Volcanic wines, have you ever heard this term used? for me, this term made me curious and eager to further understand the vast wine world. The word volcanic pictures a vivid image in my mind of an eruption, bright hot lava spluttering surrounded by a large plume of ash falling to the ground. One may ask several questions, so how will vines strive in these extreme terroirs? Which grape varieties are grown? What style of wines are made?
Etna wine was the first DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) known as Etna DOC which states the wine ‘designation of controlled origin’, created on the Sicilian island of Italy in August 1968. The active volcano is at an elevation of 3330 meters located in the northeast corner of Sicily. Etna is Europe's largest active volcano counting 300 eruptions in 500 years with the last eruption taking place on the 24th Dec 2018. Etna vineyards are located on slopes and terraces surrounding Mount Etna, vines are grown on varied volcanic soils, these zones spread around from Randazzo in the north spreading around the eastern zones of Giarre to the southern zones of Maria Di Licodia. Some of these zones have a high elevation of more than 1200 meters above sea level making them on the list of the highest regions in the world. The temperatures in these high elevations drop, having a cooler and longer growing season with a warm soak from the Mediterranean sun, which is perfect for ripening grapes for picking time which is between the end of September and the beginning of October.
Old vines are found dating back between 80-140 yrs. These natural historic vines are trained as bush vines (vite ad albarello), and the berries are hand-picked as machinery is not possible in this particular training system. Old vines represent excellent, luxurious, rich minerality concentrated wines. Studies undergone resulted in Pre-phylloxera vines dating back to more than 140yrs, these vines have strived to the aphid pest that destroyed almost all European vines. The wine produced from these historic vines are sought-after wines of value and with potential further ageing in the bottle.
The surrounding terroir gives a longer life to these noble vines to thrive on rich dark volcanic soils transformed by several eruptions having varied components from different ages. These volcanic soils contain magnesium, phosphorus, copper, iron, and more. Its soils hold a varied profile rich in nutrients and minerals. It is also said that when the volcano erupts it is considered good luck, the ash falling to the ground does not cause harm to the vines but instead, it fertilises the land contributing to a distinctive character wine that Etna boasts.
Deriving great wines from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna
Nerello Mascalese is one of the native black grape varieties that is widely grown, striving well on high elevations. Counting to 2/3rd of wine produced as Etna Rosso DOC, these wines are complex with lots of minerality, medium garnet colour, sharp acidity with an abundance of red fruits, cherries, strawberries quite herbaceous complemented by subtle mushroom, forest floor, rustic soft tannins with hints of ash and an elegant finish. Nerello Cappuccio is another grape variety grown and is used in blending with Nerello Mascalese giving spicy notes to the wine. These wines are perfectly paired with Sicilian dishes such as Tuna, tomatoes, peppers, meatloaf, seasoned pork sausages, aubergine pizza, and other typical Mediterranean cuisines.
Etna Rosato DOC refers to a rosé style wine that is also produced using (min 80%) Nerello Mascalese and (max 20 %) Nerello Cappuccio, The wine holds a light pink coppery colour with a distinctive aroma of Mediterranean herbs, delicate red fruits, strawberries, red cherries, with a dry palate and well-balanced crispy acidity and a fresh finish, pairs well with pasta dishes, veal, white meats.
Carricante is the native white grape variety mostly produced, some wines are entirely made from 100% Carricante. During the wine-making process, lees contact is practised also subject to some contact with oak. Catarratto white grape variety is also used in small proportions up to (max 40%) for white blends with (min 60%) Carricante. These white varieties are good examples of further ageing white wines. Etna Bianco DOCs have a yellowish straw colour, dry but balanced with a delicate fresh taste of apples, pear, floral notes, and wet stones with ample minerality. Pairs well with seafood, grilled vegetables, poultry, goat cheese, and other light dishes.
Other styles of wines are also made such as Traditional method sparkling wines from Nerello Mascalese black grape variety known as ’Blanc de Noir’ and ‘Blanc de Blancs’ from Carricante white grape variety. Rose spumante is also made using Nerello Mascalese.
Etna has attracted wine producers to further experiment with these high volcanic elevations and varied dark soil inhabitancies in adapting vine plantations in these protected natural volcanic lands. Volcanic wines are found around the globe from Mount Etna, the Greek islands of Santorini, Spanish islands of Lanzarote, Somlo, Hungary to Lake Country in California and other distinctive wine regions around the world. These lands are earth’s geological gems and are of growing interest and attention from wine lovers and tourists.