Channelling Burgundy on the slopes of Etna

Twenty years ago, Marco de Grazia turned his eye to Sicily with a Burgundian style of wine in mind. David Kermode tells the story of how Tenuta delle Terre Nere has since helped put Etna wine on the map

Words by David Kermode In partnership with Justerini & Brooks

tenuta delle terre nere in etna

At first glance, Sicily might appear to have little in common with Burgundy. A vast island off the toes of Italy’s southwest coast just 100 miles from North Africa, versus an intricate patchwork of soils and microclimates deep in eastern France. So Marco de Grazia must have raised a few eyebrows a couple of decades ago when he declared Etna to be ‘the Burgundy of the Mediterranean’.

That was in 2002, as de Grazia unveiled his inaugural wines from Tenuta delle Terre Nere, an estate of 45 hectares he had purchased some two years earlier. Back then, a mere eight winemakers worked the slopes of Mount Etna. Today, there are 171. At the turn of the millennium, Sicily’s vineyards were still largely responsible for bulk wine, much of it destined for distillation. The notion that the island might one day produce fine wines to rival those of Piedmont and Tuscany was, quite frankly, for the birds.

Twenty years later, nobody is laughing. Etna’s thrilling wines are the pinnacle of fashion, coveted by collectors the world over. Meanwhile, Tenuta delle Terre Nere is considered a benchmark producer and Marco de Grazia is lauded for his foresight, pioneering spirit and determination to put Sicily on the fine wine map alongside its more northerly rivals.

‘Rather than choosing Etna, Marco likes to say that it chose him,’ says Christian Liistro, Tenuta delle Terre Nere’s global head of sales. ‘He defines his wines as Platonic because he is very inspired by Greek philosophy and Plato represents the expression of the beauty of ideas.’

‘Rather than choosing Etna, Marco likes to say that it chose him’: Terre Nere founder Marco de Grazia

One of life’s risk-takers, de Grazia had made his name in the 1980s as one of the ‘Barolo Boys’ – a group of young guns, considered mavericks at the time, who established a new, more accessible style of Barolo, truer to its terroir. Even back then, de Grazia’s inspiration came from Burgundy, a region whose wines he had always adored that came to influence his vision for the barren northerly slopes of Mount Etna.

At an elevation of between 400 and 1,000 metres above sea level, higher levels of rainfall combined with a striking diurnal range in temperature, provide the perfect conditions for Etna’s once endangered, now lauded, indigenous grapes; the crown jewels being the red Nerello Mascalese and white Carricante.

In Etna’s blackened earth, de Grazia discovered a rich and complex volcanic patchwork, from solidified lava streams interwoven and embedded over millions of years. High levels of silica in the soils meant that many of its ragged-looking bush vines were able to resist the menace of Phylloxera as it swept across Sicily in the late 19th century, resulting in some that are now more than 140 years old. In 2006, de Grazia launched a special cuvée from two parcels of these vinous veterans: ‘Prephylloxera La Vigna di Don Peppino, Calderara Sottana’ (named in honour of the man who once tended the vines), which he describes as a wine of ‘almost supernatural finesse’.

‘The moment Marco came to Etna, he had in mind a style, inspired by Burgundy. With all of these different microclimates and the complex patchwork of lava flows, he felt that it was what the Burgundians would call climats,’ says Liistro.

‘He set about being able to express the same kind of extraordinary elegance and finesse in the wines that he found in Burgundy and because he found so many sub-zones, he set about making and selling the wines according to the individual cru, which was something really new at the time (for Etna).’

The moment Marco came to Etna, he had in mind a style, inspired by Burgundy

As a result, Tenuta delle Terre Nere now produces some 70 different micro-vinifications of Nerello Mascalese and 25 of Carricante from vineyards in nine of Etna DOC’s 142 ‘Contrade’, or individual crus, that hug the volcano’s steep slopes. Delicate and floral on the nose, Etna’s red wines thrill with a spicy raspberry intensity and mouthwatering mineral drive, while its rosés offer unrivalled gastronomic depth and its white wines combine nervy citrus energy with layers of texture and stone-fruit complexity.

Such was de Grazia’s devotion to Burgundy that he even chose a Burgundian-shaped bottle for his wines – a move once considered novel (when Etna wines came in Bordeaux bottles), that has since been adopted by almost all of the region’s producers.

Two decades after the winery was founded, Tenuta delle Terre Nere produces 15 different wines that are now exported to 95 countries, with the USA as its largest market and Switzerland and the UK vying for second place.

‘Etna has become part of the new culture of fine wines that are affordable,’ says Liistro. ‘These days, you need a bank loan to buy a single bottle of Burgundy, but you don’t need that for a beautiful wine from the slopes of Etna.’

The wines of Tenuta delle Terre Nere are distributed in the UK by Justerini & Brooks.