Mount Etna Visit & Wine Guide

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Introduction & History of Etna

Etna, aka â muntagna, 'the mountain', or the name of the most active volcano which has given life to Etna wine for more than 4 or 5 millennium, dating back to the Bronze Age.

Muslim geographer Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idirsi drew a map of the world with Sicily in the center with Mt. Etna making some of the best wines by the religious elites. That said, Etna wine is 'new' if you will, with most of the pioneer winemakers starting only in the 90s like Franchetti, Marc di Grazia, Benanti and the Calabretta family who all worked to popularize Nerello Mascalese and Cariccante.

The land here, and throughout southern Italy, is inextricably linked with the palmento (a series of basins, here carved into the lava stone, used for crushing, fermenting and vinification of the wine) and Etna boasts some 2,000 around the volcano, most fairly modern with roofs and walls from the 18th and 20th century, but the concept dates to the Roman times. Regrettably a decree in 1991 would forever end the use of the palmenti due to sanitary reasons, completely destroying a multi-millennial tradition with the snap of the fingers. Sadly, some have turned into museums, some where children can come to see how winemaking was done 'once upon a time’, or converted into office or living room space, and many sit collecting dust and ash.

Wood barrels did not arrive in Etna until the Middle Ages, and the traditional choice at that time was chestnut, now nearly impossible to find. Mulberry trees are very common in the area due to a systemic ripping out of vines by the Byzantines who had a government monopoly on silk and grain (silkworms primarily feed on mulberry leaves), which certainly decimated the wine industry at that time.

Many also still use the arberello training method (training vines upward on a wooden stake like little trees), which actually dates to the Greek period of 800 BC. However, the mid-20th century saw an uprooting of this training method for ease of working in the vineyards, and other devastation can still be witnessed daily by large companies who are destroying hand-made terraces who simply build the price of the fines into the cost of doing business.

 View from Mount Etna
MAIN GRAPES OF ETNA WINE

On Etna, the main grapes you will find are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio for the Etna Rosso - Mascalese brings structured fruit, tannins and spice, while Cappuccio adds a deeper violet color and more body - and Carricante and Cataratto for the Etna Bianco, alongside a handful of other grapes like Alicante (Grenache noir).

The nostalgic wine of Etna is often the rosato, made from mixing black and white varietals, paying homage to the most common ancient wine, pistamutta, or crush and separate the juice, a wine made from short skin contact time yielding a pale rose color.



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Vineyards of Mt. Etna

Vineyard sites here are beyond impressive, with the juxtaposition of Etna sometimes smoking or erupting in the backdrop, with some Southern exposed vineyards additionally boasting views of the sea. There is a wildness and energy to the land here which few other winemaking regions capture. The contrast and symbiosis between life and death is omnipresent here, with black, inorganic volcanic soils in high contrast with the lush and lively greens from the vines.

Vines often boast over 100 years of age and some are even pre-phylloxera, or on non-grafted vines. For those not familiar with the word phylloxera, it is the little root louse which arrived from the US due to the invention of the steam ship which shortened the trans-Atlantic journey from 2 month to 2 weeks, allowing the bug to live and wreak havoc on the European roots which did not have immunity - the louse often cannot live in volcanic or sandy soils. For others not in soils of this nature, the solution was to graft the vine onto American rootstock, which carries a significant amount of immunity, but most agree that while the solution worked, the wine remained slightly altered from that point forward.

Volcanic soils are laden with minerals like potassium, which are highly desired by the plants, and give extremely balanced wines. The jury is still out on what the most overused and abused word ‘minerality’ in wine means but whatever the minerality translates to, whether it is a sensation, a taste, a smell or a more harmonious wine, it seems to be a good thing, even if a bit impalpable. Want to understand the dilemma of saying a wine tastes of minerality? Go ahead and lick the lava stone in the vineyards and see what you taste. I did, and I promise nothing will happen other than lots of contemplation. Minerals are inert and tasteless…and so?

To anyone wishing to come to Sicily and Etna, I would highly suggest a hike up the volcano for some of the most out of this world moments. It also gives you a moment to contemplate life, death, and everything in between. Being up there, it’s also impossible not to perceive the immense energy of this region - Dionysus isn’t linked to the volcano for nothing. In fact, demonstrating just how important he and wine was to this region, the drachma, a Greek currency, featured Dionysus on one side and a grape cluster on the other.

