Winemaking talent erupts under Mount Etna

Thirty years ago there were just five wine producers in the shadow of Mt Etna. Now dozens work this challenging terrain. 


The noise of a volcano erupting in the distance, even if it’s only a small eruption, sounds like the rumble of a dinosaur’s stomach crossed with an aeroplane. It cracks and groans, thunders and moans. I know this because Etna was at it when I was there earlier this year. I stood in a field full of ancient, knotted vines and wild flowers and watched plumes of grey smoke form a cloud around the summit. The agronomist with me shrugged and then – “This is a bit more than usual” – sent a quick checking text and I thought that in all of Sicily, this is one place you would only choose to make wine if you didn’t mind having your work cut out.
For serious winemakers, though, the slopes of one of the world’s most active volcanoes have become the place to be. The draw is simple: old vines and a terroir that gives wines with what you might call X-factor – some of the frisson, the spark and a certain transparency, where the grape recedes and seems to show the land, that you find in Burgundy.
The winemaker Salvo Foti says that when he began working on Etna some 30 years ago there were just five producers. Now there are more like 85 to 90: a renaissance. “Etna doesn’t change. The perception of it has changed. A few decades ago, when Sicilian wine first started to interest people, most of the production was in western Sicily. People planted merlot, cabernet, non-Italian varieties. In Etna it’s different because we have old vineyards and old vines. And production is difficult…”
No kidding. The challenge isn’t just the long-term threat of destruction from lava flows. Or for some vineyards near the activity the constantly shifting soil composition. It’s also remote here. The old vines require careful tending. The terrain is rough, and often steep. Everything has to be done with perseverance and by hand. It’s a toil. Frank Cornelissen, an eccentric, white-haired Dane, told me that in winter he skis in the dark at 5am to reach his vines. Anna Martens de-stems her grapes by hand, massaging them through a mesh, rather than subject them to a machine.
Red wine on Etna really revolves around nerello mascalese, a grape often, because of its finesse and translucency, spoken of in the same breath as pinot noir and nebbiolo. Like pinot noir in Burgundy, nerello mascalese tends to showcase the land; grown even in adjacent vineyards it can make wine that tastes dramatically different. Altitude is also a key factor: Etna rises to about 3,350m (11,000ft) and many vineyards are at high altitudes.