Beautiful landscape of Etna Volcano and the various soil influences

“Island on the Island”: Etna’s Volcanic Red Wine

The Etna wine production zone thrives through the slopes of the Etna volcano and the hills surrounding Catania.  At just under 11,000 feet, Mount Etna is Sicily’s most active volcano.  Often seen capped with snow, Mount Etna obtained the nickname of “island on the island” by local Sicilians.  This “island on the island” is unique from other Sicilian volcanoes because it is classified as a young shield volcano at the base, but a stratovolcano, also called a composite volcano, at the top.  The variation in classifications from base to top causes the volcano to produce two different types of eruptions.  These eruptions are called fluid basaltic and explosive lava flows.  The diversity in eruption types creates volcanic soils that are exceptionally dense in nutrients.

Soil Composition

Years of volcanic and seismic activity has created a soil with immense diversity.  This diversity set the path for the first Italian wine DOC ever formed: the Etna DOC.  Mount Etna’s eruptions produced andesitic magma that enriched the soil composition with desirable levels of calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, and sodium.  Included throughout this volcanic soil is also extremely fine sand.  The fine sand has allowed many vineyards to repel Phylloxera.  Phylloxera is a louse that ravaged European vineyards throughout the Twentieth Century.  Luckily, this allowed very old vines to survive and stay on their original, ungrafted rootstock which is rare to find in present day Italy.

The steep terrain of a Mount Etna vineyard

Despite some vineyards climbing to over 2,000 feet in elevation, a smooth spread of micro-terroirs is created by the graduated topography reaching up from near sea level to over 3,950 feet.  Some of Etna’s vineyards now rank in the highest of Italy and even the world! Because of the micro-terroirs present throughout this region, the soil composition of each Etna vineyard is dependent on its location relative to the volcano.  In the northern region, the volcanic soils include white sand.  In the eastern region, there is mainly precipitous, steep soil.  This region usually results in lower yields, but produces wines with exceptional quality.

Etna Rosso Grape

Quality

The steep terrain of Etna combined with the sandy volcanic soil makes tending the grapevines very labor-intensive.  Because of this, it is sometimes difficult for vineyard managers or owners to find harvest workers to hire as these workers have to keep from falling while carrying baskets of harvested berries.  

Thankfully, these challenges have only increased the quality of Etna’s volcanic wines.  These elevated grapevines benefit from the Mediterranean influences such as the hot sun and the ocean breezes that are conducive to the extended growing season.  The elevations allow the grapes to ripen further up than is possible in landlocked areas.  Similar effects are seen along the Mosel in Germany and on Geneva in Switzerland.  At a latitude of 38 degrees, the surrounding sea also moderates temperatures in the vineyards, but the region still is far from the coolest of European wine regions.  There is also substantial variation between day and night temperatures at such highly elevated vineyards.  These temperature variations benefit the development in the grape by not only promoting more complex grape flavors, but also facilitating coloration and berry growth.  Lower elevated vineyards with less temperature variation and less lava flows result in riper grapes that produce sweeter wines with limited to no flavors of spice.

Regional Variations

North

This is the most prominent region for Etna Rosso production.  The sun exposure is strong in the North which would usually be a disadvantage, but the presence of the Nebrodi Mountains and the Alcantara River created a valley with great characteristics for high quality winegrape production.  The border of this northern area is represented by the town of Randazzo to the right bank of the Alcantara River.  

The terrain of northern Etna is volcanic and terraced.  Ancient cultivation methods are how the balance of the environment have sustained.  The sandy terrain is characterized by the stones remaining from disintegrated lava from old volcanic explosions. Because there are recurring shifts in the ground, some points are fertile and shallow while others are deep intermingled with volcanic rock.

Changes in climate are often unexpected in this region.  Overall climate change is often impacted by the dramatic temperature changes between night and day.  Etna grapevines are only able to be hand-cultivated without invasive agricultural vehicles.  The most commonly used alternatives are by non-invasive agricultural vehicles or by mule.

Etna Rosso Grape

Etna Bianco Grape

East & South-East

This is the most common area for Etna Bianco wine production.  The close proximity to the ocean, altitude, and the remarkable rainfall allows for these Eastern vineyards to produce wines with strong Nordic influences.  These high altitudes cause some red grape varietals to struggle to ripen fully, which has allowed powerful flavors to be present in the white varietals that thrive in the environment.  
Previously extinguished volcanic cones left mountainous reliefs which characterize this area of Etna.  The volcanic cones result in dramatic soil diversities, uni que to this area.  Other areas of Etna will have unique soil diversities as well due to each area being affected by different volcanic eruptions.  Also, the sun exposure from the south provides these grapevines with the necessary sun for full berry development.

 

South

The southern slopes of Mount Etna have the highest vineyards within the Etna DOC, running as one of the highest in Europe even.  In certain districts of this area vineyards are located at altitudes of 1,000 meters or more.  The most widespread vine in this area is Nerello Mascalese, a blending grape of Etna Rosso wines.  Adrano, Belpasso, and Biancavilla are towns around which Nerello Mascalese vineyards are most common.  

