Mount Etna Wines: Volcanic soil, Etna DOC, and more

mount etna wine

The wines of Mount Etna are captivating, the history entrancing, and the location itself, breathtaking. 

I think y’all know that my heart belongs to Italy’s north, but after I moved, the southside of bella Italia claimed a spot of its own. 

My first exposure to Etna came in 2013, through my now dear friend, Benjamin North Spencer at a wine blogger conference in La Rioja Spain. He did a presentation on Etna’s volcanic soil that rocked my world (ha!)

Looking back, I have no clue why I chose to attend the session – geology so ain’t my thang. But, there I sat, mesmerized by his overview of Etna, the soils, and how it plays into the region’s wine…and food.


Meet Benjamin North Spencer

Benjamin North Spencer

Benjamin North Spencer is an American journalist, author, wine judge, and the founder of the Etna Wine School in Sicily. He holds a Diploma of Wines and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and a writing degree from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. His work has been featured by BBC World Service, Wine Spectator, The Telegraph, Rick Steves, and others. He lives in Sicily.


The New Wines of Mount Etna

The first all-encompassing book on the Etna wine region published earlier this year, authored by Ben. I am beyond humbled to say that upon completion, I was the first to read The New Wines of Mount Etna.

He shared on during my second trip to the Sicilian wine region in August 2019. Once again, with Ben as my Etna wine guide. We ventured all over the mountain, meeting with producers, taking in specialty tastings Ben arranged, and overall just experiencing the incredible people of Etna.

After such a personal and intimate experience, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I left feeling even overwhelmed by Etna. But, also with a real thirst for the wine region – knowledge, food, and OMG yes, the wines. 

Click to buy

The New Wines of Mount Etna.


Mount Etna: a lot to comprehend in one go

Seriously, Etna is intense: layers of volcanic soil from eruptions over the centuries, the pre-phylloxera vines (the pesky aphid has an aversion to volcanic soil), ash that spews from Mount Etna’s central craters into the vineyards, infusing and re-fertilizing the mountain with more power and elegance…seriously, this rabbit hole is worth the fall.

Etna is terroir on steroids.

Sarah H. Bray, Napa-based wine educator and Etna wine specialist.

Even more fascinating? It’s a crazy YOUNG wine region – pretty wild when you consider that the native Sicilians of Etna date back 10,000 years. And, Mount Etna’s evolution is 200 million years in the making.  

sicilian wine

 

My proposal: Let’s collectively explore Mount Etna wines – together

I could ramble for hours about these ethereal wines, but I’m going to kick it back to Benjamin North Spencer and his masterpiece: The News Wines of Mount Etna. 

Maestro, please. 

Introducing: The #ETNACouchTour 

I’d love to take credit for the fun name, but it was all Ben. I just asked to build out the concept. In fact, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do since August: create an educational package, pairing The New Wines of Mount Etna with a list of these special Sicilian wines (author’s choice) with an educational component to allow people apply to the book’s learnings without leaving their homes. Ah, the timeliness of it all. 

Like me, Stefano and Elisabetta of La Vite Turchese also love Mount Etna wines. So, our third offer focuses on Sicilian wine by way of this majestic, ageless volcano. And, adding Ben’s book – and the educational sessions he’s creating – allows us to bring you the potential for some fun wine studies. And, gives us a chance to learn along with you. 


Why Etna? I love Etna and its wines because they are the meeting of two extremes.

On the one hand we have the beautiful story of Nerello, a grape variety so similar to Nebbiolo of my territory, elegant, and rich in mediterranean hints, fine, with such great acidity and freshness. The, we have this huge, still active volcano…made of lava and ash, harsh and dry, in the center of the Mediterranean Sea in almost African climatic conditions.

These two elements are so different that when they find their balance it gives me an experience that ignites all my sense – I love to drink these wines!

Etna is the wonder of adaptation, of the natural force of viticulture, and of man’s will and perseverance.

An example of how Italian wines are very often so much more than just growing grapes. They are territory and soul. They are love and resilience.

In this historical moment, Etna is an extraordinary symbolic wine.

Stefano Turchese, La Vite Turchese

When Ben and I started working out the details of this offer a few weeks ago I was thrilled when he told me about the new virtual wine courses he’s developing at the Etna Wine School. Once they go live, you’ll be able to take part in all or some of the sessions (more details below). 


Etna Rosso, Etna Bianco, Etna Rosato, & Etna Spumante:  

Click for an overview of the grapes of Mount Etna and a breakdown of the Etna wine region’s DOC requirements.

nerello mascales
Nerello Mascalese at the Benanti Winery. 

