The wines of Sicily – especially the red wines – have been getting a lot of attention lately, but chances are they won’t prepare you for the distinctive charms of the red wines from the Etna district. “An island within an island” is how Giuseppe Benanti, one of the zone’s most distinguished producers, calls the Etna wine district, which should give you an idea of how unique these offerings are.
There are some lovely white wines produced in Etna and even a rosé or two, but the reds wines from here are the lead story. They are produced from two varieties, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. The former is the prevalent variety, as the DOC regulations call for 80% of this type with 20% of Cappuccio; the truth is that hardly any of these reds have that exact mix. Most producers want the richness and tannins of the Mascalese, while the Cappucccio is added for a little color; thus you may find some Etna Rossos to be almost entirely Nerello Mascelese.
Many of the vines are quite old and are planted in the albarello (little tree) system; this way of farming means that these plants are quite close to the earth and thus retain ground heat for optimum ripening. Many of these vines are at or near 100 years of age, with a few being from the 1870s and 1880s, meaning they are pre-phylloxera vines that are still producing fruit. You now also see some new plantings with the more traditional wire trellis.
The red wines here are direct products of their soils, often black lava rock, originating from centuries of eruptions of Mount Etna. The finest are quite Burgundian in style and that fact has attracted vintners such as Marco de Grazia, one of America’s leading importers of premium Italian wines as well as Frank Cornelissen, a former Alpine climber from Belgium. For Cornelissen, his approach in making wine from Etna is as exacting as scaling a mountain; he adds no sulfites and can only make great wines with precision farming and winemaking. His has been at this for ten years now and produces biodynamic wines of great complexity and finesse – they are sublime and are superb representations of the territory.
Cornelissen has extremely strict winemaking practices. As well as not adding anything to the wines, he does not use wooden barrels or even steel tanks for fermentation, preferring terracotta pots in his aim for purity and precision. His Munjebel and Magma reds (the last from his oldest vineyards) offer beautiful red cherry and wild strawberry fruit, medium-weight tannins, lively acidity and subtle spice. They can be consumed (as can the finest reds of Etna) over the course of 7-25 years, depending on the wine and the vintage.
Here is a short list of the finest reds wines from Etna:
Tenuta del Terre Nere (Marco de Grazia)
- Santo Spirito
- Quota 600
- Serra della Contessa
Tenuta di Fessina
While a few of these wines are priced over $100 retail in the US market, many are in the $30-$50 range, with a few priced even lower. You can purchase the normale bottling from Terre Nere for a mere $14; this is a medium-weight offering with polished tannins and appealing fruit that is a nice introduction to Etna reds. As a group, the red wines from Etna are almost to themselves among Italian reds. Truly the only comparison in terms of terroir, style, complexity, grace and finesse among Italian wines are the finest offerings from the Barolo zone. Talk about rare company!
One final note: Several vintners here told me that 2008 was one of their finest vintages to date – more than one used the word “extraordinary.” Deeply concentrated with ideal acidity, the 2008 Etna reds are the ones that display all of the finest characteristics of the wines from this singular district.