Terroir is Alive and Well on Mount Etna

One of things I adore about wine is how it expresses Mother Nature.  The same grape grown in adjacent vineyards and turned into wine by the same winemaking team can taste very different.  Winemakers attribute the differences to the composition of the soil (limestone, clay, or sand) exposure to the sun (do the grapes benefit from the gentler warming of the morning sun or the more intense afternoon sun?), or a host of other differences.  Even though the explanations for the differences make sense and sound reasonable, they may not truly be whole story.  To me, as a scientist, that’s part of wine’s allure.  We really don’t know why wine from one village tastes different from wine from another village.  Sure, it may be the soil or the exposure, but it could also be a multiplicity of other factors we haven’t even thought of.  The intriguing aspect is that the wines do indeed taste different!  To me, that’s almost magic, and speaks to the beauty and enigma of nature.

Burgundy is ground zero for this phenomenon that the French call terroir.  But the French do not have a monopoly on it.  The concept exists everywhere.  The trick to discovering terroir—and here is where it gets difficult—is to find a producer who makes wines from different sites.  To focus on terroir, examining wines from the same producer seems obvious but is frequently difficult or even impossible.  Traditionally, family-run wineries own vineyards close to home, especially those that have been in existence since the 19th and early 20th centuries, when transportation was more challenging.  When Maurice Drouhin purchased his parcel in the famed Clos des Mouches vineyard in Beaune in 1921, for example, he selected it because it was the best site that he could get to, tend the vines, and return home on a horse in a day.  So, it’s understandable why producers might not be making wines from disparate sites.

Chianti Classico offers a good example of how finding terroir, which clearly exists there, is difficult for the ordinary consumer or even experienced critic.  The Consorzio, the organization that represents the entire DOCG, will often arrange tastings to show the differences among the now newly recognized eleven subzones:  Castellina, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Gaiole, Greve, Lamole, Montefioralle, Panzano, Radda, San Casciano, San Donato in Poggio, and Vagliagli.  They will line up wines from each of the subzones.  Unfortunately, each will be made by a different producer because no producer makes wine in all the subzones, and few indeed even make wine in more than one.  When you taste, side-by-side, the same vintage of Cecchi’s Villa Cerna Chianti Classico, which hails from Castellina, and Fontodi’s Chianti Classico located in Panzano you immediately appreciate the vast and wonderful differences between these two wines.  But is that difference due to terroir or the producer’s style?  Hence, to really drill down on terroir, you need to find producers who make wines in the different areas, so that their individual style doesn’t obscure the differences.

This long introduction brings me to a fascinating lesson in terroir on Sicily’s Mount Etna taught to me by Valeria Agosta, the principal of Palmento Constanzo.  Valeria and her family (her daughter Serena just finished her viticulture and oenology studies in Montpelier) founded Palmento Constanzo in 2009, joining a host of producers flocking to that mountain.

There’s no question that Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, is hot, both literally and figuratively, and has been, especially over the last two decades.  Marc de Grazia, a former wine broker best known for his stellar portfolio, Marc de Grazia Selection, founded Tenuta delle Terre Nerre on Etna in 2001.  Tasca d’Almerita, one the island’s driving forces, founded Tascante on the volcano in 2007.  Planeta, a leading producer on Sicily with estates all over the island, expanded to Etna the following year.  What might have set rumbles through the area—if it weren’t so accustomed to them—was Angelo Gaja, whose name is synonymous with greatness in Italian wines, joining forces with Alberto Graci, a top Etna producer, in 2016.

The plantings on Etna encompass three sides of the volcano, a reverse C on the map, with distinct differences among the vineyards in the north, east, and south.  The western slope of the volcano is devoid of vineyards.  To say Etna’s terroir is varied is an understatement given the impact of the lava flows over the centuries.  Etna is, in fact, one of the few places where the terroir could change with each eruption.  The vineyard area on Etna is divided into contrada, currently 132 of them, which as Valeria explains, are determined by the flow of lava.  Think of the contrada as similar to the myriad appellations contained within Bordeaux though the wines, both red and white, are far more similar to Burgundies, conveying what I like to call, “flavor without weight.”  Just as no one, except the locals, perhaps, claims that Pauillac is superior to Margaux, Valeria emphasizes “that all contrada are different, but not in quality.”  Though there is no official stratification of the contrada, some, like Santo Spirito in the north, seem to have a loftier reputation.

Etna is home to seductive reds, made from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, and vibrant whites, made from Carricante, that make you pause and think when drinking them.  Valeria’s lesson on terroir focused on Carricante, a grape traditionally planted on the southern and eastern slopes, since the red grapes found better ripening on the northern slope.  Starting some 10 to 15 years ago, however, Valeria noted that more growers were planting Carricante on the northern slopes.  Palmento Constanzo joined that trend and now has 40 percent of their 30-acres in Santo Spirito contrada planted to Carricante.  She explained that some producers are currently replanting with Carricante in place of the reds in Santo Spirito, noting that, “it’s hard to keep track.”  Additionally, Palmento Constanzo planted Carricante in the Cavaliere contrada in the southwest, always popular for whites because of its elevation, sun, and the presence of sand in the lava.  The contrada is also generally warmed and receives less rain than Santo Spirito in the north or other areas in the south.  She can’t keep track of all the new producers there either.

Tasting Palmento Costanzo’s 2021 Etna Bianco DOC from Santo Spirito and from Cavaliere affords us the chance to see the stunning differences in terroir embedded on opposite sides of Etna.  The organic farming and winemaking are the same, native yeasts, 20 percent new oak aging, and no malolactic fermentation, so where the grapes grow determine the dramatic differences between the wines.

The 2021 Cavaliere shows a profound dark minerality—lava speaking—and a deep concentration without coming across as overripe.  Thankfully, not an opulent wine, a wonderful austerity balances its depth.  A hint of bitterness in the ample finish amplifies its appeal.  This tightly wound wine needs several years to reveal itself.  (95 points; $68 for the 2019).

In contrast—and what a beautiful contrast—the 2021 Santo Spirito Etna Bianco displays a more refined minerality that is not as lava-tinged.  Less concentrated than Cavaliere, the Santo Spirito displays more finesse and a lighter footprint.  A similar alluring bitterness in the finish reinforces its grandeur.  It, too, needs time to unfold.  (95 pts.; $68 for the 2019).

By the way, Palmento Costanzo makes a terrific array of Etna DOC reds and a splendid Etna Bianco DOC, Bianco di Sei, made from younger Carricante vines.  The riveting 2021 Bianco di Sei shows its charms immediately—minerality and citrus energy—and is perfect for current consumption.  (93 pts.; $42 for the 2020).

Echoing Valeria, I’m equally enthralled by these two wines, in part, because of their dramatically different profiles.  Are the differences due to the soil, the amount of rainfall, the exposure, a combination, or something else entirely?  Who knows, exactly?  That’s the magic that makes wine so fascinating.

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Email me your thoughts about terroir in general or about Etna in particular at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter and Instagram@MichaelApstein

November 15, 2023