Volcanic Wines. Etna Wine & Food Pairing in Amsterdam

Since I ever visited Etna I couldn't get this terroir with black vineyards covered with rocks out of my head. Now several years after my first visit to the wineries of Etna volcano I created a collection of my favourite producers and presented them in Amsterdam on May 8th on an Etna dedicated wine and food pairing event. Continue reading to learn more about the 6000 years of winemaking on Etna, its' geography, DOC system and the wines we tasted on this wine & food event in Amsterdam.

Etna Wine tasting Amsterdam

Etna Wine - 6000 Years of History

Sicily as a whole has always been a strategic point in the Mediterranean and attracted an invader after invader, continuously remaining in a state of change. So is Etna – even though it seems like it’s a volcano that has always been there, Etna never stops changing. Including its’ viticulture that dates back 6000 years. Winemaking on Etna had its’ ups and downs, and long periods of neglect.


Thirty years ago, you’d barely find ten wineries that were making wine regularly. Today, they’re over a hundred wineries and prices for land are competing with the priciest Italian vineyards of Piemonte and Tuscany. But let’s get back to the beginning of (wine) times on Etna.


Archeological evidence suggests that winemaking exists on Etna for about 6000 years. The first wines were made from grapes macerated in recesses of wood and rock, in simple basins of large rocks. With time, low treading areas were carved at the top of massive rocks, next to it a “vat” was cut deep into the same stone. The juice would flow there from the pista (treading area) by gravity.


terraced bush vine vineyards on Northern Etna at Pietradolce winery
terraced "alberello" bush-vine vineyards by Pietradolce


As wine was becoming more important in people’s lives, they started to build homes and plant farms around these “fermenters”. These places became Etna’s mystical places and you can still find them today.


From the Greek period on Etna (8 century BC) vines were trained upward with the support of a wood stake. So, they’re today and we call this classical method “alberello” (little tree), as that’s what these vines resemble.


Modern farming arrived to Etna in 1100 CE with Benedictine monks. They would plant the vineyards with 5-6 grape varieties. As fermentation here is quick (due to temperature) a mix of grapes would ensure the wine would get enough of acidity, colour, tannins, alcohol and be more balanced. Today we call such wines “field blends”.


Etna volcano wine tour and winery visits
Etna is Europe's biggest active volcano

By 1770 the port of Riposto was a thriving community built around winemaking and wine export. At the end of the 19th century when phylloxera arrived to Europe Etna had to increase production to meet the demand. Foot treading was no longer efficient. Roller crusher, destemming bin, basket press replaced the manual process. The ceremony of making wine was gone but the quality of wine (less oxygen contact, more hygiene) increased, of course.


In the XXth century phylloxera was “cured” by grafting, European wine regions were recovering, and Sicily became part of Italy, an impoverished farming community. After WWII interest in quality winemaking was gone, people needed a relief, and any wine was good enough.


Etna DOC became Sicily’s first DOC in 1968, however first quality winemaking from the local grapes started only at end of 80’s by the Benanti family.



Etna. Geography. The Contrade and Soil


The first, “modern” style vineyards were planted on Etna around 730 BCE near the sea, at the lower Alcantara Valley. From then on the slow climb up to Etna begun. It was observed that grapes don’t ripen enough above 1300 meters altitude. That’s why the Etna DOC is kept at 1000 m mark. The wine profile also changes a lot if grapes come from lower areas. So the lowest mark is kept at 400 masl.


This way, a semi circle belt was formed around Etna, including – north, east and south slopes of the volcano. The western area makes too powerful wines due to warmer weather and this does not match the style of Etna.


Etna is always in change. Hundreds of lava flows from different epochs at different altitudes create distinctive differences among the wines. That’s why from 2001 the DOC approved the use of place names on the labels. The 133 Contrade are “neighbourhoods” of Etna. They’re defined by altitude, aspect, and geology, as well as their administrative borders.


As for the soil, the volcanic ash produced by Etna is blown by winds all around the mountain. The finer the ash, the farther it’s blown. However, the southern part of the slopes gets the biggest portion of the fine ash. It is almost immediately adopted to the soil.


The positive effects of small quantities of ash have long been known. When folded into the soil, the porous nature of the ash promotes water drainage and increased quantities of fresh macro- and micronutrients. There is rarely the need for chemical fertilizers. Everything an Etna grapevine requires is readily available or provided for from above. At the same time, a series of shallow faults and fissures administer tiny amounts of carbon dioxide and sulfur into the soil and air from below. Carbon dioxide is crucial for photosynthesis. Sulfur is absorbed through the roots as sulfate. Sulfur works with nitrogen to promote shoot growth and elasticity in the green material of the vine. This flexibility is particularly important on Etna, where winds and breezes are constant.

Ginestra on Etna volcano
Ginestra - a special plant on Etna, a reason why there's terroir, as it breaks down the basalt rocks and allows vines to absorb the minerals

Areas that are closer to the eruptions get rocks instead of ash from Etna. Nutrients from rocks cannot be directly processed by the vine roots. It takes time and other plants’ help to break them down. A yellow flowering bush plant Ginestra is known for its’ capability to break down the Etna basalt which is formed by the slow solidification of the volcanic lava flows as they cool. If not this plant we wouldn’t have terroir on Northern-East Etna wines.



