Mt. Etna is located in northeastern Sicily in the province of Catania. Viticulture on the lower slopes of Mt. Etna dates back millennia. We live, however, in an age where we want to know what you have done for me lately. That’s good news for Etna’s DOC wines. Winemaking on Europe’s most active volcano is hot, both literally and figuratively.
Etna’s golden age was the late 19th century. France was plagued by the phylloxera, a wine louse that devastated their wine industry. They needed to buy wine and they liked the reds from Mt. Etna, which they likened to their Pinot Noir based Burgundies. Railroad lines had to be created to speed the shipping of grapes and wines. A port, now abandoned, north of Catania, was utilized almost solely for shipping wine.
Times change, even if the volcano remains the same. France recovered and in the 20th century Etna’s production fell from about the equivalent of 9,000,000 cases to almost nothing. Etna wines became very local and did not start to recover internationally until they were granted a DOC in August 1968, thus becoming Sicily’s first DOC. At that time, there were 5 producers. Today there are about 85 growers; about 20 also make wine.
Vines grow along the northern, eastern and southern foothills of Mt. Etna. It is a large area dotted with vineyards up to an altitude of 3,000 ft. Today some of the best vineyard sites remain abandoned. Etna is picturesque, breathtaking. It provides a microclimate vastly different from the rest of torrid Sicily. Cool at night, Etna stands alone. It does not sleep. It is aware and lets you know it, as it blows off steam and lava, bringing a new spirit to its vineyards each day.
The soil is black, typically volcanic, but there are complexities of minerality which vary from vineyard to vineyard, giving them distinct personalities, such as you find in the Grand Crus and Premier Crus of the Cote d’Or in Burgundy.
Etna is a significant area for mushrooms and olive oil, as well as the prickly pears (fichi d’india) which sprout on cactus plants. Daytime heat, cool nights, rain and eruptions create a chaotic growing environment. Paradoxically things can be very right as well. Giuseppe Tasca, of Regaleali and Tascante, likes to say, “Where fickle, difficult conditions exist, lie the best opportunities to make great wine.”
Etna Bianco DOC is composed of at least 60% of the local Carricante, with the balance consisting of Catarratto, Sicily’s most widely planted white. Other grapes are permitted, such as Trebbiano and Minella. One commune, Milo, produces a Bianco Superiore. It has to have at least 80% Carricante.
Etna Rosato DOC and Rosso DOC are based on 80% Nerello Mascalese and up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio (aka Nerello Mantellato). Non-aromatic whites up to 10% are also permitted. Nerello Mascalese has become the rock star. It is widely planted in western Sicily and is second only to Nero d’Avola in acreage on the island among reds.
The white and rose match up well with seafood and white meats, chicken, even veal or pork. The red, which can develop for 10 to 15 years, works well with spicy dishes and roasted meats.
In 2002 Marc de Grazia called Etna wines “the Burgundy of the Mediterranean.” Since then, at his Tenuta delle Terre Nere, he has done his best to prove his words true. Another important producer is Salvatore Benanti, known for his Etna Rosso Rovitello and Etna Bianco Superiore.
The wineries of Barone de Villagrande , Barone Scammacca del Murgo have been making excellent Etna DOC wines since the beginning. Some of the other investors include Mick Hucknall (of the band Simply Red) – Il Cantante, Andrea Franchetti – Passopisciaro, Cusumano, Firriato, Regaleali on Etna the winery is Tascante, Frank Cornelisson. Etna DOC is a small zone dominated by family wineries not large coops making up only 3% of Sicily’s total wine production.
You can reach Etna easily from Taormina, Catania, Messina or Giardini Naxos. For a good hotel within the DOC zone, try Vagliasindi in Randazzo, www.feudovagliasindi.it. For great local cuisine, enjoy Veneziano www.ristoranteveneziano.com, also in Randazzo.
Giuseppe “Beppe” Russo is a classically trained pianist. Continuing the work of his father, Girolamo, he creates harmonious reds handcrafted like a perfectly composed symphony. The ruby, rosy hue is reminiscent of Burgundy’s Pinot Noirs. The brilliant yet pale color may deceive the taster into believing that the wine will be light bodied. But they have power and complexity, stemming from the black soil made of lava stones, thrust from the depths of Etna’s crater. The fragrance is fresh with notes of strawberries and tea. The minerality’s counterpoint is more than balanced by an explosion of ripe, red, crushed cherries, covering the tongue and mouth on the first sip. Oak melodies from second and third passage barrique complete the music. The finish is lingering and memorable, recalling the balance, the cherries and the minerality. Is this a hillside wine, or is it subterranean? Enjoy it now or cellar it for 3 to 5 years. Bravo, Beppe!
