In antiquity, wine from Sicily – especially Mount Etna – enjoyed fame throughout the Roman Empire. Yet only recently has the unique terroir of the foothills of Mount Etna been rediscovered as one of the best places to grow vines and make wine on this large island.
The majority of wineries in the foothills are impressive new modern constructions, many of them worthy of an Architecture Digestcover. And the majority of Mount Etna wines themselves are of superior quality, born from a combination of the Mount Etna terroir, high altitude vines, ancient vineyards, and state-of-the art winemaking equipment.
Sicilian Wine Culture
Grapes for wine production are grown all over Sicily. It is a centuries-old tradition for families to have their own vineyard for their own use.
After World War II, the Italian government encouraged the mass production of wine, most of it at low quality and sold in bulk. It wasn’t until the 1980s that quality-minded winemakers realized the distinctive nature of their climate and terroir and took steps to improve their wine.
The Wines of Mount Etna
Mount Etna is Europe’s largest active volcano. It is located in northeastern Sicily and stands at 3,326 meters. This altitude can vary with the eruptions.
Mount Etna’s most destructive eruption since the historic one in 122 BC occurred on March 11, 1669. On that date, it produced lava flows that destroyed at least 10 villages before flowing into the major town of Catania five weeks later. The lava still had the strength to break down the city’s defense walls, destroying nearly everything and everyone inside. 2015 and 2017 were the last noteworthy eruptions, sending ash plumes into the air and grounding flights to Catania airport. Though it’s possible a massive eruption like 1669 can happen again, most residents in its foothills take this constant threat in stride.
Wine Growing in Mount Etna
Evidence of wine growing in Etna’s foothills dates back to the 6thCentury BC. Mount Etna received DOC status in 1968. Yet it wasn’t until Giuseppe Benanti revived his family’s ancestral vineyards in the 1980s that Mount Etna’s potential for quality grape growing came to light.
Giuseppe Benanti was not a trained agronomist at the time. Yet with capital made in his pharmaceutical business, he was able to hire the right experts to achieve his goals. Word of his high quality wines from Mount Etna quickly spread, attracting other winemakers.
Characteristics of Mount Etna’s Wineries
Mount Etna wineries are divided between the north and the south side of the island, in the foothills. As you drive up to higher elevations, the vineyards stop, the lava becomes more pronounced, and the landscape takes on a more surreal turn. At least this is true on the north face of Etna, which is considered more austere. During my walk, I saw solidified pools of lava, petrified trees, and caves everywhere.
Because of steep slopes of the foothills, harvesting and vineyard work at Etna wineries is performed by hand. Though this is time-consuming and expensive, quality is enhanced because workers can keep a closer eye on how the vines are developing.
On Mount Etna, you can find vineyards older than 100 years, terraced vineyards, and newly planted vineyards. Across the board, virtually every wine I tasted was impressive. Both the red and white wines had vibrant acidity because of the very high altitudes, and the volcanic soil gives the wines complexity and minerality. Another factor that gives Mount Etna its distinctive quality is the dramatic differences between the very cool nighttime temperatures and sunny warm days.
Increasingly, Mount Etna producers are focusing on “Cru” wines from the best and oldest single vineyards. Many other regions use this distinction as a marketing ploy. Yet in the case of Mount Etna wines, you can really tell the difference. This is especially true when one compares the entry level wines from young vines to the Cru wines that have been made with tender loving care. Or the extremely concentrated wine made from old vine grapes that yield very little juice.
Carricante and Catarrata are the grapes most often used for the white wine, with Nerello Mascalese most commonly used for the red, along with Nero d’Avola.
Winemaking is fairly standard among the producers on Etna. The white grapes, both single varieties and blends, are mostly aged on the lees in stainless steel for the entry level wines. Quality white wines are aged on the lees in old, large format tonneaux barrels for five to six months. Depending on their quality level, red wines are matured in large French barrique for a varying length of time. Red grapes from young vines, intended for entry level wines, often see no oak maturation at all.
