Etna has been erupting for some 500,000 years, at least once a year for the past decade. Continuously active. Always ‘blowing volcanic chunks’ in the slang of the volcanist.
As a long-term fan of the area’s wine, Etna as a real place that sits under the perpetually smoking volcano was something bookish and abstract in my mind till I climbed these hillside vineyards and let the volcanic sand run through my fingers.
I’ve loved and written about Etna over the years through the bottles of four local winemaking greats.
Benanti the patriarch. Biondi the beloved artisan. Foti, the soul of Etna, living and breathing the belief that the vineyard is indeed the wine. And Cornelissen, the foreign iconoclast, whose wines I love but there’s invariably a gap between unquenchable interest and pure sipping enjoyment.
From the first sunrise with the fuming volcano straight in view, it became clear what while I loved the taste of Etna from afar, I had missed the true magic of this place till that very moment.
The magic that comes with a smidgen more hands-on understanding and a healthy dose of seeing the land up close and personal.
That’s the magic I want to share.
It rises from a melding of the volcano as the heartbeat of Etna’s terroir, the astounding ubiquity of ancient, often ungrafted, indigenous grape vines, and a wholehearted embrace of traditional (and natural) winemaking from many in the region.
Define terroir as you like, but what’s clear to me, across grape variety and microclimates a plenty in this area, is that Etna itself as the volcanic replenisher of the soil is the atomic component of their terroir.
And to every one of us who picks a bottle of Etna Rosso or Etna Bianco from a restaurant menu or shop shelf, this is the plot of the story you are tasting.
The volcano is definitely the thing…
As a guest of the Etna Wine Blogger’s tour recently, we four-wheeled it to the top of the volcano, jeeped and labored up steep vineyard slopes, visited some 20 producers and tasted on the hillsides where the grapes were grown.
Unique beauty and surreal volcanic landscapes aside, I just couldn’t wrap my palate around the differences in tastes from one Etna Rosso or Nerello Mascalese to another. With the whites the differences from one Etna Bianco or Carricante were even more striking.
Boggling how different the tannins in the reds were from place to place, and the palate itself in the whites as we circumnavigated the volcano on three sides.
Elevations and microclimates aside, it gelled for me when I picked up this piece of volcanic flotsum on a steep vineyard walk in the historic Brancatelli, Monte Ilice Vineyard.
This chunk of ash, about a month old, (sitting on my desk now) is a tangible example of what drops from the sky and characterizes the soil I was walking on and what the grapes are grown in.
Nothing impacts more of what we taste in wine than the soil itself. This piece of air born lava is my clue to understanding the diversity of taste in the area and my deep visceral appeal for this region.
Etna is always spewing forth and a natural progenitor of the soil itself. Terroir comes from the sky here. Each bit of volcanic activity and each chunk of ash like that in my hand is different, from a different strata of the earth with different elements and mineral densities. The winds are the distribution system spreading the new additions to terroir willy nilly across the region.
And of course the less frequent, more dramatic eruptions which change the landscape and the land itself with lava flows.
What a place!
Like a child’s story. What really amazing terroir with uniquely fingerprinted and tasty results!
The vines are the thing….
Character and age never looked so good nor spread so wide in one place.
The photo is a 225-year-old Alicante vine in the I Vigneri, Vigna Centenaria Vineyard of Salvo Foti. Most of the vines in this vineyard exceed 100 years in age.
Many wine lovers relish the depth and concentration of flavors that we get from wines made from really ancient vines. A taste that comes with the character and complexity of age.
We pay a premium for this character on the market. Because of their scarcity and their quality. Old Vines in English, Vieilles Vignes in French and Alte Reben in German are wine label designations of something special everywhere in the wine world.
From a scarcity perspective, not in Etna it appears.
In most of the older vineyards, scattered everywhere, 60+ year-old vines and older seemed commonplace. I don’t know the why of this. Maybe it’s the volcanic sandy soil that contributes to the high number of pre-phylloxera vines.
Vitality certainly runs deep in this volcanic soil and age seems ever so gingerly…ageless.
Looking back to find a really bright future…
Etna coalesces around the intersection of this broad canvas of wondrous wine and a trio of factors bringing it together.
The volcano itself as the engine for terroir. This x factor in the longevity and character of the indigenous vines….and leadership, in the form of Salvo Foti.
Salvo, more than any other individual in Etna, is laying the groundwork for the future. And I think the future greatness for Etna as a wine region.
Foti is the organizer and leader of the I Vigneri project, named after a Vintner’s Guild founded in 1435 to align the small vineyards in Sicily around the cultivation of the Albarello bush vine. Close to 600 years later, the intent of the project is the same.
It is an agricultural collective dedicated to indigenous grapes, natural cultivation and an obsessive attachment to the terroir of Etna.
I had the pleasure of experiencing his dream first hand on this trip. With him, tasting at Vigna Centenaria (photo at the top of this post) and through this gate into a living diorama of Etna’s terroir and roadmap for what I hope is their direction for the future.
This is the doorway to Vigna del Bosco. The highest vineyard in Etna at 1300 meters and a glimpse into an Etna that is rising in vineyards of I Vigneri and the many winemakers inspired by Foti approach to terroir and viticulture.
This vineyard sits small and quiet surrounded by groves of Sicilian Oaks, Chestnut and Juniper trees. Stepping down and in is like stepping to a future idea of vineyard health, natural viticulture, respect for vine itself and a stewardship of place with craft and skill.
Tall Albarello vines in an impossible melting plot of indigenous grapes: Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Alicante (their name for Grenache), Carricante, Visparola, Minnella, Grecanico.
This is Etna ungrafted! A verdant ecosystem of balance, climatic extremes and rigorous vineyard health.
It was magical here.
When a vine dies, they propagate another by layering. By choosing whichever vine is closest and bending a shoot underground to take root. In two years, it has added fruit to this natural field blend and takes it place along with the other more ancient vines, most between 60 to over a hundred years old.
I need to come clean and confess.
This most urban of New Yorkers was bowled over by this place. I just laid down on the vineyard ground here, zoned out on a hot Sicilian day under the shade of the grapes and watched the volcano through the vines.
Then, in a nearby grove of trees, with my friends and the winemakers, I tasted for the first time the wine I am sipping as I write. A 2010 field blend from Vigna Del Bosco, Vinudilice. As natural as can be (no sulfur added) and made entirely from the vineyard I just visited.
That’s the magic of Etna!
This place, that volcano, this taste of a natural field blend rolling in my mouth. Terroir all…all in a glass!
What a truly amazing trip this was!
I recommend that those interested check out the excellent posts from my fellow wine bloggers on the Etna Wine Bloggers Site.
Note: Photo at the top of the post is the tasting platform at Vigna Centenaria, Foti’s vineyard. The platform is made from lava rocks pulled from the vineyard itself. An astounding place to taste.