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The Taste of Change on Sicily’s Mt. Etna

Erupting volcanos and wildfires are among the factors adding a taste of danger to these Italian wines

Krystin Arneson By October 28, 2021
Mount Etna framed by the ruins of the Taormina amphitheatre
Mount Etna framed by the ruins of the Taormina amphitheater. Photo by Stefan Alfonso/iStock.

Mount Etna flickers during the deepest hours of night, emitting red sparks against a backdrop of hushed Sicilian midnight and a bashful moon. She is the queen of this eastern side of the island, the mountain around which life, agriculture, and, yes, wine, revolve. The wine grown on her slopes comes from her in an immediate way: She is present in every sip, her minerality, and volcanity. But growing wine on the sandy, ashy slopes of Europe’s highest active volcano isn’t an easy job. 

“Sicily is a wine-growing continent with extraordinary potential,” says winemaker and CEO Antonio Rallo of Donnafugata, which has vineyards throughout Sicily, including on the northern slope of Mount Etna. 

For the winemakers of eastern Sicily’s Etna DOC, making wine under her rumbling craters is a unique task — as it had been for their Greek predecessors, who colonized the area in 720 B.C. and began tending to vineyards. It’s this volcanic context that gives the wines a special character recognized as far back as 1596’s “History of the Wines of Italy,” which tied the deliciousness of the local wines to the ashes. Ashes are what help to spur on the next year’s harvest, too. “It contains phosphorus and potassium, which fertilize, so the phenomenon also has positive influences,” says Maurizio Lunetta, director of the Consorzio Tutela Vini Etna DOC

Taste the mountain

From a bottle of Mount Etna wine, you can expect vibrant wines that taste of a deepest geology: They’re mineral-y in a way that comes from deep within the earth, full-bodied, and fresh. “The reds are so powerful but at the same time elegant and smooth and can age for almost 20 years,” says Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato, COO of Firriato, which has grapes growing on Etna. The whites, on the other hand, are “mineral and fresh with a slight note of white flowers.” 

Put more succinctly, they’re simply unique, says Lombardo di Monte Iato. “They all have a sort of marker that you’ll immediately recognize as Etna wine. Let’s call it minerality or something close, but it’s fixed in every wine.” 

Coaxing the wines from such soil isn’t easy. A handout from the Consorzio Tutela Vini Etna DOC straight up calls it tiring and difficult. Some winemakers put it more politely; Rallo calls it a “really challenging and unique viticultural area.” Worth it? It seems so: The volcanic soil, combined with north Etna’s continental climate and a lower amount of rainfall than other slopes, allows winemakers like Donnafugata to “produce wines of outstanding finesse and longevity,” he says. 

The grapes at Donnafugata, for example, grow from terraces cut into the mountain as well as vineyards that look out to the sea and north, to the Nebrodi Mountains famed for their black pigs. The landscape itself is ever-shifting with each eruption. Even the soil row-to-row in vineyards differs, granules growing from sandy to pebbly in the space of a few meters. 

All of these factors together — the mountain and its microclimates, its volcanic aspect, the nearby ocean, the hot, arid heat — should help ensure “the best combination of terroir and grape varieties,” says Rallo.  

Rather than being a hindrance, Etna’s eruptions, which, so far, Rallo says, haven’t threatened his vineyards, help to fertilize the soil on the volcano. They’re mild-mannered enough, sending cat-litter-sized pebbles of ash down to the villages along its hillsides and base — where perhaps they pose more of a threat to the townspeople than the vineyards above. 

But of course, there are other issues at stake, too, Namely, drought and climate change.

harvest at Donnafugata vineyards on Mt. Etna

Harvest at Donnafugata vineyards as Mt. Etna smokes in the distance. Photo by Fabio Gambina.

Threats ahead

“In the last years, we are noticing climate change as it happens in many other areas worldwide,” says Lunetta. Right now, “it is true we are noticing more drought periods,” he says, but “until now, we are not worried.” 

Winemakers on Etna tend to have dry vineyards anyway, he says, and tradition on these slopes doesn’t include irrigation. But drought brings another danger: wildfires. A wildfire could prove a serious threat to the grapes that stretch across the slopes of the volcano. But like droughts and days of high temperatures, these are problems that aren’t new to winemakers — though what is new is that they are picking up in frequency. 

