The Etna DOC

by Susan Desjardins

The resort town of Taormina was our base for visiting the Etna DOC wineries. Situated high on a precipice overlooking the Mediterranean, the town is historic, dramatic and beautiful, a magnet for both European and Italian tourists. It was bustling with activity, as significant municipal works were underway to prepare for the G7 summit scheduled for the end of May.

The visit to the wineries with full operations in the Etna DOC was a revelation. Like the volcano, it is as if a slumbering giant is slowly waking. As indicated by our hosts, the number of wineries has burgeoned over the last 10-15 years, as wineries in Sicily, but also from the mainland, see an opportunity to develop premium wines from indigenous grapes barely known beyond the island but wrapped in the mystery that is Etna. 

There is work to be done pertaining to the legislated boundaries of the Etna DOC - it has not changed in the last 45 years. While producers recognize that some of the best wines are created from vines at high elevation, the current boundaries of the DOC do not extend to those levels. Hence some of the best wines from the highest vineyards are produced under the DOC Sicilia or IGT Siciliane designations, even though the grapes are harvested on Etna. However, some progress is being made; as an example, a requirement was recently put in place that required wines labeled Etna DOC to be bottled within the DOC.

Planeta Vini

Sciaranuova vineyard
Anchored in seven generations of 'agricultori' this family-owned winery has expanded from its original property planted in 1985 in the fortress estate of Ulmo at Menfi, near the west coast of Sicily, to establish and cultivate new estates through the centre of the island in Vittoria and Noto and its estates at Mount Etna and Capo Milazzo, in the east and north.

The family is focused on rediscovery of indigenous varieties cultivated in their unique environment, using sustainable long-term viticultural techniques that protect the environment and the countryside while respecting the local culture of each unique place.

Planeta has taken a very systematic approach to each regional investment, each new site becoming, in effect, a boutique winery. Etna is a good example of this, where the vineyards of Sciaranuova and Monte la Guardia where purchased in 2007 with land prepared, terraces reconstructed and vines planted. 

The local team was then established, including a viticulturalist, a winemaker and a winery host. Only once this was in place Planeta turn its attention to the construction of the Feudo Di Mezzo winery on Etna, inaugurated in 2012. The old winery (palmeto) has been rehabilitated, while the modern barrel cellars use age-old building techniques to nestle the structure into the landscape.

Cellar nestled into slope of Mount EtnaAs part of the process of establishing its presence, Planeta also engages with the local wine organizations and involves itself in the local community. For instance, each year Planeta hosts a theatre festival at Feudo di Mezzo, in an outdoor amphitheatre excavated from old vineyard terraces and surrounded by the natural beauty of Etna’s slopes.

Vera Russo, our host at Planeta, explained the benefits and challenges of working vines on the high-altitude slopes of Etna. The diurnal variations allow for development of intense aromatics and flavours while retaining freshness, but the sites face weather risks such as hail, as well as the risks of volcanic eruption that not only spew ash (last winter's 'minor' eruption left almost 7 inches of ash in the vineyard), but also large rocks which have the same impact on vines as hail. 

At Vin Italy, I tasted a few wines including one from the southeastern estates near Noto, the 2013 Santa Cecilia Noto, a signature wine produced from 100% Nero d'Avola. The wine spent 10-11 months in barrels previously used for Chardonnay aging, and shows great complexity and layering of flavours, balance and fullness, freshness and structure for cellaring.

I tasted their Brut Metodo Classico (Traditional Method) Carricante, which spent 20 months on the lees. This is a wine to watch for, with a refined, persistent mousse, a honed blade of vibrant acidity due to early harvest, and great flavours - white flowers, green apple, citrus and mineral. They also produce two wines from higher altitude vineyards on Etna, Eruzione 1614 Bianco, primarily Carricante blended with a small percentage of Riesling, and Eruzione 1614 Rosso, produced from 100% Nerello Mascalese. However, since these vineyards fall outside the traditional DOC boundaries, they are designated IGT Siciliane.

**** drink or cellar

Planeta 'La Segretta' Rosso 2015

DOC Sicilia $16.95 (477950) 13.0% alcohol

A blend of Nero d'Avola with Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, this is an easy-going tangy wine, red fruit and earthy compost dominating the nose. Dry, light-medium bodied and fresh, flavours of red cherry and berry reprise the aromas, accented hints of earth and cured meats, carried through the finish on a backbone supple tannins and clean acidity. A great match for pizza and burgers. (Susan Desjardins)

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Planeta 'La Segreta' Bianco 2016