Marc (Marco) de Grazia’s wines are the benchmarks of Etna’s DOC reds. Marc came to Sicily via Tuscany and the University of California, Berkeley over a decade ago and transformed Etna into the “Burgundy of the Mediterranean.” This is Terre Nere’s base wine, its “normale,” sourced only from Marc’s estate grown vines. His single vineyards – “Caldera” are Feudo di Mezzo, Santo Spirito, and Sottana they are the Grand Crus of the zone and rank among the top collectibles of Italy.
Terre Nere’s basic red reflects the lofty standards and house style of Marc de Grazia. Making wine on Mt. Etna is tricky business. The climate is fickle and chaotic. Tenuta Terre Nere takes risks, since Marc likes to harvest late to achieve optimum ripeness. With risk comes reward! The nose is loaded with fresh cherries and the wildflowers that grow around the vineyards. There is a smoky minerality from the black lava soil. The extraction of Terre Nere is unmatched, giving this wine a density and weight rarely found elsewhere in the Etna DOC zone. This vintage is seamless. It is well balanced, but finishes with chewy tannins on the back of the palate. The wine says decant me or cellar me; drink me from 2015-2020. Great value – but can they keep the price down? Buy now.
Victor Rallo, Jr. is a successful, seasoned restaurateur, chef, wine critic and television personality. After graduating from Villanova University and earning his JD from Seton Hall University, Victor jumped directly from the world of law into the restaurant business. He now owns and operates Birravino in Red Bank, New Jersey and Undici Taverna Rustica in Rumson, New Jersey both of which have received numerous awards for excellence in cuisine, service, and their extensive Italian wine lists. Victor is also an Italian wine expert and critic recognized for his exceptional palate and distinct personality. He’s published two wine books, Napoleon Wasn’t Exiled and 21 Wines.
Victor hosts his own television series called Eat! Drink! Italy! with Vic Rallo which completed its first season on public television in 2013, and recently aired its second season on Create TV in July of 2014. He has also aired on Rachael Ray, The Couch CBS, FOX News, and many other television and live events. He visits Italy six to eight times per year to find inspiration for his restaurants, to taste and write about the wines and food from every region of Italy and to film the TV show. Victor lives in Fair Haven, New Jersey with his wife Kari, three kids, three dogs, and a fully stocked wine cellar.
Anthony Verdoni’s career has combined scholarly interests and a passion for wine and food. He enrolled in a Doctorate program at Tulane University, having received an A.B. in Curso Classico from Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1964. When a Jesuit Classics professor suddenly became ill in 1967, Mr. Verdoni returned to St. Peter’s College to become his substitute. He stayed for 20 years, teaching Classical Languages and Literature. His knowledge of antiquity and familiarity with Italy helped establish him as an acknowledged expert in Italian wines. His background as an instructor and coach in college aided him as a wine lecturer and author. Friends in the wine trade call him “The Wine Professor.”
His wine business debut was in 1971, as a part-time sommelier in a restaurant. Subsequently, he purchased a wine shop, and went on to become a wine buyer for two department store chains, a sales representative, and a sales manager. Highlights include: General Wine Manager for the Jaydor Corporation, one of the nation’s largest wine distributors; National Sales Manager of Southern Italian Wines for Heublein, under Philip DiBelardino; Vice President, National Sales Director for American BD Company; Vice President, Marketing Italian Wines for Winebow.
He has also worked closely and directly with many prominent Italian wineries. Brands which he has helped to develop in America include San Felice, Ceretto, Mastroberardino, Casal Thaulero, Librandi, Carpineto, D’Angelo, Regaleali, Umberto Cesari, Due Torri, Franco Cesari, Biondi-Santi, Vietti, Monteschiavo, and Villa Girardi.
Mr. Verdoni has enjoyed the challenge and satisfaction of launching new fine Italian wines in America. He has lectured and conducted tastings and seminars throughout the United States and Europe. He has written many articles and training manuals, and has co-authored The Sommelier Executive Council’s Vintage Wine Book, now in its third printing. He has been a member of the Sommelier Society of America, the Caterina de Medici Society, and the Society of Wine Educators, as well as a board member of the Sommelier Institute of New Jersey. Mr. Verdoni has received awards and commendations from the American Wine Society, the Culinary Institute of America, and Johnson and Wales. The Italian Trade Commission has awarded Mr. Verdoni a lifetime achievement award in recognition of his work in popularizing Italian wines in the United States.
Mr. Verdoni consults for restaurants, importers, distributors, and wine shops throughout America and Europe. When not on the road, he conducts wine dinners, seminars, and restaurant training programs – and, as always, helps people discover the fine wines of Italy. He has co-authored a new book, 21, and appears in the TV series “Eat! Drink! Italy! with Vic Rallo.”