Visiting Etna Wineries
You will definitely need a car to visit the wineries of Etna. Reservations are essential to ensure that the owner or a trained representative will be there to greet you, show you the vineyards, or give a tasting.
Distances between wineries could be considerable so it is best to limit yourself to three or four winery visits per day.
Wineries also vary considerably on their offerings. Some websites showcase the types of tastings available, others do not. On more than one occasion I had to email a high-profile winery about their tasting program because it could not be found online. The response included an assortment of very exciting tasting experiences, so be certain to inquire about the possibilities.
When you make a reservation, also inquire if it is possible to customize your tour. A few wineries do offer lunch on request. Like the Napa Valley and increasingly other wine regions around the world, the wineries do charge for a visit – the fee starts at about $20 a person and goes up from there.
Three Wineries to Try
The Tornatore family has been growing grapes for family winemaking and to sell to large companies for more than 150 years. Yet their first commercial vintage only dates from 2012.
Like many other winery owners I met, founder Francesco Tornatore made his fortune in the technology business. This capital allowed him to build a modern winery and focus on quality wine.
Signore Tornatore told me that finding labor during harvest is not a problem. “The full-time winery workers invite their wives and children to help pick the grapes, making it a family affair,” he said.
Tornatore makes several types of wines ranging from sparkling to white, rosé, and red. What I found most interesting was that the white-colored sparkler is made from the Nerello Mascalese grape, a variety usually reserved for red wine.
Michele Faro founded this winery on the northern slopes of Mount Etna in 2005. He explained that Pietradolce means “sweet stone” in Italian. The wines from the black lava rock terroir of Etna give “sweet” tannins to the wines, in his words.
Pietradolce has some of the oldest vineyards I’ve seen, with 100 plus year-old vines. These bush vines are located in what looks to be an amphitheater, protected by walls made from dark lava stones that break the wind.
The contrast of these ancient vines, and the very modern high-tech looking winery made the visit very memorable, as did the vivacious personality of Michele Faro and the knowledge of agronomist Giuseppe Parlavecchio. Be certain to email firstname.lastname@example.org for new information about their tasting program.
Cottanera is a welcoming family-owned winery run by Enzo Cambria and his two nephews and niece. It was created by Enzo and his late brother Guglielmo from what was once a hazel grove. At first the brothers grew international grapes. Then they decided to specialize in the traditional Mount Etna grapes: Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Carricante.
The winery is located on lava stones 700 meters above the sea, on the northern slope of the volcano, During the visit, I tasted the wines made from the traditional Etna varietals as well as a delicious Syrah. Interestingly, Signore Cambria said that it is very difficult to sell international varieties from Sicily.
How to Get To the Mount Etna Region
From the USA, You can fly to either Rome or Milan and from there, take a 2-hour flight to the Catania airport.
Where to Stay for Your Mount Etna Adventure
While the foothills of Mount Etna are great for your wine exploration, the area is very quiet. You will get more from your Sicilian adventure if you find a hotel one of the two historic, lively seaside towns of Taormina and Syracuse. This way, you can spend days wine tasting and your evenings enjoying the magical scenery, great restaurants, and people-watching.
Taormina is historic city built on top of a hill and overlooking the Ionian sea. Thousands of years ago it was a popular resort for well-to-do Greeks and Romans, and little has changed since. Aside from the picturesque beaches and glittering shops of this charming hillside town, you will find many historical sites to explore.
Where to stay
Taormina offers two luxury hotels, the Grand Timeo and the Sant’Andrea. The Grand Timeo is located at the very top of the hill, just next to the Greek Theater. The hotel dates from 1873 when well-to-do Europeans made the “Grand Tour.” Today it retains that classic sense of elegance and style.
In contrast, the Sant’Andrea is located at the bottom of the hill, directly on the beach. The hotel began its life as the private home for a wealthy English family in 1919. Today, many of the distinctive oil paintings and furnishings from that time still remain. This is a great choice for families or people who love to swim or sunbathe by the ocean in a serene, private environment. This is especially true since the Taormina public beaches can be impossibly crowded during summer.
