How Etna counters preconceived notions about fine wine.

Above: Mt. Etna, an active volcano. Note the spontaneous vegetation around the crater (image via Adobe Stock).

“Last week’s eruptions were really spectacular,” said Etna grape grower Roberto Muccifuori yesterday. “But what people don’t realize that they were just a handful of the many eruptions that happen each year.”

The recent seismic events, he noted, got a lot of attention because they were particularly dramatic. (Disclosure: I was interviewing him for his importer, one of my clients. See the post and interview here, including his notes on the 2021 vintage. Roberto works for the Terrazze dell’Etna winery there.)

“The immediate impact of the eruptions is that it scatters ashes” across the appellation, he explained. And that makes the soil remarkably fertile because “the ashes distribute abundant nutrients in the soils ”

The resulting fecundity helps to keep the vines healthy, he told me.

“There aren’t studies to back this up,” he said, “but most believe that the excellent health of the plants helps to prevent vine disease.”

As a result, growers don’t need to use fungicides as liberally as their counterparts in other appellations.

His observations brought to mind something that the noted Italian consultant Maurizio Gily once told me about his experience on Etna.

“The earth is so fertile there that it is teeming with vegetation,” he said as he remarked on how atypical that was for a fine wine appellation.

As I was chatting with Roberto yesterday, it occurred to me: most of the great appellations of the world are known for their nutrient-poor soil. In a time before the current international renaissance in fine wine, growers generally and historically planted grapes in places where other crops can’t easily be grown. When vines are nutrient- and water-challenged, they attain more vigor and produce richer-tasting fruit.

The Piedmont usage of the word bricco is a great example of this. Today, many wine professionals know the term as site-specific designation reserved for top wines. It actually means crag, in other words “a steep or precipitous rugged rock” (Oxford English Dictionary). In literature from that era, Piedmontese writers refer to bricchi (pl.) as barren, depressing hilltops where nothing can be grown. A far cry from the delicious Bric dël Fiasc we drink thanks to Paolo Scavino today!

Similarly, if you talk to the older folks in Proseccoland, they’ll tell you that before the Prosecco boom of the 1980s, Glera grapes were planted only where the soils were too nutrient-challenged to grow other crops. Today, Prosecco is one of the richest appellations in the world. But back in the 1960s, as Italy was experiencing its first post-war boom, people fled the region because of the agriculturally hostile landscape. Cartizze didn’t become a “cru” designation for Prosecco because its soils are magical. It became a top spot for growing Prosecco because you can’t grow anything else there.

Soldera (first) and Gaja (later) famously planted their Montalcino vineyards, to cite another example, in one of the most nutrient-poor areas of the appellation. The families who were already farming grapes there knew full well that other crops weren’t viable on their land.

Etna counters this model by virtue of the fact that its soils are incredibly fertile, something that Maurizio Gily was alluding to in his observations from his time on the ground there. We have all tasted astounding wines from Etna, with incredible depth, complexity, and nuance.

Frank Cornelissen once told me that the reason why he planted on Etna was because he couldn’t find anywhere else in Europe where the soils hadn’t been compromised by chemically based commercial farming. But could it be that the wines of Etna are so compelling in part because they challenge our preconceived notions of where the world’s greatest fine wines can be raised?

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