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 place—and 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 grapes—or it can take your house."
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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.