Mt. Etna Gets Hot

Surprisingly delicate wines from Italy’s fiery mountain are posed to be the next big find for fans of the elegrant but offbeat.


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The below is an abridged version of the Mount Etna article appearing in our April 2010 issue. Scroll down to see wine reviews.

No other wine region in Italy is as exciting as Mt. Etna right now. In just a few years, the number of winemakers on the volcano has doubled. They include pioneers like enologist Salvo Foti, Benanti, Andrea Franchetti, Marco de Grazia, Frank Cornelissen and Cottanera. Simply Red lead singer Mick Hucknall makes an Etna red appropriately called Il Cantante (“the singer”) and recent newcomers like Planeta, Tasca d’Almerita, Firriato, Corvo/Duca di Salaparuta, Riccardo Cotarella and Carlo Ferrini have all claimed their own stake. Rumors have it that Donnafugata and Cusumano are in the market for vineyard land there as well. All the important Sicilian producers today are incomplete without an Etna component.

“We still don’t know what the potential is, we just know it’s volcanic,” says Giuseppe Tasca of Tasca d’Almerita with a well-rehearsed twist of humor. The Tasca family has purchased 20 hectares (50 acres) on Etna, and plans to make wine with the help of celebrity enologist Carlo Ferrini.

The delicate wines of Etna often draw comparison to Burgundy and Barolo. Nerello Mascalese, the principle indigenous variety of the volcano delivers brass knuckles in a silken glove. “It has the delicate fragrances of Pinot Noir with the tannic structure of Nebbiolo,” says Marco de Grazia, a wine broker and importer who owns several properties on the volcano and makes wine under the Tenuta delle Terre Nere label.
 

Mt. Etna’s perfectly conical shape gives it a 360-degree range of exposure to the sun and weather patterns, yielding a variety of volcanic microclimates. The east side faces the Mediterranean and is more humid and less appropriate for viticulture. On the opposite side, conditions are dryer with the Nebrodi Mountains forming a protective barrier to the north. The most promising vineyard sites are found in the “golden triangle” between the towns of Linguaglossa and Randazzo on the flank of the volcano, which faces the resort destination Taormina. Only about 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) exist in total, so future growth will be limited.

Nerello Mascalese is the grape most prized in this area. It is late-ripening (harvested in mid-October) with large clusters, large berries, thin skins and is thought to have arrived from ancient Greece, brought to Italy along the same route followed by the mythical hero Odysseus. Nerello Cappuccio is another important Etna variety and some experts believe it is genetically linked to Carignan. White wines are made primarily from indigenous Carricante and Catarratto. A growing number of producers are experimenting with international varieties. Andrea Franchetti makes an excellent Petit Verdot and Cottanera is known for expressions of Syrah and Merlot, among others. The Planeta family, which recently purchased 10 hectares (25 acres) in the Sciara Nuova Contrade, hopes to introduce ageworthy whites, made with both Carricante and Riesling.

The red wines of Etna share surprisingly similar, distinguishing characteristics, cementing the notion that the volcano produces a unified style of wine. In a nutshell, they are very delicate and feminine on the nose with veins of floral notes and wild berries offset by drying mineral tones. But, they deliver a powerful punch in the mouth with determined alcohol, bright acidity and polished tannins. These wines are built to last and will become more graceful with 10 to 20 years of cellaring.

Wine Enthusiast Magazine blindtasted 50 wines from Mt. Etna (representing one of the most complete tastings on the region published in an American magazine). We remain impressed with the results so far, and look forward to sampling the volcano’s second wave of winemakers as soon as they are ready.

The Wines
 

95 Tenuta delle Terre Nere 2007 Guardiola (Etna); $NA; Cellar Selection.

94 Benanti 2005 Serra della Contessa (Etna); $49; Cellar Selection.

94 Pietro Caciorgna 2006 N’Anticchia (Etna); $60

93 Passopisciaro 2007 Passopisciaro (Sicilia); $40; Editor’s Choice.

93 Girolamo Russo 2007 San Lorenzo (Etna); $NA.

92 Frank Cornelissen 2006 Magma 5r (Etna); $200.

92 Cottanera 2005 Etna Rosso (Etna); $54.

91 Graci 2006 Quota 600 (Etna); $54.

91 Benanti 2005 Pietramarina (Etna Bianco Superiore); $45.

90 Passopisciaro 2008 Guardiola (Sicilia); $30.

90 Le Vigne di Eli 2007 Etna Bianco; $NA.

If you go . . . Read our travel recommendations for Mount Etna.

 

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