I said in my first post that I want to focus on not so well-known grapes and regions, trying to find those hidden gems that many of us are after. I’m not sure to what extent Etna Rosso is still a hidden gem, as these wines from Sicily are attracting more and more attention. But still, they are not that obvious to find, and for most people Etna Rosso is therefore uncharted territory. High time to change that, I daresay!
The reason why Etna Rosso caught my attention is because there is something quite unique about these wines. When I think of Sicily, I think of hot and dry weather! The distance between Sicily and the coast of Tunisia is about 155km. So you would expect full-bodied, sometimes alcoholic wines, reflecting the weather conditions. And such wines can indeed be found there. Think of Nero d’Avola. Well, I can assure you that Etna Rosso wines have very little in common with that style of wine. The illustrious nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio produce rather elegant, fresh, and sometimes also very structured wines.
As you will have guessed, the production area of Etna Rosso is on the slopes of Mount Etna, the biggest active volcano in Europe… It is currently 3329m high, has a base of more than 1000km2, has a circumference of 140km, and is actually a union of different volcanoes. It is also one of 16 so-called decade volcanoes in the world. These are volcanoes that are monitored closely as they represent a high risk in case of eruption. And such an eruption took place even very recently, in December 2015, luckily without danger. It sounds a little bit crazy to me to live and work on the slopes of an active volcano. So why do people do it? The answer is fertile ground! When the volcano erupts, ashes are released that come down when it rains. Volcanic soil has a strong mineral character which is good for plant growth. And it also has a high capacity to retain water. It is important to underline that the territory is very complex Mount Etna, with lava soils from different eruptions, all having their own characteristics.
Another important element that explains the character of Etna Rosso wines is the location of the vineyards. Many vineyards can be found between 400 and 600 metres altitude, and some even have vineyards as high as 1000 metres! The temperature differences between night and day here are big, sometimes reaching 30°C during the summer. These differences are important for the grapes to reach optimal ripeness. If the temperatures at night do not go down sufficiently, then the grapes build up the sugar level too fast producing alcoholic wines without necessarily having reached the right level of ripeness in the seeds and the skins, which is important to have ripe tannins. As both nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio are late ripening grapes it is important that the sugars build up slowly enough to make sure the tannins also become fully ripe. Since the nerello’s can have quite sturdy tannins, this is very important.
Grapes are grown on the northern, eastern and southern slopes of Mount Etna, but most of the well-known producers have their vineyards on the northern slope. When I was doing research for this article I often read that producers seeking for quality went to the northern slope. It seems to be a bit more complex than that. In fact, when the new wave of producers arrived in Etna Rosso, from 2000 and onward, the vast majority of the grounds that were free and for sale were situated on the northern slope. The producers who decided to come to Etna Rosso were mostly established companies coming with resources, know-how and the ambition to make high-quality wines. So the fact that many good quality wines come from the northern slope is not only linked to the quality of the terroir. In fact, it is very rare to find vineyards in Europe that are oriented to the north or north-east. I only know of Gigondas in the Rhone in France to have a similar exposition. The northern slope on Mount Etna in general has a dark lava soil, more sandy than in other areas, that produces wines with stronger structure and higher alcohol levels.
The eastern slope is full of trees, and is more humid as the winds come in from the east. The historical part of Etna is the east side because the origin of Nerello Mascalese is in Mascali (Contea di Mascali) near Giarre. Little by little the vineyards spread in other areas, Here you find Carricante, the grape that is used to make Etna Bianco, the white wines from this region. Some of the vineyards here are very old and the domaines here are in general much smaller.
The southern slope is much drier than the eastern slope and is obviously sun-drenched. This is why most vineyards here are even higher than in other areas in order to avoid the heat. The wines from this area, mainly white, are said to be very elegant and aromatic. Because of the great altitude, the vineyards here are very labour intensive, most of the work having to be done manually.
Mount Etna has been the scene for winemaking for many centuries. It is only since a couple of decades, however, that it attracts a higher interest, with winemaker Giuseppe Benanti reviving interest in the late eighties with an effort to map the terroir and potential of Mount Etna. As mentioned before, the beginning of the 21st century was a real turning point for Etna Rosso, with a number of wine makers arriving from outside the region, Marc De Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere being one of the most famous, soon attracting others with Planeta and Firriato being some of the big guys to follow suit.
