Crib Sheet: The Many Shades of Etna Rosso

Welcome to "Crib Sheet," your monthly shortcut to what's hot in wine right now, in four bottles, courtesy of Jon Bonné. This month: A guide to the red wines hailing from the slopes of Italy's most active volcano.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Southern Italy had a whole other story to tell. Campania, perhaps because of Naples, was to be its great hope, thanks to the glories of red aglianico and its intensely mineral seaside whites. Puglia, maybe, got to be a bro-ish runner-up—the Chris Penn to Campania’s Sean Penn.

And Sicily was the third element—Michael Penn, maybe?—slightly more mysterious, but still earnest. The island’s plan for glory involved indigenous grapes like nero d’avola and frappato, but it would also become a reliable, dry-weather producer of things like chardonnay (4,800 hectares and counting!) and merlot, with some local flair tossed in.

Then Etna happened.

The wines of Mount Etna, one of Sicily’s most visible landmarks, astride its eastern shore, have utterly changed the trajectory of the island’s wines. Today it’s become arguably the hottest thing in Italian wine, its popularity surging for the better part of a decade, joining the ranks of Barolo and Friuli. Woe to the wine list with an even vaguely Italian bent that doesn’t acknowledge the volcano’s wines.

Perhaps this is because Etna offers something for everyone: plenty of staunch traditionalists; a few posh types, imposing their sense of style; at least one zany but charismatic super-naturalist to satisfy the whims of that crowd. Or perhaps it’s because Etna’s reds (there are wonderful white, rosé and sparkling wines, too, but today we’ll consider the reds) represent something truly unique in Italian wine. They’re less intense and standoffish than Barolo or Barbaresco, and more nuanced and clear in their origins than sangiovese-based wines like Brunello or Chianti. And they find a quieter, more charming path than aglianico—the South’s intended standout red.

Made from the indigenous nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio grapes, Etna Rosso is usually marked by subtle, bright flavors of red fruit and blood orange. It’s quietly gradiated in its darker hues: tobacco and leather and, quite often, a smoked-tea quality, especially in some of the more fashion-conscious versions. Crucially, this is very different from what Sicilian wine aimed to be when it grew up. Until about 15 years ago, Sicily hoped to fit itself into the mold of wine fashion at the time: big, strapping and—Californians, nod knowingly here—full of fruit and Mediterranean sunshine.

The nuanced nature of Etna reds have drawn very different comparisons: often as a sort of pinot noir of the south, to the point that Etna’s slopes are sometimes hinted at as an Italianate Côte d’Or.

That’s overstating it, for sure, and the wines are fiercer in their nature, more like Barbaresco. But they do have the sense of individuality that Burgundy promises. And Etna itself has all those marks of charm—sleepy hillside towns; old gnarly vines, pruned in the ancient alberello (“little tree”) method, often growing in little more than black sand—that make an effective narrative against wine’s tide of modernity. There’s also not much around. Even with Etna’s popularity, Sicily still has nearly twice as much merlot as nerello mascalese.

But one thing, more than any other, defines Etna’s story: It’s Europe’s tallest and most active volcano, rising to more than 10,000 feet above sea level. While Sicily itself is hot (in temperature, that is), Etna’s slopes are far cooler, even snowy, the soils mostly derived from lava or other volcanic components.

The Etna appellation occupies about half the mountain, in a backwards “C” that curves clockwise around its eastern portion. And the different contrade, or sectors, offer up different characteristics: Rampante’s sandier soils yield a more delicate and fragrant wine, versus the stoic ones from Guardiola, grown near an old lava flow.

While it may be newly fashionable, Etna wine certainly is not new. Its wine-making history dates at least to Roman times; even at the turn of the 20th century, it was producing more than 20 million gallons of wine annually, shipping much of it to the continent, notably France, after that country’s vineyards were devastated by phylloxera. But as was the case in many corners of Italy, subsequent decades were not kind: a mix of phylloxera, war and economics—plus, in the case of Etna, volcanism—all but erased the vineyards.

By the 1960s, when anyone talked Sicilian wine, it was usually fortified Marsala, grown in the island’s far west. And during the initial boom in modern Italian wine, Etna was viewed like most Sicilian wine: rustic and coarse. “The Etna wines in general,” the New York Times noted in 1982, “are not for oenophiles who prefer lightness and elegance.”

Sicily shares some blame for this. Its best-known wineries, especially Planeta, sought to capture the world’s attention by focusing on ripe, robust versions of chardonnay and cabernet, later incorporating local grapes like nero d’avola. Even in 2002, the authoritative book Vino Italiano asserted that “the real interest these days is in its deep, dark reds.” Likewise, 2001’s The New Italy concluded that appellations like Etna “are more a homage to the past than a reflection of the present-day industry.”

All the while, though, something was happening on the mountain. Winemakers and businesspeople quietly revisited Etna’s slopes, rediscovering old vineyards and planting new ones. New wines began to appear, notably from Giuseppe Benanti, who reclaimed his old family vineyards with help from an enologist named Salvo Foti. Foti, a Catania native who today is Etna’s power broker, has at one time or another made many of its top wines. He also founded I Vigneri, which combines his winemaking work with local winegrowers in a sort of winery-slash-cultural preservation project.

