Ancient Vines and High Altitudes: Meet the Rising Winemaking Stars of Etna

Marco De Grazia, owner, of Tenuta delle Terre Nere
Marco De Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere / Photo by Giuseppe Gerbasi

The Etna growing zone produces some of the most focused, fascinating wines in Italy, thanks to its ancient vines, high-altitude vineyards, volcanic soils, proximity to the sea and Continental climate. They’re loaded with finesse and energy.

Made predominantly with native grape Nerello Mascalese, Etna Rossos range from lithe and accessible offerings to more complex versions. The finest examples are fragrant, elegant, vibrant and precise, with taut, glossy tannins and mineral sensations.

Top expressions are delicious and distinguished, even when young. They also age well eight to 10 years after the vintage, while a few of the most structured can age a little longer.

Reds get most of the spotlight, but Etna’s whites are equally beguiling. Made primarily with native grape Carricante, these racy, mineral-driven wines are savory and pristine. Often with whiffs of petrol even in their youth, the best promise surprising aging potential. Top bottlings age well for five to 15 years or more.

Winemaking on Etna goes back thousands of years, but it peaked in the late 1800s before being largely abandoned in the mid-1900s. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, Barone Villagrande and, later, pioneering estates Benanti and Murgo, both of which revived family properties in the east and southeast, were among the very few producer-bottlers.

This stagnant situation changed in the early 2000s, when trailblazers arrived on the largely deserted northern slopes, long considered the spiritual home of Nerello Mascalese. The last  decade proves Carricante also thrives here.

The winemaking revival on the northern slopes spurred a rebirth across Etna. Over the last 20 years, investors big and small have descended on the area, but not all turn out stellar wines. Quality across the smoking mountain is a rollercoaster.

To further complicate things, there are exceptional bottlings that hail from the volcano’s slopes but aren’t labeled as Etna Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC).

The 1968 production code stipulates a bewildering hodgepodge of minimum and maximum altitudes across the denomination that exclude some notable vineyard sites. This is especially true on the northern slopes, where maximum vineyard altitude is 2,624 feet above sea level, but some producers make outstanding wines at up to 3,280 feet.

On Etna, as in Barolo and in Montalcino, the name of the producer is the only real guarantee.

Read on to discover some of today’s most exciting estates.

Marc De Grazia, owner, of Tenuta delle Terre Nere
Marc De Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere / Photo by Giuseppe Gerbasi

Tenuta delle Terre Nere

Marc de Grazia, formerly a wine broker and founder of Marc de Grazia Selections, created Tenute delle Terre Nere on Mount Etna in 2001. The estate owns vineyards in six subzones or crus called contrade: Calderara Sottana, San Lorenzo, Bocca d’Orzo, Santo Spirito, Guardiola and Feudo di Mezzo, all in the north. His debut release was the 2002 Etna Rosso Guardiola, the first contrada-specific wine from Etna. It was followed by Calderara Sottana in 2003 and Feudo di Mezzo in 2004.

De Grazia was an early advocate of contrade distinctions, which became official in 2011. Terrain and soils are key, as you can see at the estate. While gently curving terraces, green grass and deep volcanic ash distinguish the Santo Spirito contrada, the Guardiola cru just above it is steeper and with poorer soils that consist of volcanic sand and basalt stones.

“The differences in the two contrade are mirrored in the wines,” says de Grazia. “Santo Spirito is almost creamy, while Guardiola is tense and more austere.”

Terre Nere’s full-bodied, balanced reds are mostly Nerello Mascalese and a drop of Nerello Cappuccio. Its most famous red, the captivating Prephylloxera La Vigna di Don Peppino, originates from ungrafted vines planted in the late 1800s that survived phylloxera.

The estate also makes a savory rosato from Nerello Mascalese and several whites like the crisp Etna Bianco, made primarily with native grape Carricante and other white natives. Vigne Niche and the contrada whites are fermented and aged in oak and have more complexity. De Grazia also makes a linear, austere Etna Bianco Superiore from grapes grown in Milo on the eastern slopes, the most storied area on Etna for white wine production.

Planeta

One of the most dynamic firms in Sicily, family-owned Planeta has estates across the island. Its owners searched for years to find just the right spot on Etna. They discovered what they were looking for among the woods and lava flows around Passopisciaro in 2008, where they planted Nerello Mascalese, Carricante and a bit of Riesling.

Most producers were drawn to Etna for its sleek, fragrant reds, but for co-owner Alessio Planeta, it was initially about the whites.

