Volcanic Mt. Etna wines bring the heat

The first time I opened a bottle of wine from Mt. Etna in Sicily, I smelled smoke. My first strange but enticing sip of volcanic wine – light red wine laced with the metallic smolder of a live coal – won me over. Unfortunately, the romance of that meeting was a lie.

“Yeah, that blows off – it just needs to open up,” said The Wine and Cheese Place’s Aaron Zwicker when I told him about my Sicilian encounter.

Parker’s Table’s Simon Leherer agreed. “That spent gunpowder quality is most common in Bordeaux; it’s another flavor component that’s not necessarily because it’s volcanic,” he explained.

If the smokiness of your Etna Rosso, the catch-all name for Etna reds, doesn’t wear off, it could be because the wine was grown on Europe’s most active volcano – but again, not for flashy reasons. “That’s possibly smoke damage, and not coming from the soil itself,” Leherer said.

illustration by vidhya nagarajan

Leherer and Zwicker managed to convince me that Etna Rosso doesn’t taste like smoke and isn’t so special because it’s made on a volcano. “Volcanic soil is definitely a good thing,” Leherer said. “In general, it provides better quality wines, but it doesn’t necessarily give a distinct flavor profile to those wines.”

Luckily, something better was left when the sparks dissipated. It’s not quite brimstone, but Etna Rossos do have a salty, earthy mineral quality – think sipping on a glass of red in one of those pink Himalayan salt rooms. With a smooth iteration of Italian acidity and clear, intense fruit flavor without being sweet, the wines elicit descriptions like “energetic” and “lively.” Leherer attributed Etna Rossos’ unique, somewhat savory qualities to its peculiar varietals rather than its peculiar volcano. Most are made primarily with a local grape called nerello mascalese.

“It’s like pinot meets grenache – a little of that briary, southern French character but the lightness of pinot,” Zwicker said. “But the lightness doesn't belie lack of flavor. It’s not big, heavy fruit up front. It’s about the minerality, length and balance more than the sheer power of the wine.”

Volatile marketing hook aside, it’s easy to see why volcanic wines have become so popular. If you like savory reds, it’s time to jump into Mt. Etna. 

Wines to Try
Valenti Norma Etna Rosso
“It has that lightness and intensity to it – a really good food wine.” – Aaron Zwicker
$22. Available at The Wine and Cheese Place

Cantine Nicosia “Vulka” Etna Rosso
"It’s one of the best values in Etna Rossos that we see. I love the bright, tart cherry flavors.” — Simon Leherer
$17. Available at Parker's Table

To learn more about volcanic wine, check out “Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power” by John Szabo. $45. Available at Left Bank Books

Heather Hughes is managing editor at Sauce Magazine.