Beautiful landscape of Etna Volcano
Italy’s Hottest Wine-Production Zone: The Etna Volcano
“Etna area has become, without question, Italy’s single hottest wine-production zone”
Blessed with consistently bright sunshine and reliably moderate rainfall, the classic Mediterranean climate here is ideally suited to the needs of wine-bearing grapevines. Add that to the small number of the island’s soils and the hilly landscape in which they sit and the resulting terroir is almost perfect for growing not just vines, but also the cereals, olives and citrus fruits which remain the island’s key exports today.
Etna DOC was formed in 1968, and is comprised of the surrounding hills of Catania and the slopes of the Etna volcano. Mount Etna is the most active volcano in Sicily at just under 11,000 feet and is often capped with snow. Mount Etna of Sicily, called “Island on the Island” by the locals, is classified as a young shield volcano at the bottom, but an ancient stratovolcano (also referred to as a composite volcano) at its peak. This causes it to produce two types of eruptions – explosive and fluid basaltic lava flows, creating nutrient-dense volcanic soils.
As the first Italian wine DOC, ages of this volcanic and seismic activity have created a soil with amazing diversity. The andesitic magma from these volcanoes enriches the soil composition with beneficial levels of iron, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium. Among these components is a high percentage of extremely fine sand, which has allowed many of Etna Bianco vineyards to fight off Phylloxera at the turn of the twentieth century. As a result, there are vines that are on their original and un-grafted rootstock, which is a rarity in Italy.
The steep terrain of a Mount Etna vineyard
The graduated topography creates a smooth spread of micro-terroirs, as the land climbs up from near-sea-level to more than 3,940 feet. The highest of Etna’s vineyards now rank among the highest in Italy (and even the world). Because of these micro-terroirs, the soil composition of Etna vineyards depends on which side of the volcano it is produced. To the north, volcanic soils mixed with white sand are found; while in the east there is mainly steep, precipitous soil (40%). The resulting low yields there bring exceptionally high-quality wines.
Experimenting with vineyard sites further and further up the volcano’s slopes, Etna wine producers are investigating the effects of the richer, blacker soils as well as the increase in altitude.
Etna Bianco Grape
This steep terrain combined with the sandy volcanic soil makes tending the vines quite difficult. It is hard for a worker to keep from falling, especially during harvest when carrying baskets of harvested berries. The work is so difficult it is often problematic employing harvest workers.
Luckily, none of these difficulties have ever harmed the excellent quality of the wines produced by the vines that hug the slopes of the volcano. The grapevines at these high elevations benefit from the hot Mediterranean sun while the warm Mediterranean breezes are conducive to an extended growing season.
Primary - Grape Influences
Etna Bianco is generally a pale-yellow color, floral, mineral, light and fresh.
The Mediterranean Sea is key in the ripening of grapes growing at high altitudes, by reflecting the intense Sicilian sunshine back up onto the vines (similar to the effect seen on Geneva in Switzerland and along the Mosel in Germany), making it possible to ripen grapes further up than would be possible in a landlocked area. These elevations make it possible to ripen grapes further up than would be possible in a landlocked area. The sea also serves to moderate temperatures here at a latitude of 37 degrees; far from the coolest of European wine regions. Importantly, there is also a considerable variation between night and day temperatures at these elevations. Such temperature variations work to the benefit of grapes in that it not only facilitates berry growth and coloration, but also promotes complexity in grape flavors. At lower elevations, there are less lava flows, creating riper grapes and producing sweeter wines with less flavors or spice.
The high mineral content of the soil adds a saline flavor to the wines produced here, such as Carricante, a white grape variety. The acidity in the wines, included the blended varieties of Catarratto, Minella, and Trebbiano, provides a “surprisingly fresh and vibrant taste.”
Etna Bianco DOC is comprised of a minimum of 60% Carricante and up to 40% of the blend can be made up of Cattarato, Inzolia, Minnella Bianca, Grecanico, Chardonnay and other local varieties. Etna Bianco is generally a pale-yellow color, floral, mineral, light and fresh. Some are made 100% Carricante and will be labeled with the name of the cultivar.
"Carricante is described as very refined and pure in mineral aromas and racy lemony flavors, complicated by aniseed, green apple, orange flower, chamomile and unripe apricot."
Carricante grows exclusively on the volcanic slopes of Etna, clasping crooked crags where little else thrives; attempts starting in at least the nineteenth century to transplant it elsewhere on the island have not fared well. Carricante is really a one-zone variety, as it is found only on the slopes of the Etna volcano, in the countryside around towns such as Viagrande, Randazzo, and others. It grows at extremely high altitudes (where Nerello Mascalese – used in Etna Rosso — has trouble ripening), on both the easter and the southern slopes of the volcano, at altitudes of 950 meters above sea level and 1,050 meters above sea level respectively.
Secondary - Fermentation Influences
The secondary influences on Etna Bianco are specific to the producer. Most often, winemakers will use stainless steel tanks as their fermentation containers of choice for Etna Bianco. The absence of oak barrels, allows the grapes to be the main flavor focus.
Etna Bianco’s alcoholic fermentation extends for 14 days at temperatures most often between 54-57°F. Because Etna Bianco is a white wine, the alcoholic fermentation occurs longer than for red varieties, allowing for sweeter flavors to arise.
The common maceration technique used for Etna Bianco is the pump-over method, also known as remontage. This is the process of pumping white wine up from the bottom of the tank and splashing it over the top of the fermenting must, allowing the skins to submerge so that the carbon dioxide is pushed to the surface of the must and released. The length of this process is 2 to 4 days, depending on desired flavor impact.
Malolactic fermentation is also commonly allowed in the production of Etna Bianco. Malolactic fermentation allows the tart-tasting malic acid that is naturally present in grape must, to be converted into a softer-tasting lactic acid. Once the primary fermentation process is complete, malolactic fermentation is most often performed secondarily, allowing a more buttery flavor to be emitted.
It is one of only a handful of Italian whites that ages well, benefiting from ten years or more. Etna Bianco Superiore must be a minimum of 80% Carricante with 20% of the blend being made up of the same group listed above for Etna Bianco DOC.
Common secondary aromas and flavors brought from these fermentation methods are pear and hay. Expect a long, textural finish when enjoying an Etna Bianco wine.
Etna Bianco is a food wine or enjoyed by the glass because of the silkiness and softness.