In case you can’t decide between the two of them, you are in luck. As they are both owned by the Belmond group, you can take a complimentary shuttle between them to spend your day at the beach and your evenings on the town at the top of the hill – or vice versa. Transit time is less than ten minutes. Both lavish hotels offer elegant suites, many with terraces.
What to Do
Taormina offers dozens of ways you can have a great time. In terms of tourist attractions, my favorite tourist is the Greek theater. This was built by the Greeks around the third century BC, then renovated by the Romans. Here you will see the dramatic view of Calabrian coast, the Ionian sea, and the spectacular top of Mount Etna. In antiquity, this theater was used for dramatic performances, musicals, and even gladiatorial battles. Today it can be described as a slightly reconstructed “ruin,” yet it is used for a variety of theatrical performances during the summer, including the Taormina film festival.
Like other upscale Italian resort towns such as Capri, you will have fun making your way down the winding streets and peering into jewelry shops or sitting at a café with the world-famous granita.
Both the Grand Timeo and Sant’Andrea offer dozens of “guest experiences.” They include boat trips, cooking classes, water sports, and more.
Where to Eat
I heard about the excellent cuisine of Roberto Toro at the Ristorante Oliviero in the Grand Timeo, and was excited to experience it. In the height of summer, you will definitely want to reserve a seat on the terrace overlooking the dramatic Sicilian cliffs, blue Ionian sea, and ever-present Mount Etna. Reserve a table just before sunset to take in the view, and then enjoy the romantic candlelight after dark.
In cooler seasons, you can also enjoy the beautifully decorated main dining room. All the tables face the sea through floor to ceiling windows.
Executive Chef Roberto Toro has created a truly international menu with a Sicilian flair. The CioppinoI ordered was the best I ever had, bursting with vibrant flavors and the bracing fresh taste of the sea. Wine offered by the glass is poured by a Coravin.
You can enjoy lunch and dinner at Ristorante Oliviero. You will find it a tranquil and private retreat. If you wish to venture onto the winding streets of Taormina, other restaurant choices include Tischi Toschi or Vineria Modì.
Syracuse is a city famous for its churches, temples, and antiquities. It was the home of the famous Greek mathematician Archimedes, and today is a lovely summer resort by the Ionian sea. Syracuse is a large cityso you will want to stay on Syracuse’s “walking island” of Ortygia – a spiral of charming ancient and medieval streets by the glittering Ionian sea.
Where to stay
Ortygia Palace Hotelis a magnificent building dating from the 1920s and is located near the historic center of the city. The rooms are quite posh, with an art deco flair. Some of the suites are two stories, with a bath on each floor and views of the Ionian sea.
What to Do
History buffs will adore Syracuse for the historical monuments, ruins, and museums. You will also find a Greek Theater in the Neapolis Archeological Park that has been restored and used for concerts and other performances during the summer. You can also visit the historical nearby town of Noto, characterized by a main pedestrian thoroughfare lined with beautiful baroque palazzi and churches.
Final Thoughts on The Mount Etna Experience
When you visit the wineries in the foothills, try to carve out some time to visit Mount Etna itself. As it was my first time climbing the mountain, I did not know what to expect. Would there be smoke plumes? Would I have to have to circumvent streams of hot lava?
Luckily, my hour long walk with a guide was drama-free. An agile professional, my guide pointed out areas of previous lava flow, which looked like black pools of solidified mud. He also deftly led me along an often narrow, rocky path to his favorite caves. While I would not call this climb perilous, it was quite challenging. You would not want to slip down a Mount Etna slope!
Seeing the source of the lava flow, so intrinsic to the character of the soil in the vineyards, really brought my Mount Etna wine tasting experience full circle. Now, back in Manhattan, I can not wait to recall these precious moments as I sip a glass of Nerello Mascalese.