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Delhi Wine Club
Sicily: Wines and Lava Flows of Etna- the Burgundy of Mediterranean

Posted: Saturday, 29 June 2013 11:25

Sicily: Wines and Lava Flows of Etna - the Burgundy of Mediterranean

June 29: Mount Etna is an active volcanic mountain which provides a unique Terroir besides being a beautiful tourist destination and despite its cheap winemaking history, it has come to the fore in making quality wines during this millennium, writes Subhash Arora who also believes that Etna is the Burgundy of the Mediterranean due to the terroir made interesting by the ash of lava flows that grip the area at regular intervals

Click For Large ViewDriving up Mount Etna one is impressed at the beautiful vineyards sites facing the dark and black mountain with lava ash strewn all over. Regularly erupting, it had recently erupted on April 27 and as we were climbing the winding road on a 4-wheel drive with a knowledgeable professional guide, we noticed the ash collected on the roadside-perhaps reminiscent of coal mines anywhere.  

Etna has been known to produce wines from local grapes for centuries but just like the rest of Sicily the focus had been on bulk and blending wines exported to Northern Italy and France until a couple of decades ago. However, it has special Terroir because of the lava ash mixing with the soil over centuries and providing precious nutrients. Vineyards on the slopes and height of around 300-1000 meters have a climate similar to Northern Italy. More and more people have started noticing similarity and comparing it favourably with Burgundy and many believe it to be the Burgundy of the Mediterranean.

Giuseppe Benanti is credited with the revival of Etna as a quality producing region, since his refurbishing the family estate in 1988. But the real impetus was provided with foreign capital and entrepreneurs like Marc de Grazia from Florence, Andrea Frachetti of Rome and Frank Cornelissen from Belgium in 2000. Everyone seems to be suddenly aware of the uniqueness of Terroir in this area. Helped by the financing available from the Sicilian government, there has been a planting boom and producers are competing with each other to make memorable wines.   

Wine Styles and Laws of Etna

Etna was Sicily’s first DOC declared in 1968. Wines here are divided in 4 categories-Bianco, Bianco Superiore, Rosso and Rosato (Rosé). A government decree of 27 September 2011 also recognises Rosso Riserva and Etna Spumante (both white and Rosato) from that vintage onwards. It also allowed the producers from the 133 contrade (districts with well-defined boundaries) to put their name on the label with immediate effect.
Etna Bianco must have 60% Carricante, a varietal that is mediocre in the other parts of Sicily but adds a lot of minerality to the white wine. The balance may be Catarratto or up to 15% of other white varieties like Trebbiano, Minella or non-aromatic Sicilian white grapes. Superiore must have a minimum of 80% Carricante grapes-from the small town of Milo on the western flange of Etna and 20% may from the approved Sicilian varieties.

Etna Rosso and Rosato must have a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese. The balance may be a maximum of 20% of Nerello Cappuccio; Non-aromatic white varieties can be added up to 10% to lighten the colour. Etna Spumante must have a minimum of 60% Nerello Mascalese and the balance may be any Sicily-grown grapes.

The Spumante must be made by metodo classico-double fermentation in the bottle. It must be on the lees in the bottle for a minimum of 18 months before disgorgement. The aging period for a Riserva is 4 years before release; at least 12 months of this must be in wood. Aging must be done within the Etna DOC zone. There is no such restriction for other wines.

The latest decree also sets the limit on yields for Rosso, Bianco and Rosato at 9 tons/hA while Rosso, Bianco and Rosato must conform to 8 tons/hA. No limit has been defined for grapes for Spumante. The Etna producers got together through their consortium last June and decided to limit the production for the Rosso also at 8 tons/hA from 2012 vintage onwards voluntarily to improve the quality of their Red wines. They hope to get the decree of September 27, 2011 amended officially within this year.

Combining the journey through various parts of Etna, we visited a few wineries as well:

Barone di Villagrande

Click For Large ViewDriving to Etna on the eastern Flank from Catania, one reaches Milo situated at approximately 700m above sea level. Just outside the town is a modern winery, Barone di Villagrande, owned by the Nicolosi family since 1727. Carlo Nicolosi Asmundo, a professor at the enology school of University of Catania was largely responsible for drafting the appellation laws of Etna. His wife Maria Valeria and their enologist son Marco now run the winery. From the winery one gets an enchanting view not only of their own sloping vineyards but also other neighbours’ sites with the sea visibly touching the vines. Marco led us through his vineyard where some of the wines are really old - over 60-80 years.

