For anybody making wine on Etna, the promise of the volcano far outweighs the threat. The complex soils, composed of countless lava flows and ash, combined with indigenous grapes have the potential to produce distinctive wines. Nobody is really sure yet how good they can be.
RANDAZZO, Sicily — Chiara Vigo was just a young girl at the time, but the eruption of Mount Etna in 1981 is burned into her memory.
Her parents grew grapes, olives and hazelnuts on roughly 150 acres in the Etna foothills near the Alcantara River. A glowing cascade of lava as tall as an 18-wheeler and as wide as an avenue snaked toward the estate, scalding anything in its path. It was pointed directly at the estate’s vineyard and main house.
The lava approached the grounds two days after the eruption. Vigo recalls the helpless feeling as the family discussed leaving everything behind to flee to the relative safety of the coastal towns, and she can still summon the fear of what they would find when they returned.
Somehow, as the lava nudged the edge of the vineyard, it made a 90-degree turn and headed toward the river instead. Most of the vineyard and the house were spared, but the eruption left a huge wall of gray-black lava rock that bisected the estate.
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The looming presence of an active volcano is a simple fact of life in the Etna wine region, like the lapping of the ocean in a beach town. Ordinarily, the 11,000-foot mountain is tranquil, snow-capped and gorgeous, even if it does regularly emit plumes of smoke.
It often spews ash or lava, which trickles to a stop high on the slopes, well above the vineyards, which top out at about 4,000 feet. But big eruptions are not infrequent. The most recent was in December.
Rather than building up pressure for years before erupting violently — like Vesuvius, which buried Pompeii 2,000 years ago, or, more recently, Mount St. Helens in Washington — Etna tends to emit gases continually, which relieves the pressure. Its more frequent eruptions are classified by volcanologists as effusive rather than explosive, which is a little like saying it’s safer to be hit repeatedly by a left jab than once by a haymaker.
Life or death
Winemakers deal with natural hazards every day. Hail, drought and infestations threaten crops and may cause financial and cultural disasters. But a volcano can mean life or death.
“There’s a love-hate relationship between the mountain and the people,” Vigo said as I visited her estate in early June. “We love Etna. It’s the center of our lives, but it could also be the origin of tragedy.”
It’s hard to visit without encountering evidence of past eruptions. Turn a corner and you may see an entire field of brown lava rock, bare except for yellow genestra flowers, or broom, the first plants to grow back. Genestra indicates a relatively recent eruption.
With time, pine trees will begin to take hold. It’s all part of the process that, over many years, breaks down hard rock into the soils in which so much life thrives.
The destruction of the ’81 eruption forced Vigo’s family to sell off half the estate. Like most agricultural families on Etna, her ancestors had made wine and sold it in bulk to merchants. After her father died in 1987, her mother simply sold the grapes. Vigo left Sicily and eventually got her doctorate in mass communications.
In 2007, she returned to the family’s estate near Randazzo on the northern face of Etna. With the encouragement of Salvo Foti, the region’s leading agronomist and oenologist, she decided to make her own wine.
Working with her mother, Rosanna Romeo, they produce delicate wines under the Romeo del Castello label that are lovely counterparts to the generally more burly reds of the region.
Etna today is booming, a symbol of Sicily’s resurgence as an exciting wine region. Newcomers who have flocked to the north face of the mountain, drawn by land that was relatively affordable.
They include people like Marco de Grazia, an American wine importer who established Tenuta delle Terre Nere in Randazzo in 2002; Frank Cornelissen, a wine lover from Belgium who’s been making idiosyncratic natural wines on Etna since 2003; and Andrea Franchetti, a Tuscan winemaker who was drawn to Etna in 2002.
They have been joined more recently by others like Alberto Aiello Graci, whose family ran a construction business in Catania, the nearest big city, and by Anna Martens of Australia and Eric Narioo of France, a couple who created Vino di Anna on Etna in 2010. Along with the small producers, big companies like Planeta and Cusumano are also buying land on Etna.
