Etna is an Italian wine DOC which covers the slopes of Mount Etna, the 10,920ft (3330m) active volcano that dominates the north-eastern corner of Sicily. The Etna DOC was the very first in Sicily, created in August 1968 and followed nine months later by that of Sicily's most famous wine, Marsala.
The most commonly produced form of Etna wine is the standard Etna Rosso, a red made predominantly from Nerello Mascalese with a 20% addition of Nerello Cappuccio (also known here as Nerello Mantellato). Its bianco (white) counterpart is composed of at least 60% Carricante, backed up by Sicily's most widely planted white grape, Catarratto, and a host of minor additions including Trebbiano and Minnella. There is also a relatively rare rosato (rose) form made from the same grapes as the rosso.
The Etna wine-producing zone arcs around the eastern side of the volcano, from Randazzo in the north to Santa Maria di Licodia in the south. The graduated topography creates a smooth spread of mesoclimates, as the land climbs up from near-sea-level to more than 3940ft (1200m). The highest of Etna's vineyards now rank among the highest in Italy (and even the world), easily matching those of Alpine Alto Adige.
Etna's wine producers are experimenting with vineyard sites further and further up the volcano's slopes, to gauge the effects of the richer, blacker soils and increased altitude. Some might say this is tempting fate, but the cachet of owning high-altitude vineyards is growing, and early results from these vines show promise.
From almost any point on Etna's slopes, a quick, squinting glance eastwards will reveal quite how much light the glinting Mediterranean reflects back up onto the vines here. The local vine-growers make much of this effect, which is similar to those reported around Lake Geneva and along the Mosel. They talk about how it helps to ripen the grapes more completely, even at cooler, higher altitudes. Ripeness is almost never a concern in Sicily, a place famous for its hot, bright, persistent sunshine (at a latitude of 37°N, it is far from the coolest of European wine regions). Etna's higher slopes are almost the only place on the island where temperatures fall sufficiently low to cause concern for ripeness. In fact, far from posing problems, the cooler temperatures are actually helpful, and offer the luxury of a cooler, longer growing season.
Etna's international profile received a particular boost in 2001 when Mick Hucknall (of British pop group Simply Red) established his Il Cantante winery there. Today, the terraces of alberello-trained bush vines are of age, and have contributed to the rising fortunes of Etna wines. A similar story has unfolded on another Sicilian volcano, Lipari, to the north in the Aeolian Islands, where designer Carlo Hauner has helped to bring attention to the near-extinct Malvasia delle Lipari wines.
Since its inception, the Etna DOC document has remained unaltered, despite myriad changes in winemaking, viticulture, politics, wine markets and consumer preference. This might be interpreted as a prime example of how Italy's DOC system has been less carefully managed than the French appellation system on which it was based. It might equally be a sign that the original laws were so carefully written that they have remained robust despite the changes going on around them. A third option is that so little wine is made under the title, and what there is is typically of such good quality, that there has been little motivation to spend time and administrative funding on updating the laws. Whatever the truth, Mount Etna continues to smolder away and vines continue to flourish in its rich, dark volcanic soils.