UNESCO protected Parco dell’Etna is an area of incredible natural beauty. Just beneath the continuous plumes of ash and smoke, a plethora of fertile vegetation and diverse wildlife extends from the summit to the townships below. Exactly what grows where is subject to the intricacies of the micro-climate but flora generally is dictated by a terrain of richly mineralised, black solidified magma; oak forests, vineyards, hazelnut tree groves, apple and chestnut orchards grow in abundance.
Amongst this roam foxes, wild cats, porcupines, martens, rabbits, and hares along with weasels, hedgehogs, dormice, and several species of mice and bats. Flying overhead, sparrow-hawks, buzzards, kestrels, peregrines, and the golden eagle survey their domains waiting to swoop; at night, the barn, scope and tawny owls are on patrol. In the woodlands the usual racket is made by pigeons, warblers and cuckoos.
This is a busy place to make wine but Etna is one of the most exciting wine regions in the world at the moment; both red and white wines grown in single vineyards are showing such character and personality that wine commentators are comparing the potential of this complex DOC with Burgundy. This remains to be seen, but as stocks of older wine mount up in cellars, there will be plenty of opportunity to taste their progression.
Etna DOC covers the area surrounding slopes of Mount Etna, an active volcano on the eastern side of Sicily. It’s an incredible area, alive with wildlife and fauna. A combination of local varieties, volcanic soil, altitude and a Mediterranean climate are being utilised by a new generation of winemakers who believe in sustainable farming and minimal intervention in the winemaking process.
In style, the main red grape Nerello Mascalese can more often than not be compared to Sangiovese, but with touches of Pinot Noir. The wines exhibit a red brick colour, sour cherry aromas and a dry, ethereal palate with racy acidity and a mineral finish. These wines will often contain a small proportion of Nerello Cappuccio.
The white variety of note is Carricante, a variety capable of producing concentrated wines of exotic stone fruit flavour. When yields are limited and the variety is allowed to express its natural characteristics, the palate takes on a waxy, viscous texture making the best feel elegantly voluptuous and round.
Because of the nature of the environment, vineyards are generally small, lining sharp terraced slopes. Machine harvesting isn’t possible meaning harvests are done by hand, which in turn has led to smaller, family orientated operations that are not averse to experimentation. Rather than chasing volume, producers seek to do the best they possibly can with their land and to craft a wine of authenticity and individuality.
The majority of producers are located on the north side of Etna, in villages such as Randazzo, Passopisciaro, Linguaglossa and Castiglione di Sicilia. There are fewer companies based on the southern slopes, but one of the most famous names in international markets, Azienda Benanti, are based there producing interesting and authentic wines.