Chasing Fire and Flavor: Wine Tasting on the Slopes of Mount Etna

By Jamie Knee   |   June 4, 2024
Jamie Knee, with Tenuta di Fessina wines at the property

As summer approaches, the allure of Sicily beckons more travelers, especially following the buzz generated by the show White Lotus. This enchanting island off the southern coast of Italy offers an intoxicating blend of history, culture, and breathtaking landscapes. In the captivating setting of the shimmering turquoise Mediterranean Sea, fragrant citrus groves, and the dramatic sight of Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest active volcano, I hoped to catch a glimpse of Etna emitting plumes of smoke into the sky. It was in this captivating setting that my husband, our two British friends, and I had the pleasure of embarking on a wine-tasting adventure.

Mount Etna, standing tall and proud, dominates the landscape north of Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city. This active volcano, with its nearly constant activity, has created incredibly fertile soils over thousands of years. The vineyards planted on its slopes benefit immensely from this rich, volcanic earth, producing some of the most unique and compelling wines in the world. The mountain spans a base circumference of 87 miles, and the convergence of ten municipalities on its summit adds to the area’s lively tourist trade, bolstered by two ski resorts.

In this region, the Sicilia DOC – a broad, island-wide wine appellation in the shadows of Mount Etna – some world-class wines are being made. Etna’s vineyards stretch across its eastern slopes, benefiting from a high elevation ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 feet. This elevation ensures cooler temperatures and a significant diurnal range, preserving the wines’ delicate floral aromas and vibrant acidity. The variety of volcanic soils on Etna, from ash to basaltic rock, imparts an earthy, iron-like flavor to the wines, contributing to their distinct character.

Winemaker Jacopo Maniaci at Tenuta di Fessina

Etna Rosso, predominantly made from Nerello Mascalese, is a red wine that captures the essence of the volcano’s terroir. Its pale color belies the powerful elegance within, offering notes of pomegranate, sour cherry, and hibiscus, with savory and smoky undertones. The robust tannins and refreshing acidity make it versatile, perfect on its own or paired with a hearty meal. As these wines age, their tannins soften, revealing complex, meaty, and leathery notes.

Etna Bianco, crafted primarily from Carricante grapes, is a refreshing, dry white wine with zesty lemon and lime notes, and a distinctive mineral backbone. Reminiscent of a mix between Riesling and chablis, these wines are vibrant and zingy, making them an ideal match for seafood dishes.

Nerello Mascalese, a red grape, thrives at lower elevations, up to 3,000 feet, requiring more heat to ripen. This grape variety is sensitive to its growing conditions, producing wines with a pale color, delicate floral and crunchy red fruit aromas, and powerful tannins due to the volcanic soils.

Carricante, an ancient white grape found throughout Sicily but flourishing on Etna, produces wines that can age gracefully, developing a petrol aroma similar to Riesling. These wines, with their bright acidity and mineral notes, are a true reflection of the volcanic terroir.

Etna Rosato at Tenuta Di Fessina

If your visit to Sicily includes only one winery, make sure it’s Tenuta di Fessina. In the shadow of Mount Etna, nestled among the unique lava flows of 1809 and 1911, lies this stunning 38-acre estate. This gem is run by my friend and talented winemaker, Jacopo Maniaci. Tenuta di Fessina, with its Certified Organic (BIOagricert) wines, showcases the best of Etna’s indigenous grape varieties. The rocky clay and sandy soils, combined with the estate’s meticulous organic viticulture, result in wines of remarkable freshness, acidity, and minerality. Our visit to Tenuta di Fessina was made even more special by the warm hospitality of Jacopo. His deep love for Sicily was evident as he guided us through the vineyards, the historic winery, and the old processing plant. The estate’s emphasis on hospitality is clear, and for those wishing to extend their stay, the newly renovated seven-room guest house, set within a 17th-century structure, offers a unique and charming accommodation option. I highly recommend experiencing the passion and beauty that make this winery a must-visit destination.

Sicily, with its rich history, stunning landscapes, and exceptional wines, is a must-visit destination for any wine lover. The island’s unique blend of ancient traditions and modern innovation, set against the dramatic backdrop of Mount Etna, creates an unforgettable wine travel experience. So, next time you’re planning your summer travels, consider venturing beyond the well-trodden paths of Tuscany and set your sights on Sicily – where fire meets flavor in every glass. And if you can’t make it to Sicily just yet, given Santa Barbara’s abundance of Italian restaurants, you are sure to find one of these gorgeous Sicilian wines on the menu. Whether it’s Etna Rosso, Etna Bianco, Nerello Mascalese, or Carricante, you can savor a taste of Sicily close to home. Saluti!  


You might also be interested in...