“There have always been fires in Sicily, lately a bit more but not only because of the climate,” he adds. Mount Etna, he says, has had more than 48 eruptions since February this year, but does not cause concern, minus damage to some roads below. 

Climate change isn’t helping the situation, says Lombardo di Monte Iato; it’s intensifying it. When it comes to the wildfires — some of which, he adds, may have come from arson — Sicily’s firefighters are holding out against its forces for now. “Italian firefighter brigades are very efficient in putting out these kinds of fires,” he says. In fact, he adds, Italy is the only place in the world where firefighters have a permanent fleet of Canadair CL-415s, a type of amphibious aircraft that’s designed for aerial firefighting. 

Etna’s winemakers, including Rallo, have planned for the wildfires, too, as they’ve done for hundreds of years. “We can say the Sicilian farmer knows the wildfires from centuries ago,” says Lombardo di Monte Iato. “Fighting wildfires here is a sort of habit.” He adds that local producers are knowledgeable about preventing wildfires. “Everyone here trains his farmers, and starting from May, we prepare all our lands, fielded with vineyards or not, for wildfires, removing weeds and creating fire channels to stop fire propagation.” 

As part of this practice, Rallo clears the outskirts of Donnafugata to keep them free from vegetation, so there’s less for flames to lick and catch on. And, he says, “to help the vineyard to suffer less from the dry season, we have done some deep soil tillage to increase the root activity of the plant.” 

On Etna, vineyards are trying to mitigate climate change’s effects on their harvests while also attempting to minimize their impact on the planet. In July, temperatures spiked to 120 degrees Fahrenheit about 53 miles down the coast in Syracuse. Rallo is nonplussed. While they’re estimating they’ll have fewer grapes than normal — and 2020 was the least productive year since 1848 — he says the grapes themselves look good. In fact, he says, some of the heat peaks speed up the grapes’ maturation, which means smaller berries but a greater, juicer pulp-to-skin ratio that results in “important yet extremely fine-grained tannins,” which produce more complex and longer-lasting wines. 

But with climate change expected to grow worse in the years ahead, Rallo’s approach is to analyze what’s been going on over the last decade and use that intel to mitigate natural adversities. “Since 2014, there seem to be more summers with temperatures above average — anyhow none of these reached the record temperatures of 2003,” he says. “On the other hand, an increase in rainfall of about 10% has been recorded over the last 20 years in Sicily. So it might be still too early to confirm this trend or draw final conclusions.” 

Donnafugata uses practices like green manuring, organic fertilization, and emergency irrigation; it also keeps a close eye on climactic signposts like rainfall and humidity and uses pheromone traps to help control insects. 

Still, winemakers like Lombardo di Monte Iato are happy to be creating wine from Etna’s volcanic terroir. The views over the sea and to the hills are undeniably stunning, and part of being on an active volcano is that the ground is quite literally always shifting under your feet as Etna creates new landscapes, birthing new craters, and adding to her elevation. It makes winemaking part of a close, time-honored dance with Etna herself.

“It’s like being in a place where you will never get used to its beauty, but at the same time, it is continuously changing,” he says. 

2 Mount Etna wines to try:

bottle of Firriato Le Sabbie dell’Etna Etna Bianco 2019

Firriato Le Sabbie dell’Etna Etna Bianco 2019 ($20)

While Etna might be more famous for its dark, juicy grapes, the white ones tend to be crispy and mineral-y — the perfect wine to keep on hand to do as the Italians do and have a little lunchtime glass. Rested three months sur lie, or in contact with the dead yeast cells, with daily shaking and six months in the bottle, Firriato’s wine brings forth the flavors of Carricante and Catarratto grapes, which are deeply embedded in Etna’s wine-growing history. The first will yield white fruit, while the Catarratto imparts a gratifying structure. 

bottle of Planeta Etna Nerello Mascalese Rosso 2018

Planeta Etna Nerello Mascalese Rosso 2018 ($30)

The three main grapes produced on Etna are Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, and Carricante. Trying one of these is essential to understanding Etna’s wine — they really speak of the terroir and are robust without being super-fruity or intense, with minerality and silky tannins to round off any edges. This wine, made from Nerello Mascalese, is of Etna’s black ash-and-sand terroir that comes through in your sip. Let it breathe for a good while, then enjoy.