DOC Sicilia $17.95 13.0% alcohol

Composed principally of the local variety Grecanico, this is also blended with Chardonnay, Viognier and Fiano for aromatic slightly floral aromas mingling with notes of apple, lemon and wet stone. Dry and light, the mineral character accents flavours of green apple, white peach and citrus. Nicely balanced with a clean finish, this is a pleasant sipping wine or one to serve with pan-fried fish. (Susan Desjardins)

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Planeta Etna Bianco 2015
DOC Etna $29.95 13.5% alcohol

Produced from fruit grown at higher elevations, subject to strong diurnal variation, this wine is produced from the local variety Carricante on the strongly mineral-based black volcanic sands of Mount Etna, partially fermented in barrel. The nose shows a slight floral note, pear, pit fruit and citrus replaying on the palate. Dry, light-mid weight, the wine flows smoothly on the palate, finishing with a nice lively kick of citrusy acidity. (Susan Desjardins)

****1/2 drink or cellar

Planeta Chardonnay 2015

DOC Sicilia $45.95 (485102) 13.0% alcohol

Toasty notes and a whiff of butterscotch twine through lifted aromas of golden apple, pear, pineapple and spice. There's a refined harmony and balance to this wine, fermented and aged in French oak. The lush basket of fruit is flavourful and expressive, the creamy texture complemented by fresh acidity and subtle notes of spice and toast. Serve with chicken Caesar salad or grilled salmon. (Susan Desjardins)

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Planeta Cerasuolo Di Vittoria 2015

DOCG Sicilia $26.95 13.0% alcohol

This unoaked blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato, from the only DOCG in Sicily, is a product of red sandy soils sitting a metre deep over limestone. Transparent ruby, it shows floral and red fruit aromas that translate to flavours of red berries and cherries underlain with clean mineral notes. Mid weight, it has a well-defined structure and bright, dry yet fruity finish. Serve with bresaola with fresh Parmesan and arugula. (Susan Desjardins)

****1/2 drink or cellar

Planeta Etna Rosso 2015

DOC Etna $29.99 13.0% alcohol

Vinified from 100% Nerello Mascalese grown on the lower slopes of Etna, this is produced using a very light crush to manage tannins in the heavy skins with oak exposure limited to large wooden vats. Transparent ruby, its aromas speak to the mineral-based earth it inhabits—delicate flowers and tangy, fresh red fruit. Dry, medium bodied, its inherent structure is on display wrapped in silky texture, underpinned by fresh acidity. Long and lingering on the finish, the earthy, mineral character and purity of the red berry and cherry shines through.


Pietra Ariga vineyard on slopes of EtnaDirected by brothers Deigo and Alberto, third-generation winemakers in this preeminent Sicilian family, Cusumano is a well-known brand with vineyards across the island of Sicily, where they take advantage of the wide variations in altitude, aspect and microclimate to craft a range of unique yet typical wines. Their latest acquisition, in 2013, was a purchase from the Benanti family—15 acres on the north slope of Mount Etna. They have access to existing 20-year-old vines, but also initiated further plantings of Nerello Mascalese, a native grape of Sicily that is developing quite a following with a profile sometimes compared to Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo. 

I spent some time with the local team at Cusumano, including the winemaker and the agronomist. The first vineyard we visited is 'under construction'. The Pietra Ariga site offers a unique opportunity for Cusumano to establish a 10-hectare parcel devoted only to the local white grape, Carricante. This is unusual, as about 80% of production in the area is given over to Nerello Mascalese, the Etna DOC red wine star of local wines.

Agronomist Gaspare Dara explained that the site had been fallow for many years and that soil tests were undertaken before the purchase to ensure that there was sufficient depth for planting vines - large hardened lava flows lurking under a thin layer of soil can make a site useless for cultivation. Based on the soil analysis, he then selected Carricante vines grafted to 3 rootstocks of varied vigor. Cusumano winery at Verzella estateTerraces are being rebuilt where the property shows more dramatic slopes and where these are finished, planting of the vines had begun. Gaspare highlighted some of the significant advantages of the site—it faces northeast, and to the sea, thus benefiting from more sun exposure than a true north-facing slope, as well as the cooling breezes coming from the sea experiencing more diurnal range than some of their lower-altitude vineyards thus creating opportunities for good levels of acidity. The soil is rocky and porous, with excellent drainage and has a high mineral content. But one of the most significant advantages of the site is the varying micro-climates created by slightly differing slope and aspect. 

We then visited the recently constructed winery based at the Verzella estate, which was planted to Carricante 2-3 years ago. The winery was built with a low profile and colours that harmoniously integrate it into the landscape. It will produce only Etna DOC wines and saw its first vintage in 2014. It was built to exacting standards and features a gravity flow system that sees the grapes arrive at ground level to be gently sorted, de-stemmed using a specialized oscillator, then delivered underground to the fermentation tanks where only indigenous yeasts are used. The cellar includes tanks of varying size to allow for separate vinification of small parcels—such as the old vines 'cru' from the Guardiola estate—and a natural stone wall that allows infiltration of ground water for cooling.

