Terroir of brimstone and minerals – the Etna experience!

A couple of weeks ago I got the opportunity to go to Etna to try wine – for four days. I visited several wineries and tested more than a 100 wines, together with a bunch of other wine nerds and wine bloggers under the banner: Wine bloggers Etna educational tour 2012.

There is one thing you can’t miss being at Etna – it’s Etna! It kind of screams out :

  • My name is Etna, there are many flavours inside this mountain – though made by the same grapes no wine is the same.

The wines of Etna truly has lots and lots of terrior though it differs from many other regions as the terrior differs quite a lot between the vineyards. This is due to when the soil was made, which eruption that affected what spot, then again you can grow vines from Ca 450 to 1000 AMSL within the D.O.C., then there is the angle of inclination, if the vineyards are towards the sea, the difference in microclimate etc etc.

Wine in Sicily has a long history, going all the way back to the Greek colonists who settled in Naxos. Naxos is considered Sicily’s oldest Greek city founded by the Chalcidensians in circa 735 BC. Wine production has had it up and downs between then and now. In 1968 Etna wines were the first region in Sicily to get recognized as a D.O.C., giving the world Etna Rosso and Etna Bianco. In the late 90’s the next generation of wine makers really started to work on creating something new, using old methods mixing it up with new ideas. From 2011 several wines that can be labeled with the area name, contrada, which works more or less like a cru.

As I said we tasted somewhere along the line of 100 wines in four days. How does one really taste and remenber such a variety of wines in such a short time? It is difficult to write about or to remember all, especially since in addition to the wines one get lots of other impressions; the food, the environment and the people. I have chosen to try to summarize some of my impressions of the region as a whole, from the wines, the grapes and what I see as its main characters.

The largest part of Etna wine production is made up of red wines. The red D.O.C. wine called Etna Rosso must contain at least 80% (up to 100%) nerello mascalese and max 20% nerello cappuccio. You also have the right to mix in up to 10% non-aromatic grapes, white or red. The white D.O.C. wine called Etna Bianco must contain at least 60% carricante and max 40% catarratto. You have the right to mix in up to 15% non-aromatic grapes such as minnella or trebbiano etc.

The lava soil gives the wines a unique mineral tone. But above all the lava soil affects the plants, which grow more slowly here than elsewhere in Sicily. The porous soil allows the roots to reach deep into the ground in their quest for moisture, resulting in a complex flavour of the grapes. Another interesting detail is that many of the vines are very old, up to 200 years old, so there is still a lot of vines that never were exposed to phylloxera.

alberello

There is an everlasting mix of old and new in the vineyards, many growers still works the old traditional method, alberello, ie with independent vines that are supported by a pole. Which makes them look more like a small tree instead of on the lines of vines that you see in many vineyards. The traditional method is more expensive and you get less grapes why many of the newly planted vineyards made by more modern methods.

In many vineyards both white and red grapes are growing together with olive trees, cactuses and fruit trees. When you walk through the vineyards you are struck by the scent of the herbs that grow in the vineyards. When you then try some the wines the herbs are vivid in the aromas along with the fabulous mineral tone coming from the lava soil.

I’ve started getting into the taste and flavours of Etna wines and spreading it wide I would say that the red wines has elements reminiscent of Burgundy and Piedmont in style – but darker and bit more lush. From burgundy can I find earth and autumn tones and the minerality, from Piedmont the structure and roughness but also a little mushroom and earth. Etna wine is darker and busier in the fruit and a little fuller with a distinct mineral notes that sets them apart and lots and lots of tannins that sometimes can be really tough. Many wines suffers from being a bit too young, the tannin structure gets to tough, and many have too little much oak, which, together with the tannins makes it at bit over the top. Some wines do have that perfect balance between fruit, tannins and oak and they shows the very high potential in the Etna wines. Today, I recommend they be consumed with food or stored for a few years.

The white wines reminiscent more the wines from Austria with features of gruner veltliner and white wines from the Loire and a little from Bourgogne. Here are hints of spiciness and a little white pepper from grüner, herbs and aromatic from Loire and minerality and acids of Bourgogne and on occasion in some part reminiscent of riesling. What is found in all the wines are lots of minerality combined with great acids. When they are in balance with a nice fruitiness and a hint of flowers and herbs they are amazing – personally this is where I got my greatest wine experiences of Etna. But as with the reds there are many that are far too young.

We got a few reds and whites that had been stored for a few years and these really proved the potential that are in the Etna wines.

One of the real finds were Quantico. The vines is grown at the vineyards at Linguaglossa on 6 hectares, together with olives and hazelnuts. The wines are since a few years back natural but instead of going the bio-way they are using quantum physics in the vineyards – which makes a lot more sence, logically, than Mr Steiner’s ideas. This is natural wines at its best – fantastic wines with depth, elegance and personality and that Etna feeling – brimstone, minerals, acids, fruits and tannins mixed together in perfect harmony. The wines are made mainly with nerello mascarlese, nerello cappuccio, carricante, catarratto and grillo but there are also smaller amounts of minnella bianca, minnella nera, grecanico, moscato dell’Etna, scassabbutti and corniola  – if you find these wines – buy it, enjoy it, bask it, relish it, savour it!

Other great wine producers are Nicosia, Gambino, Barone di Villagrande, Ciro Biondi, Passopisciaro, Torrepalino, Antichi Vinai, Cantine Russo, Benanti, Fattorie Romeo del Castello and Vivera. I come back to the producers more in detail in the future.

As you can see there are lots and lots of grapes I never have tasted before, and I’ve just mentioned a few, I would love to taste more pure wines (100 %) to get the feeling of each and every grape. Some of them like nerello mascarlese, nerello cappuccio, carricante and catarratto are often among the main grapes and therefore you kind of get them, find the essence of them and in doing so better understand the wines.

Cheers winelovers and thanks for a great time at Etna!

A big thanks goes to Fermenti digitization with Elisabetta Tosi & Giampiero Nadali and Consorzio Tutela Vini Etna DOC for both the invitation and for the great organization, a really big thank you also goes to all the winemakers who put their time, food and wines to our disposal.

Magnus Reuterdahl

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