The White Wines of Etna

The White Wines of Etna

Landing at the airport of Catania you are immediately aware that you are in the shadow of Europe’s most active volcano. A thick layer of dark grey dust still carpets the car park, evidence of a recent eruption that closed the airport for a few days. In the background a whisp of white smoke emanates from the top of the massive Mount Etna. The inhabitants in bustling Catania seem unperturbed.

Etna is 3,500 metres high, towering over the surrounding area. Vines have been grown here for centuries, mostly by families to make wine for their own use. Until recently the wines of Etna were unknown outside the area, although Marco de Graze of Tenuta delle Terre Nere argues that the wines were highly prized in the 1920’s. Things have certainly changed now. Over the last two decades these have become some the most sought-after vineyards in the whole of Italy.

The constant eruptions over millennia have created a unique patchwork of sites for growing vines. There is sandy volcanic ash, pebbles, rocks and solid lava. Add in some hot Mediterranean sun, a huge range of altitudes (including some of Europe’s highest vineyards) and you have an exciting, if complex range of terroirs to grow grapes. The sandy soils and relative isolation of Etna mean that there are plenty of century old pre phylloxera ungrafted vines.

Vineyards are terraced to avoid erosion and most vines are grown a l’alberello a bush vine grown up a single wooden stake to keep it upright in the constant winds. The vineyards form a crescent from north, down the eastern slopes to the south. In general the south is warmer and the wines a little riper, while the north and eastern slopes are cooler. However, elevation also plays a huge part, and a high-altitude southern vineyard can produce very crisp elegant wines.

The initial excitement surrounding Etna was all about the red wines, particularly those made using the local Nerello Mascalese grape. Some of the red wines are certainly impressive, but for the last few years, it is the white wines that have been receiving increased attention.

While there are some plantings of Catarratto, as well as Trebbiano and the local Minella, it is the indigenous Carricante that is proving the real star, a wine with the potential to vie with Italy’s greatest white wines. The wines typically have good floral aromas, a racy acidity, elegant stone fruits and a marked saline finish. While most are attractive in their youth, they age beautifully for five years or more, showing extra depth and complexity.

In this blog I feature four white wines, all available here in Ireland.

Alta Mora Etna Bianco 2020, Cusumano

Maturing nicely, taking on a little richness, with good intensity of fruit, lots of lemon peel and a lightly saline finish. Nice wine. 100% Carricante. 12.5% abv

€24.95 from O’Briens

Pietrodolce Etna Bianco 2021 12.5% €29.95

Michele Faro of Pietradolci

Medium-bodied with bright pear and nectarine fruits shot through with lemon zest. This shows some maturity, with a richness of fruit and touch of honey. 12.5% abv

€29.95 from Green Man Wines, D6W; Corkscrew, D2; Barnhill Stores, Dalkey; Neighbourhood Wine;;

Tenuta di Terre Nere, Bianco 2022

Made from a blend of 70% Carricante, 20% Catarratto, 5% Grecanico, 5% Inzolia, all old vines. Fermented and aged in stainless steel with a gentle pressing. Bright and nervy with lime and fresh peaches, and a nervy mineral backbone. This has a real elegance and good persistence. The single vineyard Santa Spirito 2022 (Corkscrew, Harry Street, €52) is a step further upwards in quality. 12.5% abv

€30-32 from Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; The Corkscrew, D2; MacCurtain Wine Cellar, Cork; Deveney’s, Dundrum; Mitchell & Son, D1 and Sandycove; Green Man Wines, D6W.

Benanti Etna Bianco 2020

Made from 100% Carricante, this is showing some nice maturity with toasted almonds, lemon zest, apple and pear fruits. Lively and light (12% abv), there is a subtle salinity on the lengthy finish. 12% abv

€32-34 from Honest2Goodness, Glasnevin; Baggot Street Wines; Clontarf Wines.

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