The Main Grape Varieties of Etna DOC


Nerello Mascalese

Nerello Mascalese is Mount Etna’s most important variety and the mountain’s claim to fame. The black cultivar is named for the wine’s gentle red color and the village of Mascali, which is largely regarded as its birthplace. Its characteristic acidity, pale ruby color, red fruit profile, and peppery tannins are highly dependent on elevation, soil type and epoch, age of the vine, weather during the vintage, and the techniques of the producer. Because of this, it reflects the changes within the mountain landscape better than any other grape that grows here.


It also expresses well flavor differences between grafted and ungrafted Nerello Mascalese. Grafted vines have a profile of fresh cherry and forest berries. The wine has a soft ruby color,

striking acidity, fine-grain tannins, and a dry brackish finish. Wines made with fruit from ungrafted vines have a brooding appeal. They show a deeper color, dark fruit aromas, mouth-watering flavors of black cherry, plum, and spice, with fatter tannins than their grafted counterparts.


Nerello Cappuccio

Nerello Mascalese’s backup singer is the darker, richer, and mellower Nerello Cappuccio. The name literally means “black hood”, it comes from the powdery bloom that covers the clusters. It was also a favourite variety of the Capuchin monks. The bunches are tightly packed, making it a tough grape to work with in damp or wet vintages, or areas where this kind of weather is common.


Carricante

Carricante is Mount Etna’s dominant white grape variety. Its name is suggestive of the grape’s potential for high yields. On steep slopes and well-drained soils yields are lower and flavors are better. Carricante’s home is on the east slope of the mountain, but it also performs well in other sites around the volcano. Cool, anaerobic strategies in the cellar yield wines that are delicate, savory, and age worthy.


I SUOLI


I Suoli is of the newest projects on Etna volcano is born from the friendship of three men – Giuseppe Russo of the renown Girolamo Russo estate, one of Etna's best producers, the eminent oenologist Emiliano Falsini and non-wine-related Dante Pasqua. The winery was not created for following any traditional style of the area. They started with experimenting and trying different, new ideas. Like metodo ancestrale without added yeast, whole-bunch fermentation and a rosato from mixed white and red wine grapes from ungrafted vines of more than 50 years old.



Spumante Rosato Piripicchio

Denomination: IGT TERRE SICILIANE SPUMANTE

Grape: NERELLO MASCALESE

Vintage: 2019

Bottles produced: 2500


Piripicchio 2019 is the most jovial and direct expression of the 2019 vintage grapes grown at about a thousand meters on the north side of Etna, grapes from vineyards with an average age of about 60 years at an altitude between 750 and 1000 meters. The management of the vineyards is in full respect of the environment, no chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides were used.


I Suoli Piripicchio Rosato Spumante Nerello Mascalese
aged on lees for 14 months!

The grapes are pressed directly in whole bunches, there is no maceration, the contact with the skins is only the time of pressing (just over 2 hours). The must is fermented at low temperature using the yeasts naturally present on the grapes, a part is kept in stainless steel at about 50% at a temperature around 10 °/12 ° to then assemble the wine with the remaining part ageing in wood for 10 months from the end of fermentation. Finally, the second fermentation in the bottle which takes place with the addition of sugars that come from the must of the new harvest.


The winery decided not to release the wine and leave the yeasts in the bottle (at least 14 months) aware that the wine can evolve and improve over time, but also convinced of its great youthful ductility and pleasantness that it manages to express from the first months of life.


Pietradolce

Michele Faro's grandfather owned two hectares of vines south of Etna and one of lemons – enough for a family to live on then. (Michele is pictured here.) His father Venerando built up a considerable business selling Mediterranean plants in this particularly warm, wet corner of Sicily overlooked by Etna. But in 2004 they realised that Etna was about to be engulfed not by molten lava but by an influx of wine producers and made their move, acquiring some particularly favoured 40-, 80- and 100-year-old vines for their Pietradolce wine project in the late-ripening northern sector that is particularly suitable for red-wine production because of the length of the growing season.

This way, Pietradolce was established in 2005 and found its’ home in Solicchiata, on the Northern slopes of Etna.

Michele Faro Pietradolce winery on Etna volcano


Etna Rosato DOC Pietradolce

Area of production: Solicchiata, Northern slopes of Etna

Altitude: 700 masl

Grape variety: Nerello Mascalese

Soil: stony, light sandy soil

Training method: bush (albarello)


The grapes from the bush trained (albarello) vineyard are harvested in the second half of October. They’re pressed softly without additional skin contact. After the fermentation the wine is aged in stainless steel tanks and aged in bottle before being released.


Etna Rosato DOC by Pietradolce
Etna Rosato DOC by Pietradolce

Soft ripe nectarine, raspberry coulis and cranberry combine to create a wonderfully summery, attractive wine with vibrant crunchy redcurrant acidity. Dry, crisp, elegant and full, the finish is long with a hint of soft orange peel which lingers.


