Volcano vineyards – why Etna wines are so special
Few wine terroirs are as fascinating as Mount Etna on the southern Italian island of Sicily.
To start with, at 3,350m Etna is the highest volcano in Europe, and one of the most active ones worldwide. It has several eruption centres, and intense seismic activity as well as frequent lava flows. These have been threatening human settlements on its slopes for thousands of years, but have also contributed to an exceptionally variegated soil.
Rock, water, air and fire have created a unique environment on Etna, which has inspired awe in visitors for millennia, and which has been awarded UNESCO listed World Heritage Site status in 2013.
Etna wines have been made for over 3,000 years. However, in the wake of Italy’s industrialization, most of its old terraced vineyards, with their high production costs, low yields and limited mechanization opportunities, were abandoned.
Etna thus holds an unusually high number of old vines. Many of them are well over hundred years old and survived the worldwide vineyard devastations caused by the phylloxera bug in the 19th century. Because of its sandy, well-drained soils of volcanic rock and ashes, Etna is one of the few places in Europe where phylloxera did not take hold. Pre-phylloxera wines are of great historical significance and offer a glimpse into an otherwise long-gone past. Palmento Costanzo’s Nero di Sei (which we offer below at a special price) is a precious opportunity to taste one of them.
The renaissance of Etna wines
It is only in the 1990s that a new generation of visionaries took over these old abandoned vineyards and revitalized the region through a meticulous study of vines, terroirs and traditional winemaking. Within just a few years, Etna wines became one of the wine world’s hottest trends. Development in the region continues, as soils, microclimates and their effects on vine growth are increasingly better understood.
Vineyards grow on all sides of the volcano, except on the west flank, between 350 and 1,000m, with the best generally considered to be between 600 and 800m of altitude. Etna’s is a pronounced mountain climate, with lower temperatures than in the surrounding plains, higher rainfall and even snow melt, as well as strong vintage variations. Volcanic detritus accumulated over the centuries, combined with the effects of sun, wind and altitude, have created an extraordinary terroir. Because of this geological diversity and clearly identifiable microclimates, the land2 is subdivided in sectors, called Contrade, often making very different wines.
The wines of Mount Etna
The white variety Carricante, with its surprisingly vibrant acidity for such a southern variety, and its pronounced minerality, is the main constituent of Etna Bianco DOC.
The most interesting indigenous variety to be found on Etna, however, is undoubtedly the Nerello Mascalese. Pale crimson-purple, its colour reminds us of Pinot Noir, as does its strong reactivity to terroir variation (something it also shares with northern Nebbiolo). The Etna Rosso DOC requires a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese, with the possible addition of Nerello Cappuccio, which is darker in color and lower in tannin. The wine is aged for a minimum of four years before release, of which at least one in wood. Nerello wines are intense, with vibrant acidity, muscular yet velvety tannins and a distinctive minerality; they are very perfumed, with aromas of sour cherries, wild strawberries, and notes of dried herbs, tobacco, as well as mushrooms with age.
How to best pair these wines with food? They are elegant, but also quite intense, and require rather strongly flavoured food, ideally with some umami component to match their ‘rockiness’. Sicilian cuisine, with its focus on the fresh, unadulterated flavors of the sea surrounding the island and of the mountains at its centre, is a perfect and natural match. But more generally Mediterranean vegetable, mushroom or fish dishes, pastas and hard cheeses all also work very well. For Asian cuisine, think of more flavoursome dishes you would otherwise pair with Pinot Noir, like roasted duck, mutton pot or char siew.
Cantine Palmento Costanzo is one of Etna’s up-and-coming, most representative producers.
Their ten hectares of vineyards are near the village of Passopisciaro, Contrada Santo Spirito, on the north flank of Etna, at an altitude between 650 and 780m – an excellent location at what is considered the optimal altitude bracket. Vines are planted on centuries-old terraces supported by small supporting walls (muretti a secco) built with lava rocks and are farmed organically. There are still pre-phylloxera vines in the typical free-standing alberello shape.
The old mid-19thcentury winery and cellar (known as palmento) have been carefully restored to recover old artisanal winemaking traditions of Etna. Space in the palmento is organized to allow a ‘free fall’ winemaking process, the highest level (upper on the mountain’s slope) is where the grapes are collected, pressed and destemmed, the juice then flows into the fermentation vats, and the young wine yet one level lower into the barrel, where it will be aged. This minimizes the need for mechanical pumps and allows a gentle handling of the wine.
Quality and tradition are the leading principles of Palmento Costanzo, and their artisanal wines are expression of the unique terroir and history of Mount Etna.
Two lines of wines are produced by Palmento Costanzo, the classic Mofete and the fabulous Sei, both typical Nerello Mascalese (80%) and Nerello Cappuccio (20%) blends, expressing in their depth and elegance all the unique character of Etna wines.
With the typically rather light ruby colour of the Nerello grape, the Mofete Rosso Etna DOC 2015 is made from younger vines on the slopes of Mount Etna. It is distinctly spicy, with aromas of fresh wild herbs and rose flowers. There is a hint of volcanic ash. Juicy, balanced and very elegant. This wine is great to drink now and up to 2025.
A fantastic volcanic wine, Nero di Sei Etna DOC 2015 is made from alberello, partially pre-phylloxera, vines between 80 and 120 years old on Mount Etna. The characteristically light, brilliant ruby colour belies the concentration and persistence of this wine’s aromas of cherry and red berries, with its distinct hints of rock and smoke, intricately fine tannins and luminous acidity. The finish is long, with a pleasant nutty-bitter note of almonds. Note (or better: smell) the label, which incorporates actual volcanic ash from Etna in its design. This is also perfectly mature and ready for drinking now, but will still evolve over the next few years.