John B. Reyna
Updated: May 29, 2020
Continuing down the active volcano track from last week, I present our first Italian wine post. I clearly remember my first Etna wine. While at one of DFW's best wine stores, one of our favorite wine-mongers, who was all about showing us what was either new or unique, said “You have to try this Etna wine. It’s one of the best bangs for your buck in the whole world.” We went home, tried it, and ordered the remaining 6 bottles they had as quickly as we could.
What is Etna, you ask? Good question, let's find out.
Geography and climate
Etna, the wine region, is located on the island of Sicily, which is about the size of Massachusetts. It’s Mediterranean climate experiences hot African currents and cool elevations. One of Europe’s largest active volcanoes, Mt.Etna, sits 10,912ft high on the Eastern side of the island. Vineyards manage to work their way up the slope of Mt. Etna (aka Mama Etna) to an impressive 3,300ft high. The vineyards are terraced following the paths left by volcanic eruptions. These vineyards are grown in a practically Alpine climate with twice the rain of the rest of island. There is rich and diverse volcanic soil covering the backwards C shape of the region.
Map by Scott Lockheed, courtesy of Wine Enthusiast
The Greeks first brought viticulture to Sicily in the 8th century BC, and it soon became some of the best wines in the ancient world. However, in the 70s and 80s, Sicily got a reputation of focusing more on quantity than quality. Today, things are slowly changing. While Sicily's wine production is still 86% bulk wine, which is sold in large containers to other regions or countries for blending, the top producers have launched a mini revolution resulting in the production of interesting wines across the spectrum.
Also, Sicily is home to Marsala wine.
Old vines and phylloxera
Beyond the crazy number of soil types and microclimates here, there is one more cool thing to note about Etna wines--ungrafted vines. The thin layer of sandy volcanic soil did not allow phylloxera to develop here when it devastated the rest of Europe. Etna has vines that are more than 150 years old (noted on the bottle when used, priced at a premium) which can be used to produce new vines that do not need to be grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstock, like the majority of European vines are.
Italy is known for having a ridiculous number of native grape varietals; thus, there’s a little something for everyone. The island has the largest vineyard area of any region in Italy at 10,000 square miles and produces the most wine.
For white wine, or Etna Bianco, the Carricante grape is specific to Etna, giving off minerality, herbaceous, and dried fruit. It is sometimes blended with Catarratto and Minella Bianca, but 100% Carricante is the way to go, if you can find it. The red wine, called Etna Rosso, is produced from a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese and can be blended with Nerello Cappuccio for up to 20%.
Similar to the Canary Island wines from last week, altitude delays ripening, which tends to concentrate aromas. Nerello varietals are more tannic at sea level, but that is broken down as their acidity is increased by the cool temperatures. Nerello grapes are related to Sangiovese and are also well structured and tannic; however, they also can take on softer tannins and fruit, similar to Pinot Nior, at higher altitude.
Italian wine laws
Wine laws are a post that we will have to tackle soon; but for now, the takeaway for today's lesson is that each country has created their own geographic classification system (known as geographical indications or GIs) that refers to a product's region or place of origin.
Italy uses four GI's:
1. DO – designation of origin, very broad and rarely used
2. IGT/IGP – indication of geographical typicality, labeled by locality but no stricter wine regulations
3. DOC – Controlled designation of origin, must meet a defined quality standard within the region. Examples include grape varietals, aging, process, ABV, etc.
4. DOCG – controlled and guaranteed designation of origin, intended to be the most superior, additional quality controls on top of DOC wines, which are analyzed by the government and approved with a governmental seal
Sicilian wine law
Sicily has an IGT for the entire island giving winemakers the ability to play with varietals and experiment. There is also a DOC covering the island to help promote its wine abroad. And then several DOCs within, including Etna, plus one DOCG.
Modern Etna wine
Though Etna became a DOC in the 1960s, its wines have only become popular with the international winos in the last decade. Now less than 10% of grapes are used for bulk wine. With many minor eruptions throughout recent history, its geography has continued to evolve.
And now, for a couple wines:
Tascante, Buonora Etna Bianco 2017 (imported by Dalla Terra) - $20
A lovely blend of pear, pineapple, orange, and lemongrass, with a slate minerality and a saline finish. Medium (+) acid with medium (-) body for clean and crispy goodness.
Tornatore Etna Bianco 2017 (imported by Tornatore Wines USA) - $35
Here we enjoyed banana, grass, lime, peach, and honeysuckle. Also a medium finish, but with medium acid and medium body . . . so well balanced.
Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Etna Rosso 2018 (imported by Classified Wine Imports) - $25
This was my first Etna, except the 2015 vintage. It's still as amazing as I remember, and the price has not gone up! Delicious cranberry, fennel, blackberry, and flint. A good amount of acidity, medium (+), with medium body, and a solid finish.
Etna is working on a DOCG now, which could drive the price up of this amazing wine in the near future. Enjoy it the next chance you get! We all deserve a volcanic wine filled adventure one way or another!
Sending love and a wine buzz,
Shen (Rhone and Tokaj say hi!)
Rhone on the left and Tokaj on the right.