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Friday, August 2, 2013

Sicily's Volcano Wines

Mount Etna’s slopes are the birthplace for some of Sicily’s finest wines.

For serious winemakers, Europe’s tallest (and the world’s most active) volcano has recently become the place to be.  Nearly thirty years ago when I first visited Sicily, there were only 5 producers making wine from grapes grown on Mount Etna.  Today, there are close to 90.  Why the renaissance?  Call it the Italian X-factor. 

The rebirth of growing grapes on this 11,000 foot volcano (grapes are grown up to 3,500 elevation which makes Etna the highest vineyards in Europe) has occurred because of changing philosophies in the wine industry.  As quality has trumped quantity, the low-producing indigenous ancient vines on the inhospitable 45 degree volcanic slopes are now revered for the unique wines they produce.  Moreover, the terroir created by the volcano dramatically adds to the X-factor.  Its volcanic soil and distinctive microclimate create wines with intense minerality and lavish complexity.  Last, the area has attracted winemakers not only from other parts of Sicily but from regions such as Tuscany because of its fair-priced land.  Many of Etna’s vines were abandoned 30 to 35 years ago, when the cost of producing wine became too great. The new arrivals were able to purchase deserted vineyards, acquiring the low-yielding old vines that are near and dear to many winemakers.

Mt. Etna has become one of Italy’s most exciting wine regions.  While some vintners believe the soils are best suited for reds, others love what the white varietals produce.  Here’s a sampling of my go-to Etna producers that are making magic on the volcano:

  • Benanti:  This is one of the original five producers present when I first visited Mt Etna in the 1980.  I particularly like their whites, Etna Bianco de Casselle, as well as their Pietramarina.  Both of these wines have amazing complexity.

  • Firriato:  Although they’ve come from the other coast of Sicily to make wine on this glorious volcano, don’t miss their killer red, Etna Rosso Cavanera Rovo dell Coturnie.

  • Graci:  This winery’s vines were planted on the slope at 2,000 feet more than a century ago.  Faves?   Etna Bianco (white) and their red Rosso Quota 600.

  • Planeta:   Another Sicilian transplant from the other side of the island, this is one of my favorite producers in Sicily.  Try their white “Eruzione 1614” named about the “eruzsione” (eruption) in 1614 that stopped just short of the vineyards in which these grapes are grown.

Coming with us to Sicily in 2014 for the harvest tour in September?  You’ll be visiting both Biondi and Planeta, and you’ll be drinking the Firriato & Graci.

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