Why Etna wine is so hot right now

All wine producers claim magical properties for their region but Etna is truly one of the most extraordinary terroirs in the world – and pioneering winemakers are still heading down there to tap into the charm of the capricious volcano

Words by Adam Lechmere

Tascante vineyard at Mount Etna volcano
Tenuta Tascante, the Etna vineyard of Sicilian producer Tasca d’Almerita (Photo: Pietro Leone)

It’s perhaps telling that the first Etna wine to be sold through La Place de Bordeaux – Giovanni Rosso’s Etna Rosso – comes from a producer from the opposite end of Italy.

The wine, from the indigenous Nerello Mascalese grape, will be sold through a handful of big-name négociants, including Joanne, Barrière Frères and DIVA.

“We are the only Etna wine on La Place,” Davide Rosso, the owner of Giovanni Rosso, says with some pride. Whatever your view of Bordeaux’s arcane system of merchants and courtiers, to be added to the list confers a certain international cachet.

The Rosso family has been growing grapes in Barolo since the 1890s, and in Etna since 2016. “I was born in Serralunga and I spent all my life in Barolo,” Rosso says. He’d been looking for a new place to make wine for a long time, and the moment he saw Etna, he knew his search was over. “I arrived in Passopisciaro and I stopped the car and I thought, this is the place.”

Davide and Esther Rosso of Giovanni Rosso
Davide Rosso and Ester Canale of Giovanni Rosso, whose Etna wine is the first of its kind to be sold on La Place de Bordeaux

Although the Etna DOC is among the oldest in Italy (it was established in 1968, a couple of years after Barolo, which was then promoted to DOCG status in 1980), it was relatively unknown internationally until about 20 years ago. Wine has been produced here since before the Romans, and in the middle of the 19th century there were 52,000ha of vineyards; now there are 3,000ha. Over the past century, Etna produced vast amounts of bulk wine which was used for blending as far afield as Langhe and even Burgundy.

It’s only since 2000 that its wines have gained their international reputation, a renaissance driven by an influx of producers from outside the region.

“There was a moment when producers from outside Sicily, people with very strong personalities and knowledge of the wines of the world, came to Etna,” said Alberto Graci, who has been making wine on Etna since 2004.

Alberto Graci
Graci vineyards - Benedetto Tarantino
Alberto Graci has been making wine in Etna's Passopisciaro since 2004
(Photos: Benedetto Tarantino)

Graci (an outsider himself: he sold his family’s Sicilian vineyards in order to buy land at Passopisciaro on the northern slopes of the volcano) is referring to two wine merchants. The Belgian broker Frank Cornelissen established his eponymous azienda in 2001, and the New Yorker Marco de Grazia started Terre Nere in 2002.

These producers and many like them capitalised on a unique Sicilian quality, Graci believes: the open-mindedness that comes from being a seafaring nation that has welcomed incomers for millennia.

“It’s this great Mediterranean soul: the ability to be open to other cultures. This is the new wave of Etna. To respect our values and our history, protecting our vineyards and our style of wine but also looking for input from outside.”

Etna is one of the world’s most active volcanoes (the frequent eruptions often involve lava flow but seldom pose any danger to inhabited areas), and this is what makes the terroir so fascinating. Some soils are the result of eruptions tens of thousands of years ago, some are far more recent – generally the sandier the soil, the older it will be. Etna’s 130-plus Contrade (single-vineyard denominations) show huge variation of soil ages and types.

Mount Etna volcano errupting
Mount Etna covered with snow
Etna is one of the world's most active volcanos and last erupted in May; by contrast, the snow-capped mountain in winter

Etna has another unique property: it’s a snow-capped 3,300m mountain on the shores of the Mediterranean. “It’s a synthesis of two excesses at once: hot and cold, fire and ice – southern sun and mountain weather,” Graci says.

This happy conjunction of elements continues to fascinate vignerons. The ever-curious Angelo Gaja of Piemonte is at the vanguard of an even newer wave of pioneers. He had been looking to buy land on Etna since the 1990s, and entered into a €4m joint venture with Alberto Graci in 2017, buying some 40ha in Biancavilla and Belpasso on the much-less-planted southern slope of the volcano (almost all of Etna’s vineyard sits on the northern and eastern flanks). Their Etna Rosso, Idda, has been in the market for a couple of years.

Gaia Gaja, who is running the project with her father, says their aim in planting on hotter and more exposed terroir is to try harvesting the white Carricante grape earlier and thus retain more of its celebrated “electric acidity” while giving it a bit more body. She also wants to go higher up the slopes (on the southern flanks DOC regulations allow planting up to 1,000m compared with the permitted 800m in the north) as an insurance against climate change.

Gaja winemakers
The Gaja family are extending their experiments in wine to vineyards in Etna

The Gajas are famous experimenters (in Barbaresco they employ a small army of scientists) and as such are typical of the latest wave of Etna producers. Giulio Bruni (a Roman) is the recently-appointed estate manager at Tascante in Etna, one of five Tasca d’Almerita estates in Sicily. Here, they are “zooming in”, he says. “We’re observing from north to south, starting to understand differences between the areas, investigating single vineyards. It’s like Barolo or Burgundy.”

Bruni isn’t the first to make the comparison. Barolo, Burgundy and Etna are regions full of small, family-owned estates, cultivating very few varieties of which one red (Nerello Mascalese) and one white (Carricante) dominate. The terroirs are vastly different, but Nerello Mascalese reminds Gaia Gaja of her homeland. “There’s an elegance and the transparency to the wines: it’s like Nebbiolo.”

Tenuta Tascante
Tenuta Tascante
"We’re observing from north to south, starting to understand differences between the areas," says Giulio Bruni of Tasca d’Almerita

Nebbiolo is capable of long ageing; whether Nerello can do the same is another matter. “Etna is getting established in the fine wine market,” David Gleave MW, managing director of London importer Liberty Wines, which specialises in Italy, says. “They need to get on a firmer footing which is going to take time.” He cites the wines of Terre Nere as examples of “first class” wines, but adds that he’s never seen a really old Etna wine. “It’s too early to tell if they can age.”

Perhaps, though, the secret of Etna is no more complicated than this: it produces wines of elegance and simplicity with fine acidity, fresh fruit and soft tannins – in short, wines that are perfectly attuned to modern tastes.

Etna volcano
Gaia Gaja says Etna is more than a mountain to its locals

And then there’s something magical, even primal, about the great volcano. There are few wine regions which inspire more devotion. Etna’s acolytes often mention its potent charm. “Do you know why we called our wine Idda?” Gaia Gaja asks. “It means ‘she’ in Sicilian. It’s how people down here refer to the volcano. They will say, ‘She’s in a good mood today’. It’s more than a mountain to them. It’s maternal, it’s capricious, it has a quick temper – it’s alive.”