Bianco Superiore, a 100% Carricante, was the best wine of the estate. Very mineral and crisp wine with lively acidity, it was a fresh wine that would go well with our pakoras and samosas and other greasy but enjoyable Indian snacks as well. Legno di Conzo is a wood matured Etna Bianco Superiore, a rich white with oaky flavours that can compare favourably with Pietramarina doc Etna Bianco from Benanti which we enjoyed with our dinner at a local Polpetteria later that night from the magnum bottles (1.5 liters) . White wines are Villagrande's calling cards but they produce just as much of red wine.

Etna Rosso is one of the best value-for-money wines of Etna. Black cherry colour wine with elegant bouquet of red berry fruit, very harmonious. On the palate it was bright and lively with red cherry flavours and moderate mineral acidity and warm tannins. This deep and elegant wine would go very well with burra kebabs and Sikandari Raan

Cantine Russo
Contact Gina Russo or Robert at

Click For Large ViewLocated at the foothills of the North Eastern slopes of Etna, this relatively new winery in the township of Solicchiata near Passopisciaro and Castiglione de Sicilia, is one of the many wineries that form a cluster and include wineries like Planeta’s new Feudo di Mazzo, Fessina and Passopisciaro wineries.

We were welcomed with a sparkling Rosé made from the signature Mascalese grapes by the charming Gina Russo whose parents own the winery and she runs it with her Australian husband Robert. Their Rampante (Carricante and Catarratto blend) was a lovely crisp wine with white stone fruit flavours and was quite a favourite with us all. This had been an extremely popular wine last year in India too when the group of Sicilian producers visited India to attend the Master Classes organised by the Indian Wine Academy. The red equivalent was interesting but did not match up to the delicious white that deserves to be on the shelves in India. The vineyards are set to the North-East of Etna, with typically volcanic soils which allow the production of some extraordinary wines.

Once could enjoy breathtaking views of the new winery from the vineyards at a slight slope carved from ground covered with lava flow on one side and the town of Castiglioni a few miles in the yonder.

Feudo de Mezzo (Planeta)

Click For Large ViewA quick visit to the new modern winery of Planeta which offered the tasting of a range of their new wines similar to the other two wineries, was on the cards next. We also made an interesting visit to the next-door winery that is being converted to a wine bar with a few rooms to stay. A pet project currently of the patriarch of the family, Diego Planeta, we could enjoy the display of the old style of winemaking in Palmento-the open rectangular stone tanks where men and women used to crush the grapes by their feet till a few decades ago. Once this is ready, it will become an interesting wine tourism attraction. Due to the appellation laws, Planeta cannot label their wines as DOC Etna yet so their white wine is Eruzione 1614 Carricante White, the red being Eruzione 1614 Nerello Mascalese.

These wines have been named after the historical eruption of Etna in 1614 that lasted for 10 years. DOC Etna white and red are on the roll. Planeta is one of the quality producers who have helped change the image of Sicilian wines and he is present practically in all parts of Sicily, including Etna.

Etna has been now recognised as the key production area for rather unique wines and is indicative of the future of Sicilian wines. The prices of vineyards have shot up tremendously during the last decade. This Burgundy of the Mediterranean will become a signature area of unique Sicilian wines during the coming years.

Other interesting wineries of Etna

Benanti*, Biondi, Bonaccorsi, Cantina Nicosia*, Cornelissen, Fessina, Passopisciaro (Andrea Frachetti), Russo (not related to Cantine Russo), Terre Neri (Marc de Grazia), Vigneri (Salvo Foti) are a few of the wineries focussing on DOC Etna wines.

* These wineries were present at the events organised by IRVOS/IRVV Sicily in conjunction with Michele Shah and the Indian Wine Academy in January 2012 and 2013 and were instant hits with the audience in all the cities in which they were presented.

Subhash Arora

For a few of the previous related articles, visit:
Wine and Food Travels: Wines of Eastern Sicily – Sicilia Orientale
Speedtasting Wines of Sicily- Part A
Wine Travels: Sicily-a Sea of Wine
Feature- A Wine Day in Sicily


Tags: Mount Etna, Sicily, Giuseppe Benanti, Carricante, Catarratto, Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Milo, Planeta, Diego Planeta, Sicilian wines, IRVOS/IRVV


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