“Eighteen years ago, maybe five producers bottled wine here,” Foti said. “Now there are more than 100.”
Still, Etna makes far less wine today than it did at the end of the 19th century. Back then, France, which had been devastated by phylloxera, an aphid that preys on grape roots, began buying wine from Etna. An estimated 120,000 acres were planted to vines then.
But phylloxera arrived in Sicily in the 1930s, and war shortly after. Today, only around 2,500 acres are planted.
For anybody making wine on Etna, the promise of the volcano far outweighs the threat. The complex soils, composed of countless lava flows and ash, combined with indigenous grapes like the red nerello mascalese and the white carricante, have the potential to produce distinctive wines at the least. At best, nobody is really sure yet how good they can be.
As for the volcano itself, Graci, for one, barely gives it a second thought.
“Lava? We are fatalists,” he said. “We don’t care. It’s normal for us.”
Elegant, classical wines
Graci calls Etna “an electrical place, an emotional place, a place to make elegant, classical wines.” Walking through one of his vineyards, about five acres of nerello mascalese planted around 100 years ago in the Contrada Barbabecchi above the town of Solicchiata, it’s easy to feel the electricity.
The vineyard is about 3,300 feet high, the upward limit at which nerello can ripen. Interspersed are olive and apple trees and birds, bees and bugs that fill the air with industrious chirps and hums.
“This is a place where it’s possible to have a balance between elegance and rusticity,” Graci said. “This sensation is hard to find anywhere else.”
Such a duality is typical of many Italian wines, which can be simultaneously sweet and bitter, generous yet austere. Elegance and rusticity may be a singular characteristic of Etna. Yet I find Graci’s wines leaning more to the side of finesse and elegance than to rusticity.
Much ink has been spilled comparing Etna’s reds to Burgundy’s for their elegance and ability to transmit small differences in terroir. It’s not a comparison that works for me.
I see more similarities between nerello mascalese and aglianico, the best red grape of Campania and Basilicata, which likewise thrives on volcanic soils. Aglianico may be a bit sturdier and firmer, but nerello can be surprisingly tannic as well. Aglianico has a proven track record at aging; nerello still has something to prove.
In the best wines, the power of the Etna terroir is clear. You can taste its savory, minerally character in wines as disparate as the elegant Romeo del Castello and Graci wines and in Foti’s Vinudilice from his Bosco vineyard, the highest vineyard in Sicily at almost 4,300 feet — too high for nerello mascalese. Instead, this tiny vineyard, more than 100 years old and enclosed by stone walls, holds grenache, alicante bouschet, minella bianca and other grapes not yet identified.
No matter, Vinudilice, which is vinified as a pale pink rosé, is savory, succulent and delicious.
Even wines as eccentric as Massimiliano Calabretta’s bear a telltale sign of place. Calabretta has longtime roots on Etna through his father’s family. His mother came from Lombardy, and Calabretta, who was trained as an electrical engineer, spends much of his time in Genoa, where he teaches. But when he’s at his small winery in Randazzo, he is relentlessly experimental. He is now trying to earthquake-proof the winery while still working in it.
“I’m a bit of a geek,” he says, pronouncing the word with a soft Italian “g.”
Depending on the vintage, Calabretta ages his wines for years before releasing them. His 2006 is just about to enter stores in New York. It is fruity yet lean, with the energy and minerality that Etna seems to confer on the best examples.
Etna is not just a mountain with a fuming crater at the summit. It has at least five different craters that spew ash and lava in myriad directions, and countless smaller vents. At Romeo del Castello, Vigo pointed out the twisted remains of a railroad track that had been engulfed in 1981 and now dangles in the lava wall like a piece of modern art.
Though the lava scorched and destroyed vines on the edge of the vineyard, Vigo pointed out a few vines that were now emerging from under the rock. The roots of a few vines had somehow survived the lava and began to grow again.
Ever resilient, like the Sicilians of Etna, they reappeared in 2014, more than 30 years later.