Think of Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe, and you likely do not think of flowing wine. Flowing lava maybe. But some of the best red wines in Europe are being produced in that most unusual and extreme of locales. To the ancient Greeks, eastern Sicily's Mount Etna was home of the one eyed monster Cyclops. And now, to a growing band of winemakers, it's also home to magnificent old vineyards with world class potential.
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Ages of volcanic and seismic activity has created a soil with amazing diversity. Among the components is a high percentage of sand, which allowed many of these vineyards to fight off the dreaded "phlloxera" louse that was ravaging vineyards throughout Europe at the turn of the Twentieth century. As a result of this resistance, some of the world's oldest vines dot these dramatic slopes, climbing to over 2,000 feet in elevation. The setting is extraordinary for grape growing with brilliant sunlight by day and a swing to much cooler temperatures at night. This rare combination of factors yields fruit (largely the native red grapes Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio) replete with the radiance expected from the south but far removed from the plodding compotes commonly found from Sicily. While bursting with southern sunshine the wines of Mount Etna are more akin to great Barolo or perhaps France's Pinot Noir based Burgundy.
Though grapes have likely been grown here since the 5th century BC, serious winemaking is a recent arrival. Savvy winemakers from across the country have come to Etna recognizing its' vast potential, but it is Sicilian native Salvo Foti who is the acknowledged authority. Born in Catania, he has had a hand in the production of wines from top producers Benanti (Gambero Rosso Winery of the Year in 2007) and Vini Biondi, and has just released the first red wine from his project "I Vigneri" called "Vinupetra." Another force to be reckoned with is Tenuta delle Terre Nere, an estate owned by American importer Marc de Grazia. Terre Nere releases as many as five fascinating single vineyard bottlings, all from vines between 40 and 100 years of age.
While the above wines are easily in the class of the worlds' standard bearers' they retail for under $50. Quantities are limited but you might find a bottle or two on the shelves of The Wine House, K&L in Hollywod, or The Wine Hotel.
David Rosoff is the GM at Osteria Mozza.