Two months before I left New York to visit Sicily's Mount Etna, the volcano erupted. The lava didn't hurt anyone or destroy any towns, but the videos were transfixing. For days I watched them, orange fireworks of molten rock shooting up into the night sky. Even more remarkable to me than the eruption was that people grow grapes in such a volatile placeand make incredible wines from them.
Etna is a region of extremes: vineyards planted on 45-degree slopes, rocky soil that ought to be impossible to farm, wildly unpredictable weather and, of course, that volcano. Every decade or so there's a major eruption, during which lava can flow all the way down to the town of Randazzo at the base of the 11,000-foot mountain, destroying everything in its path and making the land unfarmable for hundreds of years. There have already been two minor eruptions this year. When I was visiting Etna, I kept noticing how nice and new all the roads were; then I realized they were so nice and new because the lava had wiped out the old roads. As one vineyard manager told me about the volcano, "It can give beauty and grapesor it can take your house."
Yet somehow, Etna has become one of Italy's most exciting wine regions. Its volcanic soil and distinctive climate create wines with intense minerality and effusive flavors. Ambitious winemakers from outside the area have joined local residents in recent years, drawn by the potential of Etna's vineyards. Among the new arrivals are important producers from central Sicily, like Alessio Planeta of Planeta. Though Planeta is known for his reds, he feels that Etna's soils are more suited to whites, so he's planting vineyards with the local Carricante variety, as well as Riesling. Giuseppe Tasca, whose family has been making wines at the Regaleali estate since 1830, recently bought land in Etna as well. And from even farther afield, Andrea Franchetti, who has an estate in Tuscany, arrived in 2001.
Then there's Marco de Grazia. For years, de Grazia has been one of the most influential exporters to the US of high-end wines from Piedmont and Tuscany. That he chose to move to Etna to make his own wines at Tenuta delle Terre Nere is testament to the powerful allure of the mountain.
These winemakers have come to Mount Etna at the perfect time. Many of its vineyards were abandoned 30 to 35 years ago, when the cost of producing wine became too great. The new arrivals were able to purchase abandoned vineyards, acquiring the low-yielding old vines every winemaker wants. Each vine has more character than any I've seen before. For the most part, they're grown without trellising, in the alberello ("little tree") style. They look sort of like shrubs, each with its own humanoid personality, twisting and bending however it pleases.
Alberto Graci, the young owner of Graci, is obsessed with those wizened vines. Graci (left) was a banker before abandoning that career for wine, and when I asked him why on earth anyone would choose to buy vineyards in a place like this, he just smiled and said, "I'm a fatalist."
We were in his 21-year-old Land Rover, a pair of boisterous German wine writers and videographers, Cornelius and Fabian Lange, perched in the back. We were driving off-road, straight up the rocky mountainside to Graci's highest vineyard, at over 3,000 feet. He was grinning, the Germans were giggling and shouting (fatalists, apparently), and I was clutching the door handle. Then, suddenly, we were above the clouds, looking down over the valley and the town of Randazzo. "We're at the top of the world," Graci said.
The top of the world is a cold place. Grapes ripen very slowly here. Harvest happens nerve-rackingly late, often in early November, right up against the first snowfall. Graci told me that he'd chosen this bleak location because its vines are ancient and its climate ideal for the sort of wines he wanted to make. He explained that the brilliant light at this high altitude, together with the cool-to-cold temperatures, allows grapes to ripen perfectly while retaining an almost stingingly fresh acidity; there would be none of the pruniness here that one sometimes finds in sea-level Sicilian reds.
Graci's vineyards were planted more than 100 years ago with Nerello Mascalese, a small, tannic red grape that produces elegant, light-bodied wines with fierce acidity. Etna winemakers often blend it with its cousin, Nerello Cappuccio, which helps soften Mascalese's tannins and adds color. One thing both grapes have in common is that they're very tough. They have to be, to survive here.
Etna lures people who simply have a taste for intensity, too. Take Frank Cornelissen (left). A Belgian, he was a wine trader before he decided to become a winemaker. In 2000, after having a bottle of Etna wine at a restaurant in Modica, he drove up the mountain and stayed.