Natural wall in Cusumano cellarAmong others, I tasted the single-vineyard Alta Mora Guardiola 2014, from one of Etna's best vintages and produced from old-vine Nerello Mascalese at 1000 metres elevation. It’s expected to be in the LCBO in 2018. A very ageable wine, expressive and intense, it shows subtle layered aromas and flavours—violets and earth—and the signature bright fruit on a firmly structured frame delivering a persistent, aromatic, dry finish.

****1/2 drink or cellar

Cusumano 'Alta Moro' Rosso 2014

DOC Etna $31.95 (491977) 14.0% alcohol
This Nerello Mascalese was sourced from four Etna 20-year-old vineyards at different altitudes, handpicked and aged eight months in barrel. The nose offers subtle layered aromas of dried herbs and earth, red fruit, spice and light toast. Dry and medium-plus bodied, it shows structure for aging with attractive weight on the palate balanced by clean texture. There are complex flavours; plums and tangy red berries are evoked with wisps of smoke, mineral and spice teasing the palate through a firm lasting finish. Serve with thinly sliced grilled beef tenderloin garnished with herbs. (Susan Desjardins)

***1/2 drink now

Cusumano Nero d'Avola 2015

IGT Terre Siciliane $12.95 (143164) 14.0% alcohol

Purple robed and unoaked, this is all about expressing the fruity profile of ripe, sun-drenched grapes of coastal Sicily. Approachable, fruit-forward and loaded with flavours of red and black berries and plum, it displays a slight mineral quality, good acidity and soft tannins, a hint of bitter chocolate present on the smooth finish. Your go-to wine for the barbecue. (Susan Desjardins)

***1/2 drink now

Cusumano Syrah 2015

IGT Terre Siciliane $12.95 (145490)14% alcohol

Rich aromas of blueberry pie are complemented by a dash of pepper and a hint of mineral. Medium-full bodied, dark berry flavours and mineral dance across the palate, while the light peppery notes persist on the nicely balanced, dry finish. Serve with a blueberry and beet salad with prosciutto. (Susan Desjardins)

Vinicola Benanti

There's been a recent rush by producers to establish themselves in the Etna DOC, but one family which has long-established roots is Benanti. We met with Dottore Giuseppe Benanti, as well as his son Antonio, at their property in Via Grande, located on the south slope of Etna.

The Benanti family moved from Bologna to Catania in 1734 at the request of the then King, who granted them extensive lands. They were involved in agriculture, including wine production, and in 1793, the first Giuseppe Benanti bought the estate in Via Grande, which is located on what was then a main road which transported wine and other goods to the natural port at Messina.

Dottore Benanti's grandfather was a pharmacist, but also produced wines on this estate. His father followed in the family profession, taking it further with the creation of an international pharmaceuticals firm which captured his full attention, to the extent that he abandoned grape growing and winemaking. Fortunately, he didn't uproot the family vineyards!

Despite his leadership role in the family business, Dottore Benanti decided in 1988 to re-initiate wine production. At that time, there were 3-4 wine producers on Etna; now there are over 130. His keen scientific interests led him to conduct a series of chemical trials and analyses with the help of wine experts, one from Piedmonte and one from Beaune, to assess the nature of his terroir and the attributes of the grapes which seemed best suited to his different vineyards. This valuable research also led him to patent four indigenous yeast strains, each used with one of the different indigenous grape varieties grown on their key estates, located on the southwest, southeast, east and north slopes of the volcano.

Benanti estate vineyard with century vinesAs we walked through the vineyards, we moved from some of the younger vines, 30 or more years old, to 80-year vines and vineyards with 120 year-old, phylloxera-free, century vines growing on their own rootstocks. 

The sandy, porous volcano soil undoubtedly contributed to the survival of these vines. Dottore Benanti discussed the soil, always black or dark grey, the regular falls of ash from the volcano adding different minerals with each eruption. He indicated that the critical considerations in selecting a vineyard are the altitude and associated diurnal variation, the aspect, microclimate and, importantly, the wind exposure. He explained that beneath the ashy soil layer, there is a pan of lava which captures rainwater. Because the soil is very porous, it drains well, but the lava pan retains some of it at the root level so that it is drawn up by the roots as the hot sun beats down on the vines; hence, no irrigation is required at the Via Grande site.

He pointed out that all the grapes for Benanti wines are handled very gently, so that skins and seeds are not damaged. For instance, a bladder press is used with the Carricante intended for white wines. He emphasized the importance of delicate handling for Nerello Mascalese, given its significant tannins.

