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Flavors of Italy

The Volcanic Wines of Prosperous Mount Etna


‘Idda’, the Sicilian dialect’s term for ‘She’ is what locals endearingly use to describe Mount Etna. The volcano which can be seen from miles away, is an eternal observer of island life. She – idda – is seen as a maternal guardian with a nurturing yet unrelenting character. Her omnipresence is a protective comfort, her lava eruptions a cause of admiration and her land a fertile site of much agricultural production. In short, idda is a fundamental part of Sicilian culture. 

What better name therefore for a wine produced on the vineyards of Etna than ‘IDDA’? Using her soil to grow the indigenous grapes, her altitude to create a unique taste, and her changeable weather to produce unexpectedly successful harvests, Mount Etna’s ‘IDDA’ is produced by two prominent winemakers Alberto Graci and Angelo Gaja. Graci is a native of the island owning many hectares of land upon the volcano to cultivate vineyards which strictly produce grapes indigenous to Sicily. Meanwhile, Gaja harks from the Piemonte region in northern Italy where his own family have been producing wine for five generations. Graci and Gaja’s joint venture to create ‘IDDA’ (both red and white wine) is a true homage to the volcano’s influence not only on local Sicilians but also on the rest of the world.

Whilst it is now a hotspot location for wine production, Mount Etna is a new contender in the game. It has only been in the past 30 years that the volcano has gained widespread recognition for its potential to deliver outstanding yet uncommon wine. In the early 90s, cantines enjoyed experimenting with international grape varieties bringing over those which were already well-established to discover how the volcanic soil would affect their eventual tastes. However, most vineyards now prefer to celebrate the native varieties which have grown on Etna for thousands of years. These volcanic wines are enjoying such positive notoriety through the understanding that their ancient heritage (harking back to ancient  Rome) combined with modern winemaking methods creates a standard of wine as intricate and extraordinary as Etna herself. 

This notion of blending the past with the present yields wines that can be simultaneously rustic and elegant, not an easy balance to strike. Yet this seems appropriate for wine cultivation on Mount Etna, a volcano which is so strongly defined by contrast. Most notably, it is a snow-capped mountain located on the Southern Mediterranean coast on an island which experiences extreme heat in the height of summer: “It is a synthesis of two excesses at once:  hot and cold, fire and ice, southern sun and mountain weather,” says Graci. This almost mythical quality combined with the romantic notion of growing wine upon an active volcano compels producers and experts from far and wide to experience Etna’s distinctive wines themselves. 

Although Etna is viewed as one majestic entity, it is important to understand the immense variety of conditions spread out across the volcano. Over its territory, there are varying climates, temperatures, soil acidities, altitudes, and sea proximities all of which have a direct impact on how the differing wines on the volcano come to fruition. In other words, the precise geographic location of a vineyard is fundamental to its bottled characteristics. Stephanie and Ciro Biondi who have been growing grapes on Etna since 1999, note that two of their vineyards situated just 200 meters apart, produce wines that are entirely different from one another.

To best distinguish how these different conditions impact Etna’s wine productions, the volcano is divided into 133 of what are known as ‘contrade.’ These are essentially Etna’s neighbourhoods and are historically named sectors with their own little ecosystems. The contrade are defined by altitude, geology, earth minerality and weather. These differences can be extremely subtle, hardly noticeable when venturing along the volcano however, when comparing the taste of the wines which the various contrade produce, the differences become abundantly clear. 

Although the quality of wine produced in the hundreds of vineyards on the 3300m mountain can fluctuate, Etna is also proudly categorised as DOC (denominazione di origine  Controllata). This translates as ‘designation of controlled origin’, and this classification pertains to the second-highest level of wine quality in Italy. Etna was made the second DOC  in the whole of Italy preceded only by Barolo in Piemonte which was eventually awarded with the highest level of quality, the DOCG. Despite achieving this status in 1968, Etna wines have still been unknown on the international scene until recently. As its notoriety has begun to flow as fast as molten lava, wine producers are starting to push themselves to new heights.  Some daring connoisseurs have begun to experiment with growing vineyards at increasing altitudes along the volcano’s slopes intrigued by how the deeply concentrated soil from frequent lava flows may affect the grapes. The risk of producing on such high terroir atop an active volcano is great although idda may decide to favour the bold. It has been noted that so far, these high-up vineyards have been yielding most successful results. 

The charm and excitement of wine production on Etna continues to grow as producers are drawn to the fascinating variety of the contrade’s microclimates as well as the unpredictability of the yearly wine harvest. It would be thought that when Etna erupts, the vineyards scattered around her slopes would be subject to intense damage or destruction.  However, Alessio Planeta who owns multiple vineyards around Sicily, one of which is located on the north side of the volcano, attests that it is considered good luck “when the old lady erupts.” The ash which she disperses, scatters itself on the soil but it does not cause any harm to the grapes’ growth but rather, it has quite the opposite effect. It ends up fertilising the earth and eventually contributes to the utterly unique flavours which Etna wines possess. This is just one example of how the uncontrollable nature of cultivation upon a volcano can end with favourable rather than fatal results. Angelo Gaja’s daughter, Gaia, who has been as equally enchanted by Mount Etna’s qualities as her father, sums up the locals’ perspective of  Etna, one which is fast understood by all visitors of her terroir: “It is more than a  mountain…It is maternal, it is capricious, it has a quick temper – it is alive.”