Beautiful landscape of Etna Volcano and the various soil influences

“Island on the Island”: Etna’s Volcanic Red Wine

The Etna wine production zone is comprised of the surrounding hills of Catania and the slopes of the Etna volcano. Mount Etna is the most active volcano in Sicily at just under 11,000 feet and is often capped with snow. Mount Etna of Sicily, called the “Island on the Island” by the locals, is classified as a young shield volcano at the bottom, but an ancient stratovolcano (also referred to as a composite volcano) at its peak. This causes it to produce two types of eruptions – explosive and fluid basaltic lava flows, creating nutrient-dense volcanic soils.

Soil Composition

As the first Italian wine DOC, ages of this volcanic and seismic activity have created a soil with amazing diversity. The andesitic magma from these volcanoes enriches the soil composition with beneficial levels of iron, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium. Among these components is a high percentage of extremely fine sand, which has allowed many Etna Rosso vineyards to fight off Phylloxera, a louse that was ravaging vineyards throughout Europe at the turn of the Twentieth Century. As a result, there are now some very old vines that are on their original and un-grafted rootstock, a rarity in Italy, and climbing to over 2,000 feet in elevation.

The steep terrain of a Mount Etna vineyard

The graduated topography creates a smooth spread of micro-terroirs, as the land climbs up from near-sea-level to more than 3,940 feet. The highest of Etna’s vineyards now rank among the highest in Italy (and even the world). Because of these micro-terroirs, the soil composition of Etna vineyards depends on which side of the volcano it is produced. To the north, volcanic soils mixed with white sand are found; while in the east there is mainly steep, precipitous soil (40%). The resulting low yields there bring exceptionally high-quality wines.

Etna Rosso Grape

Quality

This steep terrain combined with the sandy volcanic soil makes tending the vines quite difficult. It is hard for a worker to keep from falling, especially during harvest when carrying baskets of harvested berries. The work is so difficult that it is often problematic employing harvest workers.
Luckily, none of these difficulties have ever harmed the excellent quality of the wines produced by the vines that hug the slopes of the volcano. The grapevines at these high elevations benefit from the hot Mediterranean sun while the warm Mediterranean breezes are conducive to an extended growing season. These elevations make it possible to ripen grapes further up than would be possible in a landlocked area (similar to the effect seen on Geneva in Switzerland and along the Mosel in Germany). The sea also serves to moderate temperatures here at a latitude of 37 degrees; far from the coolest of European wine regions (2). Importantly, there is also a considerable variation between night and day temperatures at these elevations. Such temperature variations work to the benefit of grapes in that it not only facilitates berry growth and coloration, but also promotes complexity in grape flavors. At lower elevations, there are less lava flows, creating riper grapes and producing sweeter wines with less flavors of spice.

Regional Variations

North

Most prominent area for Etna Rosso. The strong Northern sun exposure would usually be a disadvantage, but the presence of the Alcantara River and the Nebrodi Mountains a valley favorable for vineyard cultivation and the growth of high quality grapes. The northern border, is represented by the right bank of the Alcantara River to the town of Randazzo.

The terrain is volcanic and terraced. The ancient cultivation methods are what sustain the balance of the environment. The volcanic, sandy terrain is characterized by the stones generated by the disintegration of the lava from old volcano explosions. The ground changes continually, shallow and fertile at some points or deep with volcanic rock emerging in others.

Climate change is fast and unexpected in this area and is impacted by dramatic changes in temperature between day and night. Vines can only be cultivated by hand, with small non-invasive agricultural vehicles or by mule.

Etna Rosso Grape

Etna Bianco Grape

East & South-East

Renowned area for the production of Etna Bianco. The proximity to the sea, remarkable rainfall, and altitude allows for Eastern vineyards to develop mountainous wines with strong Nordic profiles. Due to these exceptionally high altitudes, some red berries have difficulty getting to full ripeness, allowing for powerful flavors not common in white varietals.

Characterized by the presence of mountainous reliefs that result from extinguished volcanic cones. These volcanic cones cause the soil to vary dramatically from other areas of Etna affected by different eruptions. The southern sun exposure also provides vines with ample sun for development.

South

The southern slope of Mount Etna houses the highest vineyards of the volcano, and perhaps of Europe, which in certain districts exceed altitudes of 1,000 meters. Towns of this side such as Adrano, Biancavilla, and Belpasso are areas where Nerello Mascalese is the most widespread vine.

More sheltered by the influences of the sea, this area is less influenced by the southern sun exposure than the south east. With soil that is a compilation of multiple eruptions from different time periods, the varietal characteristics vary dramatically. In most parts of the South zones, the soils were formed by the crumbling of one or more types of lava in different ages and by different eruptive materials such as lapilli, ash, and sands. The crumbling state and composition of the lava and eruptive materials have given the southern Etna very fine soil.

