Etna is an evocative place. As one of the few active volcanoes in Europe it casts an imposing, almost mythical image on the horizon of Eastern Sicily. A constant plume of smoke and ash remind us of the immense power bubbling just beneath the surface. Above ground though, in the mineral rich volcanic soils, something special is happening. An attractive and romantic approach to wine making is consolidating Etna’s already proud reputation as a source of terroir driven, quality wines.
Organic and biodynamic viticulture is the philosophy of choice on these fertile slopes. Many of the zone’s growers cultivate small dispersed holdings, at times overseeing several plots. Ironically though, minimal intervention is hard work. These small vineyards, often old and terraced, require constant supervision. Yet in this UNESCO protected park land, sustainable practices with complete respect for the environment are the principles on which most producers move their businesses forwards.
Take Frank Cornelissen for example. Originally from Belgium, Frank believes in making wines that taste only of the soils in which they are grown. They shouldn’t taste of oak or steel or man made twists, but instead must be a natural, authentic expression of Etna. In most years he doesn’t even use the bare minimum of copper sulphate allowed under the strictest of organic farming regulations. His white wine, ‘Munjabel’, is a blend of Coda di Volpe, Grecanico and the area’s traditional white variety, Carricante. Unfiltered, the wine is a cloudy dark yellow. It shouldn’t be off putting. Fresh scents of orange peel, smoke and crab apple lead to a structured palate of zesty acidity and a firm mouthfeel. There are notions of lemon and lava on the finish.
Tenuta delle Terre Nere, meaning farm of black earth, has been cultivating the D.O.C.’s red varieties Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio since it’s beginnings in 2002. All fertilisation is organic and natural. Cover crops are grown between the vines to ensure that nitrogen-rich nutrients return to the ground and as such the winery became certified organic in 2010. They are by no means the only ones to abandon monoculture.
Expanding on the concept of complete respect for the environment, solar panel units have been installed with sufficient capacity to meet the majority of the winery’s energy needs. The estate’s wine-making facilities are a model of eco-sustainability, an approach seemingly rewarded in the wines; intensely aromatic, the Etna Rosso shows lifted and pronounced red fruits offset by racy acidity and a subtle tannic structure not unlike Beaune Pinot Noir.
Meanwhile, in the commune of Linguaglossa, the small organically farmed Aziedna Agricola Giulemi is producing top wines. Handpicked, the Etna Rosso fruit ferments in wild yeasts before being aged for twelve months in large old wood casks. It boasts a bright, shiny crimson colour which precedes a nose of great elegance, freshness and purity. Aromas of violets and cherries lead to a light Pinot like palate of red fruits and delicate balsam.
There are many more producers on Etna releasing wines that let the fruit and soils speak for themselves. Small quantities mean they are often expensive but when pitching different village wines side by side the varying personalities Nerello Mascalese seems able to assume is striking. With the passing of vintages, it is only a matter of a time before we are able to more accurately define the stylistic idiosyncrasies of Etna’s authentic ‘cru’ villages.
First published on Vino.Rs on 05/07/14