When speaking about his wines, Dottore Benanti emphasized that his goal is to produce ageable wines that reflect the character of the indigenous grapes and the specific qualities of the terroir, a philosophy that his son Antonio emphasized that he and his brother Salvino continue to adhere to this. As he strolled through the vineyard, Dottore Benanti summarized his feelings about his 30-year engagement with his estate: "Wine production is a culture and a lifestyle, where you place a part of your heart in the vineyards."

Dottore Benanti in the old palmetoWe viewed the old gravity-feed 'palmeto' (winery), which has been preserved onsite, with its stone basin for stomping the grapes (which Dottore Benanti remembers doing as a child with his grandfather), the large wooden crushing equipment, and the smaller stone basins where the juice gathered and was stirred by hand. 

His son, Antonio then described the family's new winery, which has been built on three levels using the same principle of gravity flow, but with the most current winemaking technology adapted to the demands of the grapes and calibre of wine they are making. As an example, vertical basket presses are used with Nerello Mascalese to ensure gentle pressure on the grapes.

With the resurgence of winemaking on Etna, the excitement around its old vines, the rediscovery of its indigenous grapes—particularly Carricante and Nerello Mascalese—and the influx of new producers, it is a vibrant, exciting wine region. Antonio Benanti feels that he and the other wineries in the region "are all making history. There is still so much to be learned. In a way, we are getting to shape where Etna is going." And one of their hopes . . . Etna as DOCG.

I tasted the 2012 Nerello Cappuccio, unfortunately not currently available. This is another native grape, not broadly grown or vinified, but worth knowing about as it is often blended with Nerello Mascalese to soften the texture. Fermented and vinified in stainless, it was very approachable and balanced with supple tannins and lively acidity paired with ripe red and black berry fruit, subtle floral and herb notes, joined by some hints of cedar and cocoa on the dry, tangy, flavourful finish. 

Given the relatively small production from this winery, it’s not surprising that the most recent Benanti wine release through the LCBO was in 2015—the Rovitello Etna Rosso. I learned from Antonio that four wines, including the 2012 vintage of Rovitello, are available in small quantities, on consignment, from Bonta Trading.

**** drink or cellar

Benanti Etna Bianco 2015

DOC Etna $27.95 12.0% alcohol

Produced from 100% Carricante from the eastern and southern vineyards, this offers delicate aromas of citrus, mineral, almond kernel. Dry, mid-weight, showing a crisp, bright texture and some waxy notes underlying the replay of light citrus and mineral, this wine is reminiscent in style to Chenin Blanc. Finishing dry and tangy, it is a great sipping wine and an ideal match to fresh fish or seafood. (Susan Desjardins)

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Benanti 'Etna' Rosso 2015

DOC Etna $27.95 13.0% alcohol

Primarily Nerello Mascalese, this blend of vineyards also included a portion of Nerello Cappuccio (less than 20%), each vinified separately. Fermented and macerated in stainless, a small portion of the Nerello Mascalese spend 8-10 months in French oak barrique. Transparent ruby, this is an ethereal wine, tantalizing with delicate notes of wild rose, mineral and red forest berries. There's an earthiness to the wine, perceptible youthful tannins and lively acidity framing tangy red fruit—cranberry, wild strawberry and red cherry. Dry and persistent on the finish, this is a terrific food wine to pair with light meats, salmon or charcuterie. (Susan Desjardins)

****1/2 drink or cellar

Benanti 'Rovitello' Etna Rosso 2012

DOC Etna $54.95 14.0% alcohol

Antonio Benanti described Rovitello, harvested from the family's estate at 750 metres on the northwest slope of Etna, as ‘true expression of Nerello Mascalase’. Ruby with a brick rim, this transparent wine comes from a very hot vintage. The mineral character tantalized the nose, a whiff of delicate vegetal and herbal notes twining through the core of red fruit. Dry, mid-weight, with polished tannins, a vibrant texture and bright flavours of red berry and plum skin, underlain with an appealing earthiness, this is a balanced, complex wine that delivers an extended clean, dry finish. Serve with rare-grilled red meats. (Susan Desjardins)

****1/2 drink or cellar

Benanti 'Serra de la Contessa' Rosso 2012

DOC Etna $54.95 14.0% alcohol

Carrying the name of the prominent hillside behind the Benanti vineyards in Via Grande, this garnet wine is layered and elegant. From the hot 2012 vintage, it shows lifted aromas of forest berries and plums, garnished with delicate notes of dried herbs and the characteristic mineral character. Dry, medium-full bodied, there's terrific balance between the well-defined structure, the refined acidity and the bright tangy berry and plum fruit. Showing finesse on the lengthy finish, this is a wine to share with friends, to contemplate and savour. (Susan Desjardins)