When one thinks of the wines of Sicily the knee-jerk reaction is to expect heavy, high-alcohol red wines that reflect the intense heat encountered this far south in Italy. While this is rapidly becoming a dated perspective (thankfully), it couldn’t be more incorrect than it is on the slopes of Mount Etna. On Mount Etna, at elevations running from 400 to 1000 meters above sea level, on the easern slopes that receive the ventilation from sea breezes, vines have grown naturally for millenia, and have been cultivated for centuries. The soil varies greatly from region to region, but is primarily volcanic ash, which is like black sand, or basalt.
Winds coming off the sea can be significant, so vines are not wire-trained but grown in the “alberello,” or goblet manner. Because the soil is like black sand machinery has historically been problematic in the vineyards. Traction requires that the tractors work on caterpillar-type wheels and machines frequently break down as sand, literally, gets in the gears. It is only in the last couple of decades that vineyard machinery was even made that would work in these conditions. As such, much of the vineyards on Etna were planted and worked by hand at staggering densities that frequently reach 8-9,000 vines per hectare. couple that with vines that are often nearly 100 years in age and it is easy to see the potential of this region. The climate on these sloppes is also ideal due to dramatic swings in temperature between day and night, which gives the wines an acidic backbone and aromatic quality that recalls Burgundy.
At Babbo, we’ve been following these wines for quite a while. Ones to look for include the Benanti winery, who has long been the standard-bearer on Etna. Look especially for their Etna Bianco “Pietramarina,” made from the local caricante grape. It has such an intense structure that its release date is usually three years after the harvest, in order to give the fruit some time to open up to balance the powerful acidity. They also make a powerful chardonnay that they boast is one of the latest harvests of the varietal in all of Europe. Tenuta delle Terre Nere is a property owned by renowned wine importer Marc de Grazia, whose single-vineyard Guardiola and Feudo di Mezzo have set a new standard on Etna with the assistance of oenologist Salvo Foti, de Grazia’s longtime friend,who also assists Benanti and several other producers on Etna. Another winery that has represented a tremendous value through the years has been the Scilio winery with their “Phiale” bottling, as well as Bonaccorsi and Biondi. The list continues to grow as more people discover the virtues of these slopes.