Etna Wine is not Italian Wine

Unveiling Etna: A Unique Wine Legacy Beyond Italian Borders

Italy’s Mount Etna is young by modern standards for such an old wine region. Bottled wines have only been produced here for a few short decades, yet the rapidly growing interest in the native varieties grown on the slopes of Europe’s largest and most active volcano is taking the wine world by storm. But make no mistake about it. Mount Etna wine is not Italian wine. I learned this firsthand from my exclusive day-long visits over bruschetta and cheese from two of Etna’s most venerable (and hospitable) winemakers– Giuseppe Benanti and Ciro and Stephanie Biondi.

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Mount Etna Wine

After making the mistake of calling the wines Italian or Sicilian, I was quickly corrected. I had no idea Sicily was home to one of the best winemaking regions in the world. But in fact, vineyards have flourished here as far back as the 6th century BC. Today there are a number of quality-oriented wineries in the Mount Etna area and more are on the way. Winemakers are proud of their wine and quick to let you know, the wine produced here is Etna.

First and foremost, the soil on Mount Etna is rich with volcanic nutrients that are very hospitable to growing grapes. The region has the highest number of commercial vineyards in the world. The high elevation is also an inviting environment for growing grapes. And grapevines benefit from the hot Mediterranean sun. At the same time, the warm Mediterranean breezes extend the growing season.

Mount Etna is an Active Volcano

Mount Etna is an active volcano and some slopes on Mount Etna rise to an elevation of 3,500 feet. It is the world’s second most active volcano and the largest one in Europe. Sicily sits on the fault line where the tectonic plates of Europe and Africa meet. This friction creates a chain of active volcanoes, Mount Etna being the biggest and most famous. And even though I could not see it from my bedroom window, I felt its presence. I saw gifts of smoke rising in the distance everywhere I went. It was a little uneasy knowing mighty Vulcan was always contemplating his next move.

The lava and smoke make quite the first impression flying into Sicily. It’s just a little unsettling to be living at the base of the largest ACTIVE volcano in Europe. Mount Etna has devastated Catania more than once over the city’s centuries-old existence. It’s the reason why most of its architecture is Baroque while many parts of the island still have Greek and Roman architectural remnants. The last eruption was way back in… what… March. Ten people (on the mountain) were injured.

Benanti Viticoltori

I found Benati winery after a simple Google search of good wine. Not knowing much else, I made my way to the Mount Edna winery only to discover him playing with his dog in front of the tasting room. I did not know that I needed to make an appointment. But that didn’t seem to bother Giuseppe. He welcomed me in, flipping lights as we made our way into the tasting room.

It was hot and I probably looked a hot mess. Giuseppe showed me to the ladies’ room where I freshened up and when I returned to the beautiful room, there was a table with a couple of bottles of wine just for the two of us.

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Stroll the Winery

Giuseppe suggested I walk the property with a glass of wine, which sounded like a great idea. When I returned, there was a plate of the most delicious bruschetta. Then Giuseppe sat down next to me for several hours as we drank wine together.

OMG, he smelled so good. He is a very handsome, distinguished, and highly educated man. Don’t get me wrong, the wine was delicious. But, I felt intoxicated by his presence. I could listen to him talk about anything.

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Giuseppe shared his philosophies on his family, life, travel, the indigenous grapes of Mount Etna, and why winemaking is not an industry to him. Wine, to him, is a continuous effort to make the best wine possible.

I have to admit, I felt guilty. I had no idea what Giuseppe had planned for the day before I showed up on his doorstep. But it was also quite clear, that he didn’t feel the same way. I can’t wait to visit again in September.

Before leaving I asked Giuseppe if he had to drink another wine, what would it be. He whipped out his phone and made a call. He set me up with another one on one visit to a winery on the other side of the volcano. Just like that– I felt like a VIP.

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Palmento Biondi

I had the pleasure of meeting Ciro and Stephanie at their Etna winery yesterday. Ciro led a small group of wine lovers on a tour of his winery on the Eastern slope of Mount Edna. The group included some wine distributors from Italy, a lovely British couple on holiday, and me. Afterward, we sat down to an afternoon snack that included meat, cheeses, and six or seven bottles of their delicious wine.

Like many of the wineries in the area, Biondi has been in the business of making good wines for many years. But it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that Ciro, a Florence-trained architect, decided to channel his energies and imagination into the vineyard that was once his childhood playground.

