Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano with major eruptions every few years and almost constant rumbling in between. So why, when there are so many more hospitable sites to plant your vineyard, would growers choose this unpredictable and potentially dangerous corner of Sicily?
There are many reasons: Vines will grow in places where little else will survive and there have been vineyards here since the ancient Greeks colonised the island more than 2000 years ago. But that doesn’t fully explain the enormous rise in the popularity of the area in recent years which has seen an influx of newcomers and major investments in the vineyards and in new wineries. The attraction? A combination of soil, climate and what’s planted in those ancient vineyards.
The volcanic soils of the mountain’s slopes are rich in minerals, especially potassium, thought to be the most important element in promoting vine health. The climate, too, is ideal with Mediterranean warmth ensuring perfectly ripe grapes every year. And many of the vineyards are planted at altitude (up to 1000m or 3300ft above sea level). This provides a cooling effect, ensuring that the grapes retain plenty of balancing acidity when harvested. And then, there’s the vines themselves. Many are over 100 years old – some of the few remaining that pre-date phylloxera (the bug couldn’t survive in the volcanic soil) and so have never been grafted (the technique used worldwide to combat the vine-killing louse).
So, what about the wines? I opened a bottle of Etna white recently, made from local varieties Carricante and Catarratto. Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Bianco (Wine Society, £12.50) is deliciously mouth-filling and rich with lovely flavours of ripe pear, melon and a hint of lemon peel. Delicious on its own or with fully-flavoured fish or poultry dishes. I can also recommend the same producer’s red (also available from The Wine Society at the same price). Again made from local grapes (this time Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio) and with attractive fresh cherry and liquorice flavours.
Making wine on the slopes of Etna may be a challenge – a nightmare, even, sometimes – but many growers think it’s worth it and, on the evidence of these and other Etna wines I have tasted in recent years, I have to agree.