Until recently, my only knowledge of Mount Etna was Evelyn Waugh’s parodic description of it, when he visited in the Twenties:
I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountains almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as thought reflected, in a wisp of smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting.
These days Etna tends to be more associated with potential eruptions, given that it is the largest active volcano in Europe, but there is another far more interesting trait of the region…it is Ground Zero for the most exciting new wine in Italy. It seems that quite a lot of people have begun to cotton on to this – The Wine Spectator just placed a Sicilian Red into the top ten of the most exciting wines of 2018. This was a Terre Nere San Lorenzo 2016, which sold out immediately from Justerini & Brooks, the UK distributor, which is hardly surprising, given that for a wine of this quality, it cost just over £30 a bottle.
Terre Nere first came to my attention a couple of years back when I had a bottle of its stunning white on the terrace of La Sirenuse, the glorious hideaway in Positano on the Amalfi Coast. At the time, I feared some of my enthusiasm was due to what one wine writer called “The sunset in Provence factor”, but no, it has performed equally well in more humdrum environments.
Winemaking on Etna went into decline after the end of the Second World War, with many ancient vineyards being abandoned or even worse, uprooted and replanted with inappropriate international varies such as Chardonnay and Merlot. There was no demand for the local grape varieties such as Nerello Mascalese and Carricante – instead, local government encouraged the production of bulk wine for blending elsewhere. By the Nineties, there were only eight winemakers left at Mount Etna.
The Renaissance of Etna wine began at the turn of the Century, when a handful of outsiders moved in, one from mainland Italy, another from the US and also my friend Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, who purchased several acres of old vines and employed leading wine consultant Salvo Foti to make his iconic range of Il Cantante “The Singer” wines. Andrea Franchetti was already well established in Tuscany with Teunta di Trinoro and his Passopisciaro vineyards are now considered one of the best, alongside those of American Marco de Grazia, with his equally renowned Terre Nere. Only recently, Gaja, the most iconic of all Northern Italian winemakers, purchased 50 acres in the south west corner of Etna. The total number of wine producers is now more than 120.
What these and other outsiders stumbled on, were small vineyards ranging in age from 50 years all the way back to 130, which means there are probably more prephylloxera vines on Etna than anywhere else on the planet. They were so neglected that one Belgian was able to swap his old banger for a hectare of ancient vines.
Etna was responsible for the survival of these old vines as the rich mineral deposits from the volcano neutralised the phylloxera bugs. I recently made the pilgrimage to Tenuta Terre Nere, which is one of the largest producers, with a production of 20,000 cases in 14 different labels.
Terre Nere also produces a few hundred cases of prephylloxera wines, which sell for a considerable premium. Etna’s presence is not entirely benign – a major eruption in 1981 destroyed significant portions of old vineyards, including a major chunk of San Lorenzo, which still has an ugly scar through it with large boulders strewn along the lava path. That particular eruption continued on for a few hundreds metres and completely destroyed the local railway station, which is still just a tangled wreck of bricks and stone.
Local workers have removed many of the smaller boulders that have come down over the centuries and used them to create terraces to plant the vines on the gentle slopes leading up to the volcano. It can take more than a century for areas covered with lava to become fertile again. The optimum altitude for wine growing here seems to be upwards of 600 metres, which also means the vines are able to benefit from cool evenings. What makes the entire Etna region so exciting is that the area under vines is still less than 2,000 acres, so the top wines of Terre Nere are made in minuscule amounts – rarely more even a thousand cases each. The reds are more balanced and nuanced than many Italian reds, which has led Marco de Grazia to call them the Burgundies of Italy. They have more pronounced flavours and fruit than most Pinot Noir but what makes them particularly exciting is the minerality, which obviously comes from the environment. The whites, especially those produced using the local Carricante grape, have great potential too, having many of the steely characteristics of Chablis with an addictive honey like backbone. Prices are still reasonable, with the cheapest Terre Nere varietals going for little more than £12 or £15 a bottle. Don’t expect them to remain at these prices for long as more and more people are exposed to them – for me, they are my favourite discovery of the year.