So, all in all, a fairly recent development. Where does that leave Etna Rosso? Below I listed the Etna Rosso wine that I’ve tried so far. I purchased these wine myself, so no free samples. It is important to mention that this list is not the result of one tasting. I have drunk these wines over a period of time, so there is no direct comparison.
Etna Rosso Martinella 2010, Vivera
This is a wine from the contrada Martinella (name of the vineyard), situated at 600m above sea level. The family Vivera is one of the newcomers who bought vineyards here in 2002.
Nice nose of ripe red berries, a bit of leather and coffee. Fine acidity that keeps this wine nicely fresh and lively. Tannins are very soft here. Really nice Etna Rosso in a lighter and accessible style, somewhat reminiscent of red Burgundy, but riper of course. This is 80% nerello mascalese and 20% nerello cappuccio from the north-east of Mount Etna. The wine stayed in French oak barrels for 12 months. Recommended!
Il Musmeci 2009, Etna Rosso Riserva, Tenuta di Fessina
This is the top wine of Tenuta di Fessina, a domaine that was established in 2007. The nose of this wine is very intriguing, with almond, ash, liquorice and earthy aroma’s. Very fresh and reserved. This wine is not at its peak yet, with the tannins that still need to soften a bit, but this is a classy wine! 100% nerello mascalese. Recommended
Etna Rosso 2010, Vini Patria
Patria is a cooperative situated on the northern slope of Mount Etna with a wide spectrum of wines. One of them is this Etna Rosso, which aged in Slavonic oak for a year. Dark and ripe cherries in the nose, quite “modern”. This wine is very smooth. Very well made, I find, but it stands out from the others. I do not have a connection with Etna, nor the Nerellos. Nevertheless, this is a nice wine. At 13,50€ you get a nicely balanced wine, with ripe fruit, ripe tannins, and good acidity. Therefore Recommended! But perhaps not the most typical Etna Rosso.
Etna Rosso Riserva 2005, Vini Patria
The top Etna Rosso from the same cooperative. And this is a special bottle! The grapes for this wine come from vineyards that are situated 800-900m above sea level and that are between 80 and 100 years old. The wine ages for 5 years in Slavonic oak and another five years in the bottle before it’s released on the market! I had high hopes for this one because I find it very laudable to release the wine only when the producer thinks it’s ready. Especially since quite a few Etna Rosso wines do really need some time to soften. Alas, this wine did not live up to my expectations. The colour is much lighter than the entry-level Etna Rosso. The nose is more typical for Etna Rosso with aromas of fresh red fruit. The dominant feature of this wine, however, is its acidity, which is very, very high. I tend to prefer wines with good acidity, but this is simply too much… It also lacks depth, and length. I drank this wine again on day two, three ànd four hoping for improvement. But alas!
Etna Rosso 2013, Tenuta delle Terre Nere
This is the entry-level wine from Tenuta delle Terre Nere. Initially not very aromatic. Opens up a bit after a while with cherries in the nose, a bit of minerality and herbs, but still aromatically challenging. The acidity in this wine is quite high, which contributes to the austerity that this wine displays for the moment. This is also explained by the fruit that is fresh, rather than the ripe fruit of Vivera’s Martinella, for example. The tannins are there but in the background. This wine was a bit one-dimensional when I tasted it, but will still improve.
Erse 2012, Tenuta di Fessina
The entry-level wine of this domaine. Not very aromatic and the alcohol is coming through here a little bit. A bit of cherries after a couple of whirls, but it’s the tannins that dominate here. This wine also lacks freshness for me. 2012 was apparently a hot year in Sicily, so that might explain it.
Etna Rosso 2013, Planeta
One of the big guys to have come to Mount Etna at the beginning of the 21st century. A lot of acidity on day one, not really a pleasure to drink. I put the bottle in the fridge to drink again on day two and that paid off. The nose is more appealing now, with roses, herbs and a touch of liquorice. The acidity is also less pronounced. Quite straight forward though. This is a wine that is best enjoyed when slightly chilled.