The first time I tried one of Cornelissen's wines, I just didn't get it. It tasted like a multivitamin with mushrooms on the side, bitter and oddnothing like the berried, minerally Nerellos I'd had before. But everything about the way Cornelissen thinks about winemaking is different. For one thing, his cellar is in an underground garage. A well-lit, meticulously clean garage: When we walked in, he spotted a dead bug on the floor and snatched it up with a paper towel from one of several dispensers on the walls. There were no oak barrels. Instead, Cornelissen uses either seven-foot-tall, 3,000-liter polyethylene tanks or clay amphorae from Spain, a strange mix of the antiseptic and the ancient. He prefers both to oak or stainless steel; they're not reactive, and so they don't interfere with wine's innate flavors.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Cornelissen is that, rather than fearing an Etna eruption, he is enthusiastically waiting for one to happen so he can witness it firsthand at one of the volcano's mouths. "The mountain gets more flexible when it erupts," he explained. "It's really bloody alive. With each new lava flow, new minerals that have not been found ever before are blown out of Mother Earth." Cornelissen has about a dozen vineyards in different areas on the mountain. "There's good reason not to have everything in one location," he admitted.
Sitting in his office, tasting his appropriately named Magma 8VA, I had an experience utterly unlike my first disappointing onethis wine really was "bloody alive." Its umami character was earthy rather than mushroomy; it registered as a kind of density of flavor. "Density is the link to the other four tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour," Cornelissen told me. He uses amphorae to expose Nerello to oxygen so the naturally intense tannins in the grape soften, adding depth to the wine.
After Cornelissen, anyone not making wine in plastic vats would seem like a traditionalist. At least that's what I thought until I met up with Ciro Biondi, whose family has farmed vineyards on the south side of the volcano since 1693.
I visited Biondi's vineyards on a truly ugly day, one of the foggiest I'd ever seen. That afternoon, I found myself perched on a 45-degree slope pocked with vines, with no trellising or terracing at all. The soil was coarse, quartz-like, dark and sandy and unlike the silty or rocky soil on the volcano's north side, where Graci and Cornelissen are. It almost crumbled under our feet as we climbed. The vineyard was so steep that for the pickers to harvest the grapes, they must use a kind of chair- lift that mechanically lowers full baskets.
"We believe we can control nature, but the only thing we can do is go with the flow," Biondi told me. "It's like riding a horse: You can never be as strong as a horse."
As I followed Biondi through the vines, he kept crouching to pick up little shards of what looked like terra-cotta and handing them to me. They were pieces of antiquityroof tiles, pitcher handlesthat had surfaced from beneath the soil and were now just sitting amongst the vines. He is certain, he said, that his vines are planted over an ancient Greek city.
"We were talking about riding horses, but I ride Nerello Mascalese!" Biondi joked a few hours later. We'd driven to his cellar, where he was now sitting astride a barrel of wine, handing down samples of Nerello. I was supposed to taste each one and guess which vineyard it had come from. The differences between the vineyardsMonte Ilice, lean and minerally; Cisterna Fuori, lively and boisterous; Carpene, gentle, with black cherry notesbecame more and more obvious with each glass. His 2007 Outis red, a blend of grapes from all the vineyards, was expertly balanced, with fresh strawberry and raspberry fruit, nice acidity and a faint hint of spice.
It turns out that all of Etna's extremity produces extremely delicious wines. And after driving around this mountain for days, even Frank Cornelissen's lava-chasing began to make sense. But I still wanted to get out before the next eruption.
Top Etna Wines
2009 Graci Etna Rosso ($28)
Winemaker Alberto Graci blends grapes from both old and new vineyards to make this focused, strawberry-rich Nerello Mascalese.
2007 Biondi Outis Etna Rosso ($35)
Grapes from all five of Ciro Biondi's vineyards go into this fresh-berried blend of local varieties Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio.
2011 Planeta Carricante ($40)
Alessio Planeta, a red-wine specialist, is focusing on white-grape varieties on Etna. This Carricante, his second vintage, is bright and aromatic.
2008 Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Santo Spirito Etna Rosso ($40)
This cherry-scented Nerello comes from the great Santo Spirito vineyard, on Mount Etna's north side.
2008 Tasca D'Almerita Tascante ($70)
Seventh-generation winemaker Giuseppe Tasca of Regaleali uses enormous old barrels for this ruby-red Nerello.
Cornelissen Magma 8Va ($160)
Frank Cornelissen saves his best Nerello Mascalese grapes for his Magma bottling, a wine that he ages in terra-cotta amphorae set into the ground.