Winemaking Under the Volcano

© AFP/Getty Images

By Ray Isle Posted December 14, 2015

The recent eruption of Mount Etna shot plumes of fiery lava high into the sky. But what happens if you are a winemaker on the volcano's slopes?

The wines of Sicily’s Mount Etna have achieved a cult-like following in recent years (F&W covered them here), so the dramatic eruption of the volcano on December 3 was a cause for some quite reasonable alarm. Gouts of flame, lava pouring down the side of the mountain—it all looks very Lord of the Rings–ish from photos, and definitely not much fun.

I reached out to several of the winemakers whose estates are on the mountain (which is still spewing ash into the atmosphere, 11 days later). Thankfully, what I found was that despite the drama, the vineyards (and people) of Etna are essentially unscathed. Salvo Foti of I Vigneri reports that the eruption did not directly damage any of the properties in his area. “During eruptions like this, lava ash ends up covering the ground and vines. But this ash—a kind of volcanic sand—realistically does no harm. In fact, the very fine particles can have a small fertilizer effect on the plants.”

At Tasca d’Amerita’s Tascante estate, Ivo Basile told me, “It seems this was actually the most powerful eruption in the past 20 years—it came from a northeast crater that’s usually inactive, and all four ‘cones’ erupted simultaneously. There were some earthquakes affecting the northern slope, very close to where we are in Randazzo, and south in the Milo area, which is the most interesting area for white grapes, particularly Carricante. But the flow of lava ran down the Bove Valley, without any real damage to agriculture. The biggest damage has actually been to green crops: lettuce, cauliflower, oranges.”

And Frank Cornellisen (whose most renowned wine is called Magma, appropriately enough) said, “For us who live here, this is not an unusual event. The falling ash from the sky does make the roads slippery, and you have to be careful when driving, but besides the beautiful lava fountains in the evening, our daily lives go on.”

So it is, making wine on beautiful, unpredictable Etna. 

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