When Mt. Etna was ‘rediscovered’ 20 years ago, there was an eruption
of activity which continues to flow today
Geek is old enough to remember when there were semi-regular new ‘discoveries’ in the wine world. New Zealand comes to mind as a hot ‘new’ category in 1980 (even though they’ve been making wine there since the 19th century and ramped thing up seriously in the early 60’s). Likewise, we remember when $15 old-vine Cabernet from Chile was all the rage as they aggressively went after international markets with their best wines which were priced well below similar quality wines from elsewhere. Ditto Argentina and their ‘new’ grape called Malbec which took the world by storm in the 90’s & 00’s. Fast forward to today, and these ‘discoveries’ are few and far between. Sherry and Santorini’s Assyrtiko have been ‘rediscovered’ of late, but nothing has created the buzz and rash of great wines as the resurrection of the wines of Mt. Etna.
At the turn of the millennia—around 2000 to 2002—three separate individuals (one Sicilian and two ‘outsiders’) individually and concurrently rediscovered this sleeping giant (referred to as ‘she’ or Idda in the local dialect) and its treasure of old, abandoned, high-altitude vines. These three gentlemen started a vinous gold rush of sorts and today, few places on earth have the buzz that Etna has. Deservedly so.
Part of the reason for the buzz—and the quality of the wines—is the fact that in 2000, there were hundreds of acres of abandoned Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio vines…a large portion of which were 60 to 100 years old! The reason for this is simple (and sad): though much of the arable land on Etna was planted to vines throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, due to things like emigration, worldwide economic strife and world wars, interest and activity slowly faded away. Hence a small fraction of what was once a large vineyard area was still actively worked by 2000. So these three prophetic men were able to acquire vineyards in a historic growing zone–replete with old vines—for pennies on the dollar. Note: vineyards on Etna are no longer cheap.
Etna produces red, white and (of course) pink wine. The basis for the reds is primarily the esoteric local Nerello Mascarello grape, along with 2nd fiddle Nerello Cappuccio. Whites are made primarily from another unique-to-Etna grape: Carricante, though there is some Chardonnay and even Riesling sprinkled around. Etna reds have been described as ‘Barolo meets Burgundy’: pale red wines with alluring aromatics and showing pronounced acidity and a streak of tannin. As are Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, Nerello Mascalese is a very ‘transparent’ grape, vividly translating the nuances of climate and soil into the wine. Indeed, today most of the best bottlings indicate which ‘Contrada’ the fruit is from, indicating further (to those in the know) stylistic differences based on its sub-zone (just like Burgundy & Barolo). Contrada by the way translates roughly to neighborhood; sometimes it’s the name of a hamlet, sometimes it refers to a specific lave flow from an old eruption. The difference in style and quality of wines from the north side of the mountain vs the south side is very evident. Ditto the stylistic differences in wines from sites at say 600 meters ASL to wines grown at 1,000 meters. There is an endless spectrum of styles and interpretations.
As the market seems to be embracing lighter-weight, fresher styled wines (consider the Cru Beaujolais boom), there is a very big opening for the wines of Etna. If you have not yet jumped in, don’t miss the party.
Of Note: Some of Etna’s greatest reds do not have a Mt. Etna DOC, instead using Sicilia DOC or Terre Siciliane IGT. The reason for this is interesting: when the Etna DOC was first established in 1968 (Sicily’s 1st DOC), many of the vineyards were abandoned, especially the higher altitude, harder to work sites. In 1968, there were no active vineyards above 800 meters ASL, so even though there were prized and historic vineyards up to (and exceeding) 1,000 meters, the government dropped the chalk line at 800 meters. Don’t be misled: these high altitude wines—whether they sat Etna or not, are her best.