African winds evaporate any trace of moisture, isn’t needed inland. Cool Apennine breezes help to retain the grapes’ acidity and aromatics—a duo hard come by in hot-climate wines.

The Sicilian terroir that’s perhaps the most interesting of all is along the slopes of Europe’s highest active volcano, Mount Etna. Towering 11,000′ on Sicily’s northeastern coast, Etna’s rich and sandy soils are home to vines that grow up 1,000′ to 6,500′ from its base. They are trained in the albarello manner—like freestanding bushes. And because phylloxera, that pesky louse that annihilated Europe’s vineyards in the late 1800s, can’t move through sand, many of the vines are more than 100 years old, still sporting their original gnarly-looking rootstock. The poverty and general lack of industry that followed both World Wars left these vines, dangerous and laborious to access, untended until just 20 years ago.

It’s a grape called Carricante that comprises the majority of Etna’s white wine production, or Etna Bianco. Taut and exuberant in its youth, Carricante gains an edginess with age that’s reminiscent of an older Riesling’s tendency towards the smoky, the waxy, and the otherworldly. It’s not at all surprising that a wine made from grapes grown beneath a volcano still spewing ash and molten lava would possess an inexplicable trait or two, with no particular fruit asserting itself over the wine’s marked minerality. One palate’s apricot might be another’s green apple, but few would deny the prevalence of wet slate and stone in Etna Bianco. Together two grapes, Nerello Mascalese and the slightly stouter and more revered Nerello Cappuccio, make the region’s red wine, or Etna Rosso. It’s nimble and intense yet eminently likeable, especially with food—like Burgundy on a budget. The grapes, all the happier for their precarious conditions, thrive in soil that’s nutrient-deprived. Indeed, adversity builds character.

Top producers countrywide are staking claim on Etna’s ancient soil. Of course, with only about 5,000 viable acres, there’s only so much the area can grow. As is, these wines aren’t easy to find. I found no Etna Bianco on our retailers’ shelves and only one example of Etna Rosso (Tenuta Della Terre Nere) on the wine lists at Camino, Fry’s Spring Station, and tavola ($36-$45) and a 2008 at Tastings of Charlottesville ($52.95).

According to the United Nations, Mount Etna is one of 16 volcanoes in the world whose eruption would threaten lives and damage property. I can’t resist imagining that the wine made on its slopes gets its haunting distinctiveness from the recognition of its own mortality—living each day as if it’s its last. Overly poetic perhaps, but when put into mafia terms, it’s not that different to living with the fear of being whacked. Either way, life’s too short to drink boring wine, so ask your retailer for an Etna-grown choice next time you’re shopping.

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