Reflections on wine and life on a volcano

At 5.10am on October 25th, I was awoken by a noise that felt like it emerged from deep within the very bowels of our planet Earth, first rumbling profoundly before erupting with the most almighty explosion, not just a massive bang but a noise that had the richest depth of sound that I have ever heard or felt. Within minutes the VIA Gita Scolastica Sicily WhatsApp chat was alive with messages most of which began along the lines of ‘Holy crap, did you hear that?!’… Having just spent three full and richly rewarding days on the volcano itself, staying on its broad and high flanks at Linguaglossa, this was a shocking and timely reminder of the immense power and explosive energy that has shaped and defined a vinescape that is utterly unique.

  1. The Etna vinescape is one of the world’s most ancient. Vines have been grown on the mineral-rich volcanic soil of Etna for at least 3000 years. According to Homer, when the intrepid Odysseus, blown off course on his fruitless attempts to return from Troy to his home island of Ithaka, came to what most scholars agree was Sicily, the home of the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, there were already vines here: ‘Even Cyclops know the wine grapes grown out of grassland and loam in heaven’s rain,” said the behemoth. It is probable that throughout all the various occupations of Sicily – Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, French Angevin, Spanish Aragonese, Spanish Bourbon, Piedmontese until the time of the creation of modern Italy – vines have been grown and wine made on Etna. Indeed, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries the wines of Etna were highly valued for their power, strength, and ability to travel by ship from Riposto, the port below Etna, around the Mediterranean to the north of Italy as well as to France and elsewhere in order to boost pale and insipid northern vintages or even as a substitute to replace wines from vineyards ravaged by phylloxera.
  2. At the same time, the Etna vinescape of one of the world’s newest and most exciting. Life is hard on a volcano and ancient vineyards cultivated on laboriously constructed dry-stone terraces that had been painstakingly built by hand over centuries were being wholesale abandoned. These ancient vineyards, planted with vines often more than a century old, trained in the unique alberello etneo that needs to be worked entirely by hand, could no longer compete with more productive vineyards from elsewhere. Palmentos – stone complexes in the vineyards where the harvested grapes were trodden by foot to be made into wines – were left to fall into ruin. A great and ancient vinous patrimony was at risk of being lost forever. It is only in the last two decades, maybe a little earlier, that viticulture has been revived on Etna. There is excitement and dynamic energy here and the determination to bring new vigour and prosperity to this unique mountain environment. For this reason, though Etna is one of the world’s most ancient wine regions, it feels young, energetic, full of hope and determination for the future.
  3. The Etna vineyard has a unique and complex terroir. Volcanic soils eroded over centuries and even millennia eventually break down into sand, loam, stones and pebbles while more recent lava flows remain solid rock, dividing the wine zones roughly into areas that correspond to the various contrade. The soil is rich with pyroclastic matter including volcanic grit that descends from the sky during eruptions like black rain (we experienced this!) as well as lapilli – walnut-sized stones often as light as pumice that form around moisture droplets and fall to earth, a sort of pyroclastic hail. The exposure of the slopes is equally significant. The northern flanks of Etna, kept cool by the maestrale wind, are the most propitious for the cultivation of Nerello Mascalese for the production of Etna Rosso wines of real elegance and finesse; the eastern and southeastern slopes where it is rainier and exposed to the moist grecale wind from the Ionian, is the kingdom of Carricante, a white grape with the ability to produce wines that can age and evolve for upwards of a decade or more; and the warmer southwest gets the least precipitation and  is the source of wines that are somewhat fleshier and easier to enjoy at a young age. The common factors that make viticulture here both so challenging as well as rewarding are, firstly, that the vineyards grow at high altitude (from 500-1000 metres above sea level, though some vines are planted at a lofty 1200 metres, making them the highest vineyards in Europe). Secondly, the rich volcanic soil is fabulous for growing vines, rich in minerals and nutrients, airy, coarse and well-draining. Thirdly, there is a preponderance of old vines – really old vines, in some cases over a hundred years, perhaps even two hundred years old. Many such vines are pre-phylloxera since they were planted before the time when that North American pest destroyed the majority of the vineyards of Europe. High altitude, volcanic soils and old vines are what give the wines of Etna such character and personality.
  4. The term ‘heroic viticulture’ is used in Italy to indicate vineyards that are highly labour intensive, often located on the steepest slopes or in mountains where vines are planted at high altitude, on vineyards that require the maintenance of terraces and which cannot be mechanised, or which otherwise suffer adverse conditions that make growing grapes a more than considerable challenge. Etna’s viticulture is truly heroic for it has all of this and more: for here for good measure the vineyards are located on the most active volcano in Europe. This year alone, Etna has erupted more than 60 times, sending ash, lapilli, and lava flows across its flanks. On Etna ‘heroic viticulture’ means working at times under a suffocating blanket of black grit that falls from the sky for days on end; it means being aware that lava flows at any time could progress down and across your vines, swallowing them up, destroying all your hard work and efforts, perhaps even destroying your home and your winery. Growing grapes on Etna requires unabiding faith, the nerve of a gambler, and a deep-seated belief that the considerable effort and risk required to cultivate grapes on the slopes of a volcano will be compensated in the magnificence and the glory of the wines that can be produced.
