My quest to find the world’s most interesting and enjoyable wines recently brought me to the Mt. Etna DOC in eastern Sicily, where I discovered some serious awesomeness in their Etna Bianco. To be honest, I found awesomeness in many of the wines, food, culture, etc., but today I want to focus on Etna Bianco.
For those who want the short version of this story, the headline says it all. Etna Bianco is the perfect shellfish wine. Really, it’s perfect for pretty much any seafood but especially for shellfish. And I do mean perfect. It has stellar acidity, intense lemon flavors and saline mineral qualities. It’s lively, exciting and delicious. Boom! End of story. That’s all you need to know. But if you want more, read on.
The Mt. Etna wine region runs along the north, east and south of the Mt. Etna, which is the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the most active volcanoes in the world. This produces mineral-rich, volcanic soils for the vineyards and plenty of micro-climates throughout the region with different exposures and elevations. These characteristics, along with native grape varieties, contribute to the unique wines of the region.
While the Etna region has centuries of history in winemaking, it’s really only within the past 30 years that contemporary Etna wines have become what they are today. Traditionally, Etna Bianco didn’t exist. The wine was a blend of everything in the vineyard. You can see that in how many of the old vineyards are planted, where white grape vines are intermingled with red grape vines—often in an “albarello” (goblet) style vine training. The traditional Etna wines were made from a field blend of everything in the vineyard, but today producers are much more selective with which grapes they put into their wine.
The winemakers of Etna have discovered how good an Etna Bianco can be, and the world is beginning to discover it creating a growing demand for this style of wine. While only a small percentage of the wines from Etna are currently white, a number of producers there are increasing their plantings of white grapes for Etna Bianco.
Carricante, a grape native to the region, is the main variety used in Etna Bianco. Wine labeled as Etna Bianco must have at least 60% carricante. Etna Bianco Superiore, which can only be produced from grapes grown in Milo, must contain a minimum of 80% carricante. Catarratto is the most common secondary grape allowed in Etna Bianco, however some other varieties are allowed. And while secondary grapes are allowed, the majority of the Etna Bianco that I tasted was 100% carricante.
Some of those who were traveling with me accused Etna Bianco of not having a consistent, defining style. As I reviewed all of my tasting notes, I can’t say that I agree with that. Yes, there is some variability but that could be said about most wines. Some were more austere and mineral-focused, some showed more intense citrus and some showed herbal or floral aromatics. But out-of-this-world acidity, tangy lemon and salty mineral were pretty much universal in all the Etna Bianco that I tasted.
The biggest difference I saw was in vinification style. The majority of the wines I tasted were vinified in stainless, but a few spent some time in barriques, which brought some creaminess to the texture and in some cases brought out stone fruit characteristics. I’m typically not a big fan of oak on white wines, but Etna Bianco I tasted that had been in barrique was amazing and I hope this is a style that more producers adopt.
While I’m fawning over Etna Bianco, I should note that not everyone thinks this is a wine for the masses. Marc de Grazia, the owner of Tenuta della Terre Nere, commented that “carricante isn’t for the uncultured palate.” I’m not sure what he means by that. I think it’s a very approachable wine. If you like good food and like good wine, I think you’ll like carricante. If that means you have a “cultured palate” then so be it.
This wine is also great for aging. With the intense acidity, it has the structure a wine needs to age with character. I had the opportunity to taste a 2001 Etna Bianco Superiore and it was outstanding, showing caramel flavors along with lemon and pear. The mouthfeel was creamy and smooth. The finish was long, tangy and very well balanced. In short, it was magical.
Now, the bad news about Etna Bianco is that I haven’t found many that are imported to the US at my ideal retail price of $20 or less. There are plenty that are reasonably-priced if you’re in Europe, but most of them making it to the US are a touch more expensive. However, I suspect that more will be imported as production volume increases and hopefully a couple bargains make it over here. Regardless, keep an eye out for Etna Bianco in your local wine shop.
If you’re dying to check this wine out, here are a few I would recommend seeking out.
Barone di Villagrande, Etna Bianco Superiore DOC 2011
This is one that I have found retailing for $20 in the US. The nose has a nice floral aspect to it, as well as plenty of lemon and mineral. On the palate the lemon and lime flavors sing with a lively acidity. And “lively” may be an understatement, it’s incredible! The finish is tangy with salty mineral notes. Barone di Villagrande is also the oldest winery in Etna that’s still producing wines, with a history going back to 1727.
Al-Cantàra, Luci Luci, Etna Bianco 2010
100% carricante, this Etna Bianco shows intense floral aromatics, such as orange blossom or “zagara” as it’s called in Sicily. It has exceptional balance and is loaded with lemon flavors along with the salty mineral that makes these wines stand out. The finish is exceptionally long and the floral aromatics make an appearance there too. Superb!
I think this wine from Cottanera is the reason some were accusing Etna Bianco of not having a defining style, because it was the most sauvignon-blanc-like Etna Bianco that we tasted. It’s mostly carricante with a small percentage of catarratto. The aromas on this one range from lemongrass to pineapple to green pepper. Flavor-wise it has the lemon and salty mineral that define an Etna Bianco, but it also has intense grapefruit flavors. While I don’t think it’s as representative of the region as some other wines, it’s still pretty tasty.
Pietradolce, Archinera Etna Bianco 2011
This is the first vintage of this Etna Bianco from Pietradolce and they’re off to a great start with it. The nose shows some pear notes along with the citrus and mineral you would expect. Likewise, there is some soft pear flavors and an intense minerality that makes this wine just awesome!
Cantine Russo, Rampante, Etna Bianco 2010
Wet stones, dried grass, pear and lemon give this wine a good bit of complexity on the nose. The palate has a creamy texture along with soft lemon and salty flavors. It’s tangy, lemony, salty and is a great example of Etna Bianco.
Benanti, Peitramarina, Etna Bianco Superiore 2008
The nose of this wine highlights the mineral qualities of Etna Bianco, think wet stones and a saltiness you can smell. It also shows some soft lime aromas. The palate offers intense lemon with equally intense acidity. And it finishes with a long salted lemon flavor. Benanti is one of the producers who helped lead the resurgence of Etna wines over the past few decades.
OK. This wine is labeled as an IGT rather than an Etna Bianco DOC, but that was only due to a technicality of their paperwork when they bottled the wine. Since bottling they have gotten DOC certification and the next vintage will be labeled as such.
Regardless of the labeling issues, this was one of the most amazing wines I tasted in Etna. It was fermented in barrique and was kept in barriques until bottling. The result is a beautiful wine, with harmonious and comforting aromatics of butterscotch, peach and a touch of vanilla. On the palate it offers creamy lemon flavors that evolve from zesty up front to cool on the finish. It has great concentration to the flavors too. The finish is extraordinarily long. This is an exciting and incredible wine!
Crasale, Etna Bianco 2010
This is another wine that spent time in barrique and the result again is superb. It offers deep, powerful pear and lemon aromas on the nose. The palate has a rich, creamy texture with approachable lemon flavors. It finishes with salty citrus. This wine is yummy.
Disclosure: I tasted the wines of Etna as a part of a sponsored blogger tour of the region, organized by Consorzio Tutela Vini Etna D.O.C.. My travel and accommodations were provided by the sponsor.