Rosso di Verzella 2012, Etna Rosso, Benanti
Giuseppe Benanti was one of the early movers on Mount Etna and created his winery in the end of the eighties. His two sons took over in 2012. Wine Spectator just wrote a blog post about them, highlighting the fact that they dramatically reoriented the business plan of the winery. They sold the vineyards that their father had bought elsewhere in Sicily (with international grapes), as well as the not so well performing vineyards on Mount Etna. I’m not sure if they sold the vineyards from where this Rosso di Verzello came, but given my experience with this wine, it might very well be… This wine was edgy and rough on day one, with sturdy tannins and high acidity. The wine improved considerably on day two showing red ripe fruit, nut meg, a bit of bacon. But still not the most elegant of wines…
Etna Rosso 2013, Alta Mora
Alta Mora is the ultra-modern winery that was bought in 2013 by Diego and Alberto Cusumano. This 100% nerello mascalese is their first vintage. It has a smoky and intriguing nose, with ripe cherry, and pepper. Much fruit here, and very fresh. Tannins are noticeable but are not disturbing. Will still improve, but drinks nicely now as well. Recommended! Not too bad for a new-born…
Le Sabbie dell’Etna 2012, Firriato
Beautiful and charming nose with lots of ripe, red fruit, cedar, herbs and smoke. Nice complexity! Nice balance between the ripe fruit, the acidity and the tannins. Quite long finish too. A style that is clearly reminiscent of Burgundy, although riper. This was bought under 10€… Definitely Recommended!
Le Sabbie dell’Etna 2014, Firriato
Same winery, different vintage. Ripe cherry, liquorice, smoky, roses, rubber. The wood is not completely integrated yet. Quite strong acidity. Tannins are hardly present here. Again nice balance between ripe and fresh. Recommended!
Valle Galfina 2014, Scilio
Scilio is one of the few wineries in this list that was making Etna Rosso long before the new wave arrived. The Valle Galfina is 100% nerello mascalese. Very ripe, full-bodied and alcoholic wine. I chilled it for a while and that helped a lot to limit the heat. Ripe red fruit in the nose now, with herbs, ash, and even a bit barnyard. Strong tannins that need to soften still. As soon as the wine warms up a little, the alcohol is peaking through again. Needs to be chilled!
Orpheus 2013, Scilio
This is the mid-level wine of Scilio. Very concentrated nose with dark cherry and herbs. Immense concentrations and very robust tannins. This is way too young. The potential is great, however, with a lot of fruit to last long enough until the tannins will have softened. I would love to drink this in ten years or so.
Etna rosso 2013, Nicosia
Also Nicosia is one of the old players on Mount Etna. The colour of this Etna Rosso is very transparent. Very aromatic nose, with ripe, almost jammy red fruit, herbs, a bit of vanilla. The aroma’s make you think this will be an overripe wine, but that’s actually not the case. This is remarkably fresh. The tannins are present here, but are ripe and well-dosed. Drinking nicely now, and is available at a reasonable 13€. Recommended!
It is clear from these wines that Etna Rosso has a great potential to seduce. No wonder so many producers came to Mount Etna to invest in new wineries. It’s the combination of fragrant ripe red fruit and freshness that makes these wines so appealing. There is one element, however, that is a bit unpredictable : some of the wines were very accessible and did not have strong tannins, while others were more austere and are clearly wines made for the long run. If the comparison is sometimes made with Burgundy’s pinot noir, I would argue that the comparison with Piemonte’s Nebbiolo is equally relevant for the second type of wines. The funny thing is that these differences do not exactly run along the lines of cheaper entry-level wines and more expensive flagship wines, as is often the case in other regions. So that makes me wonder whether these differences come from the influence of the winemaker or rather from the terroir. As the developments on Mount Etna are still fairly young, there is relatively little literature on this appellation in comparison to Burgundy for example. I have no doubts, however, that this region will attract more interested people like me, because it produces wines that are simply too good to ignore! Salute!
Note : I contacted a few Etna Rosso producers for more details on the terroir of Mount Etna. Mss Loredana Vivera of Azienda Vivera was so kind to offer her insights on the terroir of Mount Etna. To quote her : “It is a mess.” Well, for sure a beautiful mess… Thank you so much!