  5. The renaissance of a wine region, the rebirth of modern Etna wine did not just happen. Those who believed and believe, those high rollers and dreamers who have literally risked life and livelihood, those who have dedicated their lives to creating not just great wines but to restoring an entire landscape to its magnificence are nothing less than an inspiring group of pioneering winemakers who can rightly take credit for the creation of modern Etna wine. We had the privilege to meet Salvo Foti, considered the father of modern Etna with his I Vigneri project, and Vincenzo Lo Mauro who with owner Andrea Franchetti created Passpisciaro, one of the iconic wine properties here. And there are others. At Barone di Villagrande we met young winemaker Marco Nicolosi, the 10th generation of the Nicolosi family who, almost alone In the years when Etna wines were in decline, laboured to keep quality wine production alive. Alberto Graci, who gave us an inspiring overview of the Etna wine country, restored his family vineyard and is counted amongst modern Etna’s early pioneers. In just the last two decades other inspiring winemakers have been attracted, inspired by the efforts of those literal groundbreakers who paved the way, attracted by the siren lure of making wines from ancient, sometimes centuries old vines grown at altitude on the volcano. Some are well known wine producers who have come to Etna from other parts of Sicily, others have arrived from different parts of Italy, some are completely new to wine. They have brought new investment, new ideas, and new energy, alongside a determination to respect age-old tradition, making Etna one of the most exciting wine regions in Italy and the world.
  6. And the wines? Etna Rosso, produced primarily from Nerello Mascalese with or without the addition of some Nerello Cappuccio, has emerged in these past two decades as one of the truly great red wines of Italy, able to stand proudly on the same pedestal as Barolo and Barbaresco from Piedmont, Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico from Tuscany, and Taurasi from Campania. Etna Rosso is relatively light in colour with the acidity and tannin to allow it to age and evolve, crunchy red fruit and terpenes that with age bring out subtle tertiary aromas, a red wine of great elegance and complexity that has the power and energy of the volcano and which can express with precision its unique terroir. Indeed, contrade wines are Etna’s answer to the MGAs of elsewhere, cru wines that reveal subtle and sometimes not so subtle differences in soil, exposure and altitude. Etna Bianco Superiore and Etna Bianco are similarly truly great wines for Carricante is one of Italy’s few white native grape varieties that has the remarkable potential to produce wines that can age and improve for upwards of a decade or more. Acidity is the key that allows the wines to maintain their freshness even after years of ageing. The best Etna Bianco wines come from grapes grown above 900 metres on the eastern and southeastern flank of Etna where the moist sea breezes keep the air fresh and cool. We enjoyed a vertical tasting at I Custodi that demonstrated how with upwards of a decade ageing the aromas of the wines evolve from primary scents of lime and white flowers to a richer, deeper and more complex bouquet with hints of petrol, beeswax, hazlenuts, a creamy textural mouthfeel, and a marked savoury, saline finish.
  7. Etna wines, like most Italian wines, are outstanding with food. Young Etna Bianco, with its piercing backbone of acidity, is wonderful paired with Sicilian seafood antipasti such as marinaded octopus, swordfish involtini, sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs, pinenuts and currants, or the raw gambero rosso – the red prawn of Mazara del Valle, its mineral-fresh tingle in the mouth matched by the crisp minerality of the wine. Older vintages of Etna Bianco have deeper and more profound flavours and can match more full and richer foods, even dishes such as the roast black pig from the Nebrodi mountains, a protected Slow Food praesidium product. Etna Rosso when young, with its more forward fruit and tannins that are not usually aggressive, is very food friendly, perfectly matched to simple foods such as grilled salsiccia al ceppo, the hand-chopped sausage flavoured simply with salt, pepper and wild fennel seeds. At I Custodi, chef Marco Cannizzaro prepared a richly satisfying stracotto d’asino (yes, donkey stew slow-cooked in the Etna red), paired magnificently with Mario Paoluzi’s beautifully balanced Etna Rosso. Older vintages can match even more strongly favoured foods, though with their elegance and finesse, I think they are probably best enjoyed simply with a nugget or two of aged pecorino cheese.
  8. To conclude, Etna’s wine country is in many ways a microcosm of Italy’s. Like Etna, almost all of Italy’s wine country can boast an ancient pedigree that in many cases can be traced back to antiquity. Yet an illustrious vinous patrimony that had carried on even through the Dark Ages, and across the Renaissance to Risorgimento, was, by the middle of the last century, in danger of being lost. Native grape varieties were being replaced with international, wines were being produced industrially as ‘brands’, and even Italy’s greatest wines did not command the respect – or fetch the prices – that they deserved. Chianti Classico is an example, in the 1970s a wine sold in the straw-covered fiasco, today rightly considered one of the great wines of Italy. And there are countless other examples. For indeed, through the efforts of inspirational wine producers and winemakers across the country, Italian wine now takes its place at the top table of world wines, not just for the excellence of its most exalted vintages but also for the huge range of good and great wines at all levels, produced from a wealth of native grape varieties simply found no where else on earth, wines that express with precision the character of place and the people who make them. In that sense, Italy as a whole, like Etna, is at once an ancient wine country as well as one of the world’s newest and most exciting. That is what makes exploring Italian wine such a fascinating subject. The role Italian Wine Ambassadors is not just to extoll the good and the great but also to discover, rediscover and keep learning, staying abreast of changes that happen in Italy so very quickly. Witness the transformation of Etna’s wines from being sold in lava-encrusted bottles to tourists just 30 years ago to now ranking amongst the greatest in the country, indeed the world. These are exciting times for Italian wines – and for Italian Wine Ambassadors!

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