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It’s Wine Not a Job

Everyone left and Ciro took me on an exclusive tour of his largest vineyard. “We make wine that we love to drink. We sell what’s leftover,” he tells me only half-joking as we make our way through the vines.

Ciro recounts memories of his father, who initially discouraged him from becoming a winemaker. You can see and hear the pride he has for what the winery has achieved so far. You can hear the happiness in his voice, knowing his father had the chance to see his success before he died.

We walked through two vineyards, with a third, newer planting on a hillside in the distance. In hindsight, I wished I had a glass of wine in hand.

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Ciro is blessed and he knows it. From the old farmhouse, they are renovating to the cave fort he used to play in with his siblings and the casita he and his wife Stephanie were married in 2004– it all has memories he truly cherishes.

There is hope that the next generation will continue a very simple philosophy. Make good wine. Every single bottle of Biondi wine has much more than a little wine in it.

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I’m Back!!

Tenuta delle Terre Nere

It’s September and I’m back in Sicily to taste more wine. This time I’m accompanied by my husband and my son’s girlfriend who has flown down from Venice.

I love wine here!!!! The rain can’t keep your spirits down when you are drinking good wine. I highly suggest a tasting at Tenuta Delle Terre Nere winery on Etna. The reds are bold and strong on personality.

The terroir is different on the Northern side of Etna, I visited last summer. It’s always colder and the growing season is much shorter. But the yield is much higher than Benanti and Biondi combined.

And although, it’s a little further away from the city of Catania (~80 minutes), it’s still a day trip. We joked with the staff that you just don’t show up in the neighborhood. It is your destination.

No Reservation

I found myself without an appointment. Despite reaching out and getting no answer, we decided to just go for it and drove there on a whim.

We lucked out. A large group made an appointment and we were invited to tag along. So we drove into the town of Randazzo for a late pasta lunch. San Giorgio il Drago is a cute little restaurant set in a cave-like atmosphere. If you know Italy, you know they don’t do fast. We order three different pasta dishes to go and barely made it back for our 2 pm tasting. Til this day, Steven still raves about that pasta!!

Wine Tasting 

Marco, in sales, poured 6-7 wines. I think 2 were white and the rest were red. Tenuta Delle Terre Nere does not have a tasting room yet. Unfortunately, they have had to put off building one for now. So we drank in a room behind the large steel vats. Lingering awhile over the pours with a large group of Russians. Two hours later, we bid farewell to our hosts and made the way back down the mountain.

We stopped once for bottled water, pastries, and forks to eat the pasta in the car. We sat on the side of the road in the rain, sampling each other’s pasta. It was all so freaking good. We were starving and I think we all needed some food to counter all the wine we had just drank.

Final Thoughts

I was quite shocked to be able to sit and linger with the winemakers on these trips. It’s not that common, so I felt like a VIP. Tenuta Delle Terre Nere is an amazing wine experience. And you too may get a chance to speak with legendary Marc de Grazia of Barolo Boys fame and a half-dozen random Russians on holiday. Steven, Vanessa, and I had a blast talking wine, travel, and politics with Christian in Marketing. And btw the wine was really delicious too.

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Comments

  1. Dr. K. Lee Banks

    Well, I’m not a wine drinker – but the scenery and the winery itself are breath-taking! My middle daughter loves wine, though, so she would certainly enjoy a tour like the one you had. How nice of the owner to accommodate you even without an appointment!

  2. Casey

    I love wine and I also love Italian wine, my fav. is dry Lambrusco. Have been drinking it for a few years, price is reasonable and can pair with anything in my opinion.

  3. Shannan P

    I will have to watch the wine lists for Mount Etna wines. It sounds like they take their business very seriously and love sharing their craft with others!

  4. Laurie Gannon

    I’ve never heard of Etna wine before. I would love to try wine from grapes that grown via volcanic soil. Is the wine available for sale in the United States?

    Also, I enjoyed the story of your impromptu time with Giuseppe. Between the bruschetta and his intoxicating scent, I probably wouldn’t have left his property. 🙂

  5. Savannah Baker

    What an incredible host, and experience! Giuseppe sounds like an amazing person, and it’s really not hard to see why he’s so successful – especially if he treats all his guests that way. Thank you for sharing your trip with us! <3

    1. Stacey

      Sarah I admit to having a little knowledge about wine but a lot about what I love. There are enough ppl to tell you about wine making— I just drink what I like and enjoy the experiences and the ppl I meet along the way.

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