“I love their crystalline character that combines fruit and flinty mineral notes,” he says. But Nerello Mascalese grew on him, and the firm makes fragrant, polished reds as well as racy, savory whites like its Etna Bianco from Carricante.

The focused, vibrant Eruzione 1614 Carricante Sicilia DOC, which has 10% Riesling, and the elegantly structured Eruzione 1614 Nerello Mascalese hail from estate vineyards in the storied Sciaranuova contrada at high altitudes just outside the DOC limits. Planeta also makes an outstanding metodo classico sparkler from 100% Carricante.

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Tascante

Founded in 2007, Tascante is owned by the Tasca d’Almerita family, a driving force in Sicily’s quality revolution that makes wines at five estates across Sicily. Alberto Tasca began to research sites on the volcano and experiment with microvinifications in 2004. Three years later, he bought property in the northern district’s Contrada Sciaranuova and Pianodario. In 2015, the firm purchased vineyards in Contrada Rampante.

Tascante’s Etna Rossos, made entirely with Nerello Mascalese, are aged in large Slavonian casks. Made from young vines, the Ghiaia Nera is fresh, lithe and enjoyable, while the cru bottlings, which debuted with the 2016 vintage, are elegantly structured with taut, polished tannins and great depth.

The Sciaranuova V.V., made from vines planted in 1961, is stunning. Loaded with finesse and complexity, it boasts good aging potential. Tascante also makes a lovely mineral-driven white, Buonora, from Carricante grown on both the northern slopes and Milo in the east.

Andrea Franchetti, owner, of Franchetti Passopisciaro
Andrea Franchetti of Franchetti-Passopisciaro / Photo by Giuseppe Gerbasi

Franchetti-Passopisciaro

When Andrea Franchetti arrived on Mount Etna in 2000, he found desolation and abandoned vineyards. He also saw untapped potential, thanks to unique growing conditions including intense sunlight, extremely high altitudes, marked day-night temperature swings and extremely old, free-standing bush vines known as albarello. Many of these vines survived phylloxera and weren’t grafted on American rootstocks.

Franchetti, who already had a successful winery in Tuscany, Tenuta Trinoro, was one of the first of the modern trailblazers to arrive on the volcano. He realized he had to change his winemaking approach on Etna. At Passopisciaro, on Etna’s northern slopes, he strives for elegance and pristine expressions of the wine’s unique terroir, rather than concentration and power.

Andrea Franchetti
Andrea Franchetti / Photo by Giuseppe Gerbasi

“Unlike wines I make in Tuscany with Cabernet Franc and small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Nerello Mascalese doesn’t need lengthy skin contact during vinification,” says Franchetti. “On Etna, I basically make wine from the juice. And instead of aging in barriques, we age in large neutral casks.”

The results are vibrant wines with balance and intensity. They also have inimitable identities and savory flavor profiles thanks to the varied terroir of Etna’s 133 defined contrade.

“Soil composition on Etna depends on the specific lava formations from individual eruptions,” says Franchetti. “Etna has multiple active craters, so every lava flow has a different makeup. Each contrada is unique because they were formed by different lava flows, creating wines with distinct aromas and personalities.”

The estate’s Etna Rosso and five contrada-specific bottlings are made with 100% Nerello Mascalese. The dazzling contrada offerings, like the radiant, firmly structured, ethereal Contrada R made from 100-year-old vines, are labeled Terre Siciliane, since most are situated at altitudes that aren’t sanctioned by the Etna DOC regulations.

Alberto Graci, owner of Graci
Alberto Graci of Graci / Photo by Giuseppe Gerbasi

Graci

Alberto Graci, born in nearby Catania, was extremely close to his grandfather, who had a vineyard and grew grain in the center of Sicily. Graci was working at an investment bank in Milan when his grandfather passed away. Shortly after, Graci, a lover of classically crafted Barolo, decided to return to Sicily to dedicate himself to winemaking.

He sold his grandfather’s property. In 2004, and after much research, Graci founded his winery in the village of Passopisciaro in the north, “when there were still great vineyards for sale,” he says.

Alberto Graci, owner of Graci
Alberto Graci / Photo by Giuseppe Gerbasi

Graci owns prime vineyards like those in the Arcuria and Barbarbecchi contrade, where he makes gorgeous, focused wines with pedigree and class.

“Focusing on wines from select vineyards that have a definite, consistent identity every vintage was a huge step forward for Etna,” he says. His 2011 Etna Bianco Arcurìa was the first contrada-specific white in the denomination.