How the #EtnaCouchTour Works

Participate as you choose: 

  1. Buy The New Wines of Mount Etna: For immediate access, buy and download the digital version, order the print version, or bundle them together. Buy the book here.
  2. Buy some Etna wines (see offer below): Same as before, orders of 12+ bottles includes shipping (the offer extends to North America, including the USA and Canada). Each wine description tells a bit of why Ben selected it. 
  3. Register to participate in the #EtnaCouchTour. When you order your wines, tick the box for more on the educational program and we’ll be in touch with details. If we get enough interest, I’d love to form a Girl’s Gotta Drink Etna Wine virtual study group with y’all! Click for more on the coming Etna wine course by The Etna Wine School.   
  4. Read, drink the wines, participate in the community (via the virtual sessions and social media), and when all this insanity is over…well, maybe we’ll organize a Girl’s Gotta Drink: FINALLY Off the Couch and OFF to Etna Tour (I’ll work on a more catchy name).

benati winery

Our #EtnaCouchTour Wine Offer

Murgo Etna Spumante Brut 2017

On Etna, to be classified as an Etna Spumante all sparkling wines are done in the classic or Champagne method with a minimum of 18 months on lees, though Ben explains that most producers are doing more than that. In addition, DOC requirements dictate at least 60% Nerello Mascalese, but Murgo’s brut is 100%, making it a bianco di nero.

The first to produce Etna Spumante, Murgo established the recipe for Etna’s sparkling metodo classico wine from the black grape Nerello Mascalese. Trials began in 1989, but the first Etna Spumante was not permitted until 2011. Another first that makes this a bit more special, this Murgo Brut was the very first Etna wine that Ben ever tried. Price: €31

Cottanera Etna Rosato 2019

A lovely pale red wine that comes from one of the oldest modern producers on the volcano’s north slope. Shortly after World War II, the Cambria family bought and uprooted hazelnut orchards to plant vines. The vineyards are on a plateau above the Alcantara River Valley, one of the most historic winegrowing sites on the mountain. Here, the history of making lightly pigmented wines goes back to the Bronze Age, when grapes were collected and macerated for a few hours. This 100% Nerello Mascalese is a modern version of this ancient human tradition. Price: €25

Girolamo Russo Etna Rosato 2018 

In early September the small pink flower Gigli dell’Etna (Etna lilies) blooms in every vineyard. The locals believe that this is the perfect time for harvesting some of their grapes for a rose in the pistamutta tradition. Literally, pistamutta (peesta-moo-tah) means crush and separate. That’s exactly how this wine is made. Nerello Mascalese grapes are harvested by hand, brought to the winery and pressed. The must is fermented at cool temperatures like a white wine. But there’s a lot more to this wine, namely the vines grow in some of the oldest volcanics on the mountain. Price: €33

Pietradolce Etna Bianco Archineri 2019

A wine made of a mix of fruit from old and young vines from a vineyard is high on the volcano’s eastern slope in Milo, where Carricante reigns supreme. Ben explains that the village sits at the base of the Valle del Bove, a massive prehistoric crater. About 8,000 years ago the eastern part of the crater broke creating a landslide that distributed eroded volcanic sands over the eastern flank where Milo is located. This high elevation volcanic ‘beach’ is ideal for white wines, because it also receives a lot of rain and experiences shorter periods of sunlight than other areas around the mountain. The wines show great balance and elegance, with the potential for graceful bottle aging. Price: €31

Graci Etna Bianco 2019

A traditional Etna Bianco from the volcano’s north slope; 70% carricante, 30% catarratto. The wine is fermented in concrete tanks without temperature control, as Etna wines have been done for millenia. Ben explains that cool fermentation helps the wine retain more fruitiness. But, because the temperature is not controlled the fermenting must gets warmer, a territorial expression to the wine. The grapes come from the Contrada of Arcurìa, part of the historic pilgrim road between Taormina and Palermo. It is a semi-circular theatre with rocky, sandy soil giving the wine beautiful elegance and lively minerality. Price: €37


What is a contrada?

A contrada is an Italian neighborhood defined by administrative and natural boundaries. In terms of wine, these territorial subdivisions can be thought of as Etna’s version of a cru, giving typical, recognizable flavors to the resulting wine.

what is a contrada
Contrada Monte Gorna: Ancient craters 2300 ft / 750 meters high. Tenuta Nicosia’s vineyards are layered with lava terraces that were fully restructured and replanted with native varieties used for Etna Doc.

Passopisciaro Etna Rosso Passorosso 2018

One of the oldest modern wineries on the mountain, Passopisciaro promotes the diversity of Nerello Mascalese by working with old-vine plantings of the indigenous grape in lava fields with various phases of degeneration, at different aspects and elevations. This classic Nerello features vineyards planted at different elevations with unique soil ages on the volcano’s north slope, overlooking the Alcantara Valley. It’s the vineyard manager’s favorite wine. Price: €42

Benanti Winery Etna Rosso Contrada Monte Serra 2017

A single vineyard Nerello Mascalese (100%) grown on the slope of Monte Serra, an extinct micro-crater on the east slope of the volcano. The vineyard has variable soils of sand, rock, and iron with southeast exposure. The vines are trained in alberello and cordon with tight spacing. On the palate, you enjoy territorial flavors with subtle fruit, light tannins, and endless elegance. The Benanti winery is the home of Etna’s wine renaissance. Historically a bulk wine-producing region, the Benanti family invested in producing fine wines from native wine grapes, paving the way for today’s world-renowned wines. Price: €50

Order your Etna Wines

Click to order. And, note if you are interested in Ben’s Virtual Education sessions.

Join the #EtnaCouchTour:

More from Valerie Quintanilla

Romancing the Jura: Vin Jaune ‪and Roast Chicken

Romancing the Jura is part of the Valentine’s edition of Wine Pairing...
Read More