Explore Sicily's Mount Etna and discover world-class food and wine as the October harvest unfolds on its fertile, volcanic slopes.
IT’S NOT THE sparkling, deep blue Ionian sea that locals turn to first thing every morning on the slopes of Mount Etna, but the volcano. “It’s very precious to us,” declares agronomist Mario Giaquinta, our guide for the day.
Etna might keep Sicilians awake at night with its regular pyrotechnics, but this mighty volcano, the largest in Europe, has a giving side too, thanks to its rich volcanic soils and plentiful snowmelt—from intense pistachios and aromatic honeys, to sweet, crunchy apples. Its jewel, though, is the wine—elegant, mineral-rich red wines and taut, tangy whites. But first we have a volcano to climb—one that is billowing smoke rather alarmingly.
“The experts don’t really know where exactly it will erupt from next,” ponders Giaquinta, as we gaze nervously over the last fiery spillage that ploughed through swathes of chestnut forest and tore through roads, long since hardened into a dense black mass.
The past few eruptions have been belching out of craters far above the towns and villages that determinedly cling to Etna’s slopes, and any lava flows have mercifully stopped short of major residential areas. “Etna produces effusive eruptions, with relatively slow-rolling lava, rather than the explosive kind, such as the potentially catastrophic Mount Vesuvius on Italy’s mainland, so there’s no need to worry,” assures Giaquinta, pointing out the ski run near the top of one of the craters, giving a whole new meaning to the term black run.
World Heritage status
Mount Etna is one of the world’s most active stratovolcanoes. It’s active because it’s still young in volcano terms, with an eruptive history dating back 500,000 years. And it’s this almost continuous eruptive activity that has made the site a prime destination for researchers—and for thrill-seeking tourists, making it hugely influential, which is why UNESCO recently made it a member of the World Heritage group.
For the ultimate buzz, take a helicopter ride over its slopes. Stare down into the ruptured skin of planet Earth, rimmed with black ash and swirling with gases, and play spot-the-volcanologist working away at the crater’s edge. Walking on its slopes, however, is the best way to get to know it. Hiking the main route to the top from Rifugio Sapienza doesn’t require any special climbing equipment and it’s a moderate challenge for the fit hiker, who will need about four hours. Along the way you’ll get views over the biggest crater of them all, the amphitheatre-like Valle del Bove, 5km in diameter and more than 1,000m deep, carved into the eastern flank of Mount Etna.
The poisonous gases Etna burps up occasionally were deemed too strong for us on the day we visit, so we content ourselves with an energetic stroll on its lower, lunar-like slopes—though no less dramatic, as we jump across strange dark crusts of magma and scale towering craters
Close to Sant’Alfio we crunched through silent birch forests before scrambling down into ancient caves carved out of molten lava, once used to store valuable ice through the summer months. Brought down from the snowy upper slopes, it would then be packed in donkey skins and transported to the sweltering coast.
Rich Volcanic Soil
It’s ice that provides our refreshment later that day, in the form of a lemon granita—another thing the region does very well. Thanks to its rich volcanic soils full of potassium and phosphorous, Etna’s slopes are a veritable Garden of Eden.
A sea of citrus assaults the senses, along with plump peaches, fat cherries, plums and pears.
Nearer the lava you’ll find sweet chestnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and intense pistachios. In fact, Etna’s pistachio nuts are highly sought after, with the mountain town of Bronte dubbed Pistachio Central. Here, where we buy some to take home, the vividly coloured kernels are sprinkled on pretty much everything, from pastries to pasta.
Meanwhile honey is the name of the game in Zafferana Etnea, a bit further around the slopes. The town boasts an astonishing 700 honey producers, the beekeepers first attracted to the area over a century ago by its lush plants, the slopes thick with bee-loving lemon and chestnut trees. Zafferana is also famous for its Pizza Siciliana, a sort of fried calzone stuffed with anchovies and young pecorino, which we duly sample after a day’s walking.
There is another reason why the volcano has been attracting global attention of late—its wine. No exciting new wine list is compiled these days without a reference to Etna. Why? Because Etna offers extreme winemaking in a unique microclimate, producing thrilling wines made from indigenous grapes.
If Sicily feels like another country, far removed from the fashionistas of Milan or the rolling hills of Tuscany, then Etna feels otherworldly, with its lunar landscapes and unpredictable weather. Nowhere in Europe are the harvests so nerve-rackingly late or at this elevation, with vines some 100 years old or more within sniffing distance of the sea.
By mid-October, when the rest of Sicily and mainland Italy has long since finished picking, the harvest on Etna has barely started. And it will continue well into mid-November as the first snow starts to fall, when the birch trees turn dramatically gold against the large, black volcanic boulders dotted about the slopes.