The southern area of Etna is more sheltered from ocean and southern sun influences than the south east region.  Multiple eruptions through varying time periods have caused the soil to be a compilation of these volcanic rocks.  This diverse soil has allowed for varietal characteristics to vary dramatically from other areas around Etna.  A majority of Etna’s southern vineyards’ soils were formed by the degradation of multiple types of volcanic rock.  The variation in years and eruptive materials has provided the soil with materials such as sands, ash, and lapilli.  The composition of the lava rock and its crumbling state have provided this region with exceptionally fine, sandy soils.  

This region is the least common wine-growing area in the Etna DOC, but it has recently shown viticultural promise and therefore may become the next up-and-coming area.

Etna Rosso Vineyard

Flavor Profile

Primary - Grape Influences

Coming in a wide variety of styles, Etna Rosso can be traditional, modern, or sometimes unconventional.  The variation from one producer to another depending on the individual winemaker’s winemaking style and the geographic areas in relation to the volcano is what makes this wine blend so exciting. Etna Rosso (Etna red) wines are always blends.  Etna Rosso is required by regulation to include a minimum of 80 percent Nerello Mascalese.  

Nerello Mascalese, Etna’s signature red varietal gives off moderate tannins with high acidity and has light red skin.  When ages, Nerello Mascalese will have a more umami and saline taste.  

More resembling a desert than a Mediterranean region, the landscape embraces the help of strong sunshine which causes the wines of Etna to be similar to a great Burgundy or Barolo and generally nicely balanced.

"Reflecting the intense Sicilian rays of sunshine, the Mediterranean Sea
provides the secondary sunlight up onto the vines from far below.
"

 

In the high-altitude regions of the Etna Rosso DOC produces some wines that are subtle and nuanced.  These wines value elegance over power whereas other Etna Rosso wines have the substance, tannins, and structure comparable to a fine Barolo.  Some Etna Rosso wines require long aging periods to tame the wines’ aggressive tannins, but most do not require aging and can be enjoyed when young.

Secondary - Fermentation Influences

Subjective based on the producer, Etna Rosso’s secondary influences are immensely dependent on the winemaking techniques practiced by each winery.  Most often, Etna wineries use stainless steel tanks as their fermentation containers of choice for Etna Rosso.  Etna Rosso usually contains little to no oak flavor influences due to the lack of popularity of oak barrels in this area.  

Stainless steel tanks allow for the flavors to derive completely from the wine grapes through the fermentation process.  Lasting about 8 to 10 days, Etna Rosso’s alcoholic fermentation process occurs at a temperature of about 81°-86°.  

The pump-over method, also known as remontage, is the most common technique for the maceration of Etna Rosso.  The maceration process is the process of pumping the wine up from the bottom of the stainless steel tank and splashing it over the top of the fermented must.  This process allows for the skins to submerge, causing the carbon dioxide to be pushed to the surface and be released.  The pump-over maceration process is generally performed for 2 to 4 days.  

Malolactic fermentation is also commonly included in the production of Etna Rosso wines.  This secondary fermentation allows the bitter malic acid naturally present in grape must to convert into a lighter-tasting lactic acid.  Days after the primary fermentation has completed,  malolactic fermentation is started to allow more buttery flavor profiles.  

Floral and herbaceous aromas are most commonly found as secondary aromas and flavors from Etna Rosso wines.

Wine Style

Etna Rosso can be enjoyed with food or by the glass.  The impeccable silkiness paired with its common earthy tones make this wine very diverse.

Vintages

  • 2015:  Ripe berry, fennel, compact wildflower, and hay scents intermingle in the glass. The fresh palate combines sappy red cherry, compressed strawberry, saline, and a touch of baking spice accompanied by vibrant acidity.
  • 2014:  This stunning wine opens with smoky aromas of red berry, flint, and baking spice.  Mineral notes linger to the silky palate of white pepper, star anise, tobacco, and juicy red cherry.  Vibrant, crisp tannins and light acidity leave the mouthfeel with impressive balance.
  • 2013: Crisp leather, berry, menthol, and underbrush aromas gush in from the glass.  The slick, full-bodied palate brings baking spice, mouth-watering black cherry, mineral, and tobacco accompanied by velvety, firm tannins.
  • 2012:  Herbaceous aromas that resonate leather, scorched earth, and woody berries.  The medium-bodied palate brings licorice, red cherry, and a touch of spiced nut accompanied by strong tannins.
  • 2011: Enticing aromas of tilled earth, red berry, and violet.  The wholesome juicy palate brings out raspberry, cinnamon, black cherry, and pepper accompanied by fresh acidity and strong, velvety tannins.
  • 2010: Aromas of exotic spice, sage, woodland berry, and underbrush.  The palate provides spiced blueberry, licorice, white pepper, and black cherry tied in strong tannins.  A note of espresso closes the finish.
  • 2009: Licorice, ripe berry, crushed violet, and underbrush aromas drift from the glass.  The wholesome palate brings out anise, grilled sage, dried cherry, and ripe raspberry accompanied by firm tannins.
  • 2008: Toast, ripe berry, chocolate, and underbrush lead the nose.  Offers game, minerality, licorice, and dark berry on the palace alongside strong tannins.

Etna vineyard dormant season

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