They were joined by others, including Passopisciaro’s Andrea Franchetti, a former restaurateur and Tuscan transplant, and, notably, Frank Cornelissen, a Belgian who settled on the mountain to pursue a dream of making decidedly natural wines in a rugged place. Cornelissen’s early wines offered brilliant complexity, but also evident faults. It didn’t matter: He gained a rabid following, as did more mainstream wines, like those from importer Marco De Grazia’s Tenuta delle Terre Nere.

The wines of Etna suddenly emerged as ambassadors for a new Sicily.

But can the region keep up the pace? While vineyard land keeps expanding, at an estimated total of 850 hectares—half as much as the Napa town of Oakville—it’s still a tiny place. There are plenty of old abandoned vineyards, but mountain farming, often on old terraces, is a painstaking process. Which means that popularity could also make Etna wines harder to buy. But demand isn’t slowing, and neither is growth. New and ambitious properties are continually appearing—even a prominent California pinot noir grower, who has been shy about his acquisition, has bought in. And the styles keep diversifying, with the arrival of wines like Alice Bonaccorsi’s Rossorelativo, which lands somewhere between a robust rosé and a Jura-like red.

Not too long ago, I suggested that Etna had become a bit of a diva. And our most recent tasting at PUNCH revealed more variability and flaws than we’ve ever encountered in the region’s wines. So I do wonder: Can Etna not only keep pace, but do so with grace? Let’s all hope so, because when the wines are good, they’re among the most exquisite that Italy has to offer.

The Classic

2013 Biondi Outis Etna Rosso | $36
This wine introduced many Etna lovers to the region, and many of us had thought it gone. Ciro Biondi, an architect from Naples who reclaimed the old family winery in 1999, left again as the family’s holding was dissolved. But he and his British-born wife, Stefanie, revived Outis as part of a new winery, Le Vigne Biondi, with densely planted vineyards on the mountain’s southeast flank.

Outis returned in 2012, and this latest shows all the classic qualities of Etna: that lightness of touch, with high-toned fruit and a heady, fragrant side: violets, tangerines, aniseed. The full power of Outis is always a bit hidden, and it’s no different here; once it opens, the tannins show themselves and you see that quintessential Etna magic: intensity without outsized fruit or brute force. Importer: Oliver McCrum Wines [Buy]

See also: Benanti, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, I Vigneri

The Discovery

2012 Fattorie Romeo del Castello Vigo Etna Rosso | $50
It’s not that Romeo del Castello hasn’t been around for a while; its vines are up to 100 years old, after barely escaping a lava flow in 1981 that still surrounds many of them. But the latest generations—Rosanna Romeo and her daughter Chiara Vigo—make wines in a style that matches old-fashioned Etna traditions (no synthetic chemicals, lots of large oak casks) with a friendly openness. The wines remain just slightly under the radar.

The Vigo is Chiara’s original effort, aged in some smaller barrels, with a label that shows the location of the ‘81 lava flow. It finds the perfect balance of muscle, a very finessed aspect to the tannins and more grace than obvious power. It smells of rose petals and blood orange, with a slight ashy side (think carrots roasted over coals) that’s a mark of the nerello mascalese grape. Additionally, they make a less expensive wine, Allegracore, that’s aged in steel. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections [Buy]

See also: Al-Cantàra (especially their La Fata Galanti, a rare bottling of pure nerello cappuccio), Girolamo Russo, Bonaccorsi, Graci, Wiegner

The Outsider

2005 Calabretta Sicilia Vigne Vecchie Nerello Mascalese | $30
That you didn’t see the word “Etna” in this wine’s name should be a tipoff: An increasing number of the region’s wines are leaving the appellation behind. In Massimiliano Calabretta’s case, it’s because the wine from his old vines—up to a century old, on their own roots—would sometimes be rejected by local authorities.

Calabretta, originally a professor from Genova, loves Etna, but very much wants to play by his own rules. That vintage isn’t a mistake either: He very much has Barolo on the brain, and typically ages his wines for six years or more in the large Slavonian oak casks typically found in Piedmont. They arrive on shelves fully mature, but still fresh and juicy—full of cherry fruit and citrus brightness, with a softer aspect to their texture. Importer: The Rare Wine Co. [Buy]

See also: Passopisciaro, Gulfi

The Naturalist

NV (2014) Vino di Anna Qvevri | $50
There’s a penchant on Etna for hardcore minimalist winemaking—namely from Frank Cornelissen, whose wines, like the gaudy and often cloudy MunJebel Rosso, you either love or hate. (I waver between the two.) But others are now pursuing similar philosophies on the mountain, including Vino di Anna, founded by Eric Narioo, who also founded British natural-wine specialist Les Caves de Pyrène, and his wife, Anna Martens (who formerly was at Ornellaia in Tuscany and at Etna’s Passopisciaro), in the village of Solicchiata, just down the road from Cornelissen.

Red wine made in qvevri, the old amphora-like Georgian vessel, can be a tricky business; the wines can end up a bit too hard-edged and shut down. But this one succeeds—showing the full depth of bright fruit from nerello mascalese grown on Etna’s northern face, with a leathery, slightly rugged texture. There’s a hint of barnyard rusticity, but mostly it’s well behaved. They also make a more low-key table wine, Palmento. Importer: Indie Wineries [Buy]

See also: Frank Cornelissen, Eduardo Torres Acosta