The key names in wine here include Marco de Grazia and his Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Passopisciaro’s Andrea Franchetti, and Belgian ex-pat Frank Cornelissen. Many of Sicily’s most notable wine companies, from Planeta to Cusumano, are also snapping up land here.
The temperature drops five degrees in just five minutes as you drive up the winding, narrow roads from the coast. And it’s a good 10 degrees cooler by the time you reach Solicchiata, Etna’s winemaking heartland on its prized northern slopes, only an hour from Taormina.
Catania-born Salvo Foti is another of Etna's winemaking pioneers and one of Italy’s best-known oenologists, making wines under his own label and for the consortium I Vigneri. “You must understand that Etna and Sicilian wines are very different,” he explains, as we get a crash course in local winemaking on a walk through his vineyards.
Nerello Mascalese is the big grape variety here, where it produces elegant, mineral-rich reds that whiff of the wild, herb-strewn forest floor. It’s often inter-planted with Nerello Cappuccio and a few other varieties, both red and white. Of the whites, Carricante is the standard-bearer, with its taut, tangy fruit and lemon, zesty bite.
Everything is hand-picked from bush vines on perilously steep terraces made of black lavarock, in vineyards located high in the clouds, many reached via bumpy mountain tracks in battered 4x4s. The soil is rich and dark underneath the scattering of walnut-sized lava stones, dumped by the volcano’s most recent sabre-rattle, providing another welcome injection of minerals.
Etna, we discover, was the birthplace of wine in Sicily, and once the island’s biggest grape-growing region. But there’s a fraction of that vineyard action on Etna today, the area dotted with abandoned palmenti, the traditional wineries made of black lava stone used for nearly 2,000 years before the suits in Brussels deemed them unhygienic.
Foti is now leading a campaign to bring them back to life. When he first started making wine here 25 years ago there were only four wineries on Etna. Now there are more than 80, with plenty of terraces and palmenti yet to be snapped up, although, unsurprisingly, prices are now soaring.
“I don’t know anywhere else in the world where the vines are this old and the grapes are this good,” declares French-born Etna wine producer Eric Narioo, who settled here with his Australian winemaker wife, Anna Martens, six years ago. “We were on a buying trip when we first saw these north-facing slopes planted with old vine Nerello Mascalese. It was obvious there was something magical going on,” explains Martens, whose Vino di Anna is gaining recognition.
“There is an energy here," agrees Alberto Graci, a Catania-born, former Rome-based city boy, who now runs a successful wine company in Etna. "The acceleration in winemaking is something else—it’s like being in a Ferrari,” he says with a grin. Situated in the small town of Passopisciaro, it is a short walk from the station on the Round-Etna railway down into the Alcantara Valley to Graci’s beautifully renovated palmento, where he makes crisp, fresh whites and juicy, minerally Etna Rosso in old Austrian oak vats.
“There’s a vibrancy in the soil and a complex geology—the northern valley is Etna’s Côte de Nuits,” declares winemaker Frank Cornelissen, one of the original Etna pioneers, who cuts a controversial figure with his defiantly natural wines, made without sulphur or cultured yeasts.
“Etna has been put on the map of great winemaking in just 10 years, which is an extraordinary feat. There aren’t many places in the world where you can make great wine and you’ve got the Holy Grail here,” reckons Cornelissen.
Etna is certainly something special, we agree, as we follow the riverbank in the Alcantara Valley to the gorge the next day. Only 30 minutes' drive from Taormina, the dramatic Alcantara gorge was formed by the waters running of Etna’s slopes and the Nebrodi mountains opposite.
The river is freezing, but it makes a great picnic spot, and we nibble on fresh bread and roughly cut slices of local, fennel-flecked sausage bought in Randazzo market earlier that morning. To wash it down? A bottle of Vino di Anna Rosso, chilled slightly in a boulder-strewn nook of the crystal-clear river.
Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo, in Taormina, Sicily, is a great vantage point for watching Mount Etna’s regular eruptions. The hotel is adjacent to the Greek Theatre, built in that spot to capture this dramatic backdrop. Sister hotel Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea is set beside the beach lining Taormina’s Bay of Mazzaro. Both hotels offer guided tours of Mount Etna with a volcanologist.
You can take a day hike with an agronomist from Catania with Etna Experience, which offers a hike on the volcano with a guide followed by a winery visit, from €59pp.
The Ottobrata Festival, Zafferana Etnea - A Sicilian harvest celebration, Ottobrata is an orgy of eating and drinking held every Sunday in October with everything from pomegranates and prickly pears to porcini. Concerts at close of play keep the party going day and night. Gole della'Alcantara Gorge is botanical and geological park at the foot of Mount Etna is perfect for rafting and trekking.
by Fiona Sims