Like many Etna producers, Graci’s grapes are certified organic. Although Etna gets more rain than the rest of Sicily, it offers ideal conditions that allow growers to use less harsh chemicals.

“We have lots of different plants, trees and birds that generate a healthy ecosystem,” he says.

“We get more rain here than other parts of Sicily, but northeasterly winds dry out the grapes and help keep them disease free.”

Winemaker Frank Cornelissen
Frank Cornelissen / Photo by Giuseppe Gerbasi

Frank Cornelissen

Belgian-born Frank Cornelissen has worked with wine most of his adult life, first as a broker and then as a winemaker. In 2001, he established his estate on the volcano’s northern side, an area lauded for its single-contrada wines.

Cornelissen devotes most of his energy to the vineyards. He uses no synthetic chemicals, and although his farm has been certified organic since 2010, he greatly reduces organic and biodynamic treatments whenever possible. Recently acquired vineyards will soon also be certified organic.

Many of Cornelissens’s vineyards have extremely old, ungrafted Nerello Mascalese vines, like its flagship bottling Magma from the Barbabecchi vineyard. From grapes planted around 1910, it features a wild streak that’s tempered by finesse. The compelling Munjebel VA is made from 90-year-old ungrafted vines planted at the firm’s highest vineyards. It’s all about racy tension.

Frank Cornelissen
Frank Cornelissen / Photo by Giuseppe Gerbasi

Cornelissen is a dedicated noninterventionist. He ferments with indigenous yeasts in neutral epoxy tanks. Wines with more tannic structure are aged in epoxy-coated terracotta vessels buried up to their necks in ground volcanic rock.

Cornelissen’s passion for single-vineyard wines is influenced by his love of cru Barolos.

“I love the lush roundness of Cannubi, the fierce tannins and focus of Vigna Rionda,” he says.

“We’re lucky to have specific contrade here that yield wines with precision and definite expressions. There’s still lots of work to do, but as a wine aficionado, I love the fact that we have such varied vineyard sites because so many areas don’t.”

Even though Cornelissen’s wines hail from Etna’s slopes, a number are out of the DOC boundaries and are labeled Terre Siciliane. Starting with the 2019 vintage, these will be Sicilia DOC or Etna Rosso DOC.

The Italian Winemakers Reviving an Ancient Region

Tornatore

When Francesco Tornatore was a boy, his father told him repeatedly to “study, escape the countryside.” He was to become a successful entrepreneur: In the 1970s, he founded a company in Milan that’s now a leader in components found in telephone and electrical networks in Italy and throughout Europe.

But Tornatore never forgot his roots in both Etna and winemaking. He always believed in the area’s great potential. The family has owned land on the northern slopes in Castiglione di Sicilia since 1865. They’re one of the largest vineyard owners on Etna, with parcels in top crus like Pietrarizzo, Trimarchisa and Pietramarina.

In 1974, Tornatore began to restore the vineyards. He sold the grapes for years, but he started to produce wine in 2012, initially in the cellar of a producer-friend. Since 2014, all wines are made in the estate’s own cellars.

Its tense, savory, mineral-driven whites are among the best in the denomination and show real aging potential. The firm’s reds are equally gorgeous, especially those from Pietrarizzo and Trimarchisa, which boast juicy fruit and a weightless elegance.

Torre Mora

This up-and-coming, certified organic estate is a winery to watch. In 2015, it was acquired by Tuscan wine magnate Mario Piccini, who makes wine in the Chianti denomination, Brunello from prime vineyards in Montalcino and from family estates in Chianti Classico, Maremma and Basilicata’s Aglianico del Vulture denomination.

Torre Mora boasts some of the most gorgeous vineyards on Etna in Contrada Dafara Galluzzo in Rovittello, a hamlet of Castiglione di Sicilia and in Contrada Alboretto – Chiuse del Signore in the Linguaglossa township. The basalt stone terraces have been painstakingly restored after decades of neglect.

Torre Mora produces savory, radiant whites. Once made with some Catarratto to add roundness and body, the firm’s racy Scalunera Bianco has been made entirely with Carricante since 2018.

It boasts herbal, beeswax and pollen aromas alongside citrus flavors, energizing salinity and extreme freshness.

Made with Nerello Mascalese and small amounts of Nerello Cappuccio, the radiant, polished reds gets better every vintage.

Published on August 9, 2021
Topics: Italian Wine