Ancient Wines of Mount Etna, Sicily

If you adore elegant yet powerful red wines like Nebbiolo (Barolo), you’ll love Mount Etna wines from Sicily. Grown directly on the face of an active Volcano, Etna wines are nothing short of spectacular. Heroic winemaking in this unstable environment has persevered as long as Etna’s civilizations. You will understand the importance of terroir when you taste the ancient wines of Mount Etna.

Today, the volcano is home to 280+ wineries, covering 2,300 acres of land on three faces of the volcano. With vineyard elevations up to 3,000ft, grapes are equally stressed and nurtured by Etna’s climate. Notably, the sunlight reflected from the sea below helps combat the colder and windy conditions on the mountain. Combined with large temperature swings nightly, grapes slowly ripen over the growing season, achieving a more nuanced character.

Ranging from sandy soils to dark volcanic ash, Etna’s slopes also impart their own terroir into its dynamic wines. Additionally, these harsh soils protect the vines from pests like Phylloxera, which cannot survive them. Etna’s vines were thus spared from the devastating pest that ravaged the global wine industry in the 19th century.  Subsequently, Etna is one of Italy’s few viticulture areas with old vines, upwards of 150 years.

A UNESCO site and Europe’s tallest active volcano, Mount Etna offers so much to wine lovers and adventure seekers alike. Situated just inland from charming Taormina, Etna is an ideal day trip during your Sicilian Yacht Charter.

Historic Wineries on Mount Etna

Winemaking on Etna dates back over three thousand years, with ancient wineries found standing from the 5th Century BC. While modern-day winemakers have built newer cellars, a walk through Etna’s hilly slopes reveals marvelous abandoned wineries of its past.  

Built with lava stones, the multi-level wineries known as Palmentos used gravity to bring the juice from freshly stomped grapes down into fermentation basins below. Grindstones with giant oak levers further pressed the trodden grape skins to extract even more juice.

After fermentation, the wine channeled down to another level, before going into large wooden barrels for storage. Wisely, farmers surrounded their wine presses with thick stone walls to help regulate the temperature and protect the wine from the elements. 

Fortunately, some Etna winemakers are painstakingly restoring and transforming Palmentos into Bed and Breakfasts, tasting rooms, museums, and event spaces. Inside, you can sometimes find ancient amphora clay vessels, once and still used to age and store wine. 

An Ancient Grindstone Wine Press at a Palmento on Mount Etna, Sicily
An Ancient Grindstone Wine Press at a Palmento on Mount Etna, Sicily

Red Wine – Etna Rosso

Currently, nearly 90% of wines made on Etna are red, with rosé wines of the same grapes gaining more traction. Established as Sicily’s first DOC in 1968, the Etna denomination requires that reds bearing the name must contain a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalase, and a maximum of 20% Nerello Cappuccio or a maximum of 10% other known grapes. Some winemakers of course choose to make 100% Nerello Mascalese too.

Etna’s star native grape, Nerello Mascalese is one of Italy’s powerhouse reds, alongside Nebbiolo, Aglianico, and Sangiovese, from Brunello di Montalcino. In alliance with its counterparts, premium Etna Rosso wines are refined and delicate, while also exuding strength and tannic structure. They express round red cherry fruits akin to Pinot Noir but also carry the herbs, spice, and long finish of Nebbiolo wines. They drink well young, but like most fine wines, get better with age.

Rose wines follow the same grape proportions and do a great job capturing the spirit of Nerello in a more subtle and refreshing way. With increased consumer demand, more Etna winemakers have been producing rose wines in addition to their flagship Rossos. 

You can find wonderful Etna Rosso wines and more from Tenuta delle Terre Nerre, Pietradolce and Cantina del Malandrino.

Nerello Mascalese Wine from Cantina del Malandrino on Mount Etna, Sicily
Nerello Mascalese Red Wine from Cantina del Malandrino on Mount Etna, Sicily

White Wine – Etna Bianco

Previously underappreciated, Etna’s white wines have been growing in popularity over the past few decades. Typically planted at higher elevations on the eastern or northern facing slopes, Etna’s whites can rival some of the best cool-climate wines.

Sicily’s native grape Carricante dominates the Etna Bianco blend at 60% minimum, with Cataratto comprising a maximum of 40%. Also permitted in the Bianco is the inclusion of up to 15% other known grapes. However, Etna Bianco Superiore wines must comprise at least 80% Carricante and 20% maximum other grapes. 

The best examples of Carricante grow at high elevations, upwards of 2,500ft above sea level, especially near the town of Milo. Here, the cool temperatures help retain acidity and complex aromas. They are typically salty and herbaceous with lemon and notes of orange peel.

In fact, some compare Carricante, and subsequently Etna Bianco from the northern slopes to Riesling from Germany. As with Rieslings, Etna Bianco wines are very age-worthy and can evolve beautifully over time.

Look for delicious Etna whites and reds from Calabretta, Palmento Costanzo, Barone di Villagrande and Graci. Or better yet, pay a visit to the beautiful vineyards yourself!

Check out our sample Sicilian Yacht Charter itineraries and take the opportunity to taste the ancient wines of Mount Etna at the source.

Carricante Based Etna Bianco from Graci on Mount Etna, Sicily
Carricante Based Etna Bianco from Graci on Mount Etna, Sicily

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