This is the least known wine-growing area of Etna, but is recently providing great viticultural surprises and may become an up-and-coming area.

Etna Rosso Vineyard

Flavor Profile

Primary - Grape Influences

Etna Rosso wines come in a variety of styles that can vary from traditional to modern to quite unconventional. They can vary markedly from one producer to another depending on the individual winemaker’s style as well as from one geographic area of the volcano to another. Etna Rosso (Etna red) wines are blended wines. By regulation Etna Rosso must have a minimum of 80 percent Nerello Mascalese.
Etna’s signature red varietal, Nerello Mascalese has light red skin and gives off a high acidity with moderate tannins. An aged Nerello Mascalese will have a more saline and umami taste of dried porcini and earthy-like flavors.
Produced in a landscape that more resembles a desert than a Mediterranean region, and with the help of abundant sunshine, the wines of Etna are similar to a great Barolo or Burgundy and are generally well-balanced in taste.

"The Mediterranean Sea reflects the intense Sicilian sunshine back up
onto the vines
glinting away far below."

 

Some of the wines produced in the high-altitude reaches of the Etna Rosso DOC will be nuanced and subtle, reflecting their patrimony. These wines prize elegance over power whereas other Etna Rosso wines will have the structure, substance and tannins evocative of a fine Barolo. While most Etna Rosso wines don’t require aging, and can be drunk when young, some require long aging to tame the wines’ assertive tannins.

Secondary - Fermentation Influences

Etna Rosso’s secondary influences are subjective based on the producer.  Commonly, wineries use stainless steel tanks as their fermentation containers for Etna Rosso.  Because oak barrels are not often used, Etna Rosso usually contains little to no oak flavor influences in the secondary flavors.  
The use of stainless steel tanks allows for the flavors to exclusively be derived from the fruit through fermentation.   The length of Etna Rosso’s alcoholic fermentation is usually 8 to 10 days at a temperature of 81-86°F.  
A common maceration technique used for Etna Rosso is the pump-over method, also know as remontage.  This is the process of pumping red wine up from the bottom of the tank and splashing it over the top of the fermenting must.  This allows the skins to submerge so that the carbon dioxide is pushed to the surface of the must and released.  The length of the maceration process is most often 2 to 3 days.  
Malolactic fermentation is also commonly allowed in the production of Etna Rosso.  Malolactic fermentation allows the tart-tasting malic acid, naturally present in grape must to be converted into a softer-tasting lactic acid.  Shortly after the primary fermentation process is complete, malolactic fermentation is most often performed secondarily, allowing a more buttery flavor to be emitted.  
Common secondary aromas and flavors brought from these fermentation methods are herbaceous and floral. 

Wine Style

Food wine or enjoyed by the glass because of earthy tones paired with impeccable silkiness.

Vintages

  • 2015: Pressed wildflower, hay, fennel, and ripe berry scents mingle together in the glass.  The refreshing palate combines crushed strawberry, juicy red cherry, saline, and a hint of baking spice alongside bright acidity.
  • 2014: This gorgeous wine opens with aromas of smoke, baking spice, red berry and flint.  The mineral note carries over to the vibrant, silky palate, accenting juicy Morello cherry, white pepper, star anise, Mediterranean herb and tobacco.  Polished tannins and fresh acidity provide impeccable balance.  Hold for more complexity.
  • 2013: Underbrush, menthol, new leather, and black-skinned berry aromas emerge in the glass.  The smooth, full-bodied palate delivers juicy black cherry, baking spice, tobacco, and mineral alongside firm, velvety tannins.
  • 2012: Opens with earthy aromas that recall woodland berry, leather, and scorched earth.  The medium-bodied palate offers ripe red cherry, licorice, and a hint of toasted nut alongside firm tannins.
  • 2011: Opens with alluring aromas of violet, tilled earth, and red berry. The savory juicy palate doles out black cherry, raspberry, white pepper, and cinnamon framed in firm, polished tannins, and fresh acidity.
  • 2010: Opens with aromas of underbrush, woodland berry, exotic spice, sage, and a balsamic note. The palate delivers black cherry, spiced blueberry, licorice, and white pepper framed in firm, close-grained tannins. Drink through 2020. A coffee note closes the finish.
  • 2009: Ripe berry, underbrush, licorice, and crushed violet aromas waft from the glass. The savory palate offers dried red cherry, ripe raspberry, anise, and grilled sage alongside firm, austere tannins. Drink through 2019.
  • 2008: Game, toast, underbrush, ripe berry, and chocolate aromas lead the nose. The palate offers dark berry, funk, game, mineral, and licorice alongside firm tannins. Drink through 2020.

Etna vineyard dormant season

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