Etna Bianco DOC Pietradolce

Area of production: Solicchiata, Northern slopes of Etna

Altitude: 800 masl

Grape variety: Carricante

Soil: stony, light sandy soil

Training method: bush (albarello)


The grapes of the Pietradolce Bianco come from their Solicchiata vineyard located at 800 masl. The volcanic soil consists of sandy loam with rock. The grapes are picked by hand in the second 10 days of October.


After the harvest they’re gently pressed. The fermentation and 6 months aging takes place in steel vats, followed by resting in bottle.


The color of the Pietradolce Banco is intense straw yellow. In the nose expressions of white fruit, florality, fresh herbs, almonds and salty minerality. On the palate we find nicely balanced acidity and the typical salty minerality.


Archineri Etna Bianco DOC Pietradolce

Area of production: Eastern slopes of Etna, Contrada Caselle, Milo.

Altitude: 850 masl

Grape variety: Carricante

Soil: stony, light sandy soil

Training method: pre-phylloxera bush (albarello) of 100 – 120 years old.


The Archineri Bianco grapes come from vineyards located at 850 masl. The volcanic soil consists of sandy loam with rocks. The pre-phylloxera vines are 100 to 120 years old. The deep roots provide extra minerality in the wine. Grapes are picked by hand in the second 10 days of October.


Archineri Etna Bianco DOC by Pietradolce
Archineri Etna Bianco DOC by Pietradolce

After the harvest they are gently pressed. The fermentation and vinification takes place in steel barrels, followed by rest in the bottle. The wine has sufficient power and character, no barrel aging nor malolactic fermentation. The freshness is thus protected.


Contrada Rampante Etna Rosso DOC Pietradolce

Area of production: Northern slopes of Etna, Contrada Rampante, Solicchiata.

Altitude: 850 masl

Grape variety: Nerello Mascalese

Soil: stony, light sandy soil

Training method: pre-phylloxera bush (albarello) of 80–90 years old.


The grapes of this single vineyard Etna Rosso come from vineyards located at 850 masl. The volcanic soil consists of sandy loam with rock. The pre-phylloxera vines were planted in the early 20th century. The grapes of the late flowering Nerello Mascalese are picked by hand in the second half of October.

After the harvest of the ripe grapes, there is a maceration on the skins for 18 days, followed by a gentle pressing. The Contrada Rampante is aged for 14 months in lightly toasted French oak barrels 'grains fins' with a natural malolactic fermentation.



The wine is of brick red colour reminiscent of the evolution of Nebbiolo. Beautiful mineral notes complemented by aromas of cherries, flowers, mint and licorice. An interesting sweet/salty layering. The finish is long with tannins and great finesse despite the high alcohol percentage. Very nice expression of Sicily that includes both smell of volcanic ashes and salty minerality of the sea.


Masseria Setteporte

The Etna "brand" was born on the northern slopes of the volcano, because that's where the big names are concentrated. Meanwhile, southern Etna has remained out ofour sight for long time. It is still not that trendy, however quality wines were made on this side of the volcano for much longer time.The speciality of this area is that it is quite far from the sea, it's influenced by nearby lakes. The grapes, as a result, are much riper. Wines are more powerful and are ready to drink sooner than the ones coming from the Northern Etna.


Masseria Setteporte Piero Portalle wines from South Etna
Piero Portalle of Masseria Setteporte

The winery Masseria Setteporte is located in a very unique place: on the south-western slope of the Etna volcano, in the town of Biancavilla, within the Etna DOC area.


Here, viticulture dates back to ancient times. The Portale family has been present in the area since the eighteenth century, moving here from Palermo after arriving from France. They have passed their winemaking tradition down through generations.


In 2002 Piero Portale decided to carry on this project, taking the farm from its original 12 ha to 27 ha, 16.5 of which are already planted with vines.

The history of their own bottling starts after a series of experiments in 2002. Now from those vineyards that the great-grandfather cultivated at the beginning of the 1900s, Masseria Setteporte produces about 50 thousand bottles.


Etna Rosso DOC

Area of production: area of Biancavilla – south west of

Etna volcano

Altitude: 650-700 masl

Grape variety: Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Capuccio

Training method: espalier

Production: 35 000 bottles


Curious to taste these wines? They're available in my wine store on Once Upon A Wine.

And the whole 6 bottle collection is available on pre-order here.

Masseria Setteporte Etna Rosso DOC from South of Etna
A jewel from the southern slopes of Etna

The vines rooted in sandy volcanic soil at an elevation of 650 - 700 m above sea level. Southern facing on the south-western slopes of mount Etna. Vines planted in 2008.


The harvest is in the beginning of October. Fermentation takes place in steel vats with short pumpovers to extract the best of the skins. The wine is fined for 9-12 months and spends min 6 months bottle ageing before release.


The wine has an intense ruby red colour. It's pleasantly fruity with hints of wild red berries. It's harmonious, elegant and persistent on the palate.



Curious to taste these wines? They're available in my wine store on Once Upon A Wine.

And the whole 6 bottle collection is available on pre-order here.