Volcanic Wines I: Wineries on the Edge.

Etna has been spewing out small grains of black sand since February.  If you leave furniture outdoors there is a sprinkling of black grains the next morning.  The less well-used roads get covered in a layer, with only tyre paths through the middle showing their true surface.  Then the volcano starts smoking, and you wonder if it is a sign of more natural violence to come. 

Black sand on road.

The vineyards around Etna have to be at a reasonably high altitude in order to avoid excessive heat – up to 800 metres on the northern slopes of the mountain.  When I talk to one producer, Cottanera, they point out that this gives a high  day-night temperature variation which is excellent for retaining acidity and freshness in the grapes.  The altitude means, however, that the best are planted on volcanic soils, a well-drained rocky-sandy environment.  Yet there is no one volcanic soil.  Lava flows have accumulated over time and each eruption gives a patchwork of rock-types and in many places ash is also significant.  Older elitico soils (dating back to an eruption 60 000 years ago) are pointed out which can sustain vines; alongside them we see the remnants of a 1981 lava flow which is still just large, dense boulders.  Only with time will they erode to give a workable and very fertile soil for vines or olives (the other crop which can survive in the harshest parts of the moonscape-like environment). 

The 1981 lava flow looking across to the San Lorenzo vineyard.

When I visit another of the producers here, Terre Nere (the name translates as ‘black lands or soils’), Domenico, our guide, suggests that ‘we don’t plant on soil, but on what Etna has thrown out’.  The vineyards are not what have always existed, but the innards of our planet vomited up for the wine producers to find and turn into something unique.  This leads him to suggest that what creates the wine here is not just static place, but temporality, that which has changed with time over many thousands of years, yet which is still changing.  At Cottanera they say that they like the black sand which is being blown out from the mountain at present because it allows the terroir to evolve.

This patchwork of volcanic deposit leads the producers on Etna to focus very closely on the different vineyard sites that they have.  For some time they have defined a number of contrade (singular contrada); when they discuss them they may call them crus, but the word in Italian means a district, even the quarter of a city.  It’s a place, but – at least as used in Sicily as a whole – maybe more a territory than a terroir, a community than a cru.  On Etna the contrade certainly have specific relationships to geological formation; the local producers have talked about them for many years but they could only put the word on a label as a designation of the wine’s origin from 2011 – many adopted it instantly – like Cottanera who use it for five of their wines which come from grapes.

So why is this of interest culturally?  The first point to note is this idea of temporality.  We’re used to seeing terroir as a static notion – it exists now in time.  However, for the producers on Etna it stretches back and also varies with the future.  That’s actually quite accurate.  The viticultural consultant Claude Bourguignon has said that after 1800 years of viticulture some parts of the vineyards in Burgundy are more sterile than the Sahara.  Those same vineyards were pumped full of fertilisers containing potassium from the 1950s onwards which dramatically changed their composition and reduced pH levels in the wines.  These changes are the results of human intervention rather than the natural world, but, while often barely noticed, still change the vineyards over a period.

The next thing I take from this is the profound need we have for ‘making special’; in the context if wine, it is that our place is unique (including the deep time which has reshaped it repeatedly), and the sense therefore that the wines which come from it are both unique and significant.  This is good; it allows producers to take pride in their product and it that happens then good – and unique – wine may result.  The understanding of what makes the wine special may not always be accurate (you need to see my next blog post for more on this) and the reasons given may be contradictory from place to place, but it’s a recurring refrain.’  Thus, I am told by Domenico that Etna wine is not Sicilian, it is an exception (just like every wine region) an island between two rivers.  It has 40% more rain than the rest of Sicily.  Crucially it has a soil and bedrock unlike most other places on Earth.  What they are saying is ‘we are not like all the rest, we are special’.  Certainly, on Etna they are special in terms of the specific geomorphological challenges they have to deal with.

The other point of interest here is to see a wine region which is living on the edge.  Many regions claim ‘volcanic wine’ but most are based in areas of what is now extinct volcanic activity.  They have the soil, but not the danger, and not the threat of a constantly changing landscape, nor even of the chance that your vineyards will be destroyed in a lava flow.  Perhaps the producers of lacryma christi on Vesuvius and a few in Washington and Oregon states in the US share this sense of risk, the added frisson which comes from knowing that this vintage could be your last, if the Greek god Hephaestus, who has his forge under the mountain, gets so angry with his fellow gods that he decides to explode again.  This has always been a hard place to grow grapes and phylloxera and rural depopulation have probably caused more social harm over the last century than the volcano.  Nevertheless, we’re told, the people welcome the risk, because it is the result unexpected which has also given them their livelihood. 

Smoke coming out of Etna.

Since I wrote this Etna has begun erupting again.  The smoke you see in the picture above is just a precursor to the real thing.  Maybe that will again restructure the landscape of the vineyards and provide some new soils in the future.  If not now, then perhaps in 4, or 17 or 32 years?  Who knows when, but it’s likely to happen.

A foodie postscript: the main vineyard areas on the north of Etna cluster around a village called Castiglione di Sicilia.  It’s a typical Italian hilltop settlement, but rather down-at-heel at present.  However, it’s worth a visit and if any reader happens to go there then I strongly recommend a visit to a restaurant called ‘Vitis’.  Actually – and the name gives it away – it is more of a wine bar with food.  However, the wines are amazing in a bar in a side street in a Sicilian village of around 3000 people – empty bottles cluster down the alley: many good local wines of course, but also great Italian reds from Tuscany and Barolo – then German riesling, a Fixin from Meo Camuzet in Burgundy, good Spanish wine, and champagne.  The owner and his sommelier are trying to bring the world of wine to this small corner of Etna (and I hope many of the local wine producers are making use of it to expand their knowledge of the world of wine).  I went into the temperature-controlled cellar which measured about one metre square and had bottles ranged up the walls, bottoms facing out with only a price on them; apparently the sommelier knows what each one is even though the labels may not be accessible!  Yet more than that, the food is interesting: our waitress explained that they can’t and won’t compete with the ‘normal’ trattoria so they were offering linguine with fermented black garlic, another pasta with local herbs and toasted breadcrumbs, as well as – our choice – cous cous (it is actually a Sicilian speciality) with potato, capsicum and chickpeas.  Well worth a visit.