Recommended Wineries

Scirto - It’s hard to write Valeria and Giuseppe as two names, as to me I feel they are a single unit in harmony. Without a doubt they make some of the most terroir driven wines of the region, following the heritage of Giuseppe’s grandfather, with vineyards of around 100 years old. When asked on my birthday what I want to drink (and I could technically open anything), my response was All’Antica, the rosato of Scirto, but their Etna Bianco and Rosso are both stunning example of volcanic wines. English spoken.

SRC - A winery recommended by many and we finally understood why. Usually sampling wine from vats before it goes into the bottle requires foresight and patience as you have to understand it’s still growing and evolving, aka it’s not always great. Not in this case. Every sample had us making references to Chambertin, Morey-Saint-Denis and other parts of Burgundy, especially the Arberello! The 2014 Etna Rosso won our hearts at Cave Ox on night one. Rori and his wife will be ones to follow and track progress going forward.

Vino di Anna - Anna, Australian born, and her husband Eric, French (she would want us to add him here even if their Etna wine carry her name as an inside joke) make some of our favorite wines expressing the various terrors of Etna. With 5 palmenti on their vineyards, one they use in a modified way to never lose sight of this centennial tradition which was lost in the snap of a finger on the mountain. And having received the gift of a Georgian qvevri from Gravner, they have kept this tradition with several all buried in their cellar among other forms of fermentation vessels. English and Italian spoken.

Valcerasa - Alice Bonacorsi - Alice had a dream, and with grit and strength she has decided to pursue it where she was rooted. Managing the vineyards with the help of her husband, they work on with no pressure to have her daughter follow in the same footsteps, as she admits, it takes a certain caliber and desire to want to do this work. Their 2012 Etna Bianco has been one of our favorite wines to date, although all their labels are quite beautiful. English spoken.

Girolamo Russo - Giuseppe is a trained pianist who from a twist of fate, wound up taking over the vineyards of his father. A no-marketing kind of person, he is sincere in his everyday struggles and triumphs in the vineyard - “the more I make wine, the less I know”. Some English spoken.

Malopasso - Two delightful young winemakers who decided to take the winemaking direction in life, she from Etna and he from Calabria. Also, super boutique production making 5,500 bottles per year, their vineyards sit perched above the sea with the volcano in the background. Even despite all the bureaucracy, the issues with mafia, the climatic challenges, they are resilient and steadfast in their project. English spoken

Sardo - A super boutique winemaker making 5,000 bottles per year. One of the most cool, chill, casual and relaxed winemakers we met who felt like a renegade uncle who chose to live the simple life and learn by daily experience. Despite being on American rootstock, being in lower elevation, having to pull up any green wildness between rows due to the random fires of the area, he makes wines that you cannot stop drinking, not even at 11am. Some English spoken.

Most of the above are more artisan winemakers whose wines are featured at Rimessa Roscioli and for our Wine Club, but if you are interested in slightly larger wineries with more structured wine tasting experiences, Barone Di Villagrande is one of the most historical founded in 1727, Terre Nere, Benanti, or Frank Cornelissen who works with amphora and in a more natural way. Keep in mind that large for Etna wine is still fairly small, with most wineries making between 60,000 and 100,000 bottles per year for reference.


Looking for more vineyards and wineries in Sicily? Meet out network of Sicilian winemakers here:

Our recommendations around Etna



Restaurants & Cuisine


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Randazzo

  • Cave Ox - great wine list of local Etna wine, excellent pizza and local dishes. Cozy, intimate outdoor patio space.
  • San Giorgio e il Drago - Less ‘fancy’ than Cave Ox (which is hardly fancy) but absolutely great local fare and wines.
  • Pasticceria Santo Musumeci - by far the best granita and breakfast in the area, situated directly in front of a 13th century church, Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. I recommend the combination of mandorla e gelsi, almond and mulberry.

Taormina

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Bronte

Here you can nibble on the most famous pistachios in the world, which are transformed into all sorts of local delights like gelato, granita, pastries and used in the arancini rice balls. The almonds are also not to be missed from Avola.


P.S… if you wonder why the fish is so delicious around Sicily, the reason is that the nutrient-rich, volcanic ash settles to the bottom of the sea which the plankton feed on, which gets consumed by other organisms who feed the fish and ultimately help to fatten them. Don’t forget to stop by the famous fish market early morning in Catania for a breakfast of champions from the morning catch still flapping.

Other ideas for what to do:

  • Climb Mt. Etna or take a Jeep tour to the crater
  • Visit the grottos (caves)
  • Ski in the winter and go to swim in the sea afterwards
  • Alcantara River Gole - to cool off in ice-cold river water in a wild rock formation

Alcantara River Gole

Where to stay:

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We often feature wines from Etna and Sicily in our wine club collections

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