The soaring story of Etna and Contrade dell’Etna

Michèle Shah attends the 15th edition of the Contrade dell’Etna, which has developed exponentially since it started as a convivial gathering of local winemakers. In tandem, she describes the remarkable re-emergence of Etna’s elegantly energetic wines.

In 2008, Andrea Franchetti, a visionary and eclectic wine pioneer — owner of the Passopisciaro estate on Etna and Tenuta di Trinoro in Tuscany — ignited a passion-fuelled revolution on Mount Etna. Driven by his deep love for Etna and its wines, Franchetti transformed his visionary idea into what is now the most significant wine event on Mount Etna: the Contrade dell’Etna. This event began as a convivial gathering, with cellar doors wide open to local producers, resembling an ‘en primeur’ of barrel samples. Here, winemakers shared their techniques and tasted the latest vintage, fostering a community of innovation and excellence. It was later opened to the public and became ever popular, becoming a sort of open wine market cum fair.

The inaugural edition of Le Contrade, held annually between March and April, saw only a handful of producers. Its aim was to revive a nearly abandoned territory with a rich, centuries-old tradition of winemaking. Thanks to the founding producers—Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro, Marc de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere, and later, Belgian-born Frank Cornelissen — Etna wines began to grace global markets. Historical Etna wineries like Benanti, which started bottling and labelling its wines in the 1960s and began exporting globally in 2011, paved the way. Other notable estates such as Graci and Barone di Villagrande, with century-old vineyards, some pre-phylloxera, contributed to the growing fascination with Etna wines.

Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, boasts a viticulture divided into 133 Contrade (geographical areas), each classified according to its unique soil composition, geology, microclimate and exposure. These factors bestow distinctive organoleptic characteristics on each vineyard or Contrada, creating a tapestry of flavours and aromas that define Etna wines. Revered by locals as A Muntagna (the mountain) or Idda (she), Etna rises to an altitude of 3,300 metres with a 45 km diameter. Its active and ever-changing nature ensures a unique and constantly evolving ‘Etnean’ wine production, thanks to the volcanic activity that perpetually transforms the soil. The lava flows and ash showers guarantee the vineyards’ uniqueness and character within the Contrade.

A historical flashback reveals that Etnean wine production was even more prominent in the 1880s, when it was an integral part of the agricultural economy, covering 50,000 hectares and producing 100 million litres of wine. The Circumetnea railway, inaugurated in 1895, underscored its importance by facilitating connections between the hinterland and the port of Riposto, built to transport Etnean wine to the mainland and beyond. However, the late 19th century saw a decline due to industrialisation and the abandonment of the countryside. 

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Etna wines flourished again with the establishment of the Etna DOC in 1968, one of Italy’s first denominations. Today, the powerful and evocative Etna-wine combination has reignited interest in the entire island. Current DOC production spans just over 1,200 hectares, yielding about 5.5 million bottles of Etna DOC wine, with some production outside the official appellation area.

The establishment of the Consorzio heralded a renaissance on Etna, attracting producers from Sicily and mainland Italy. They revitalised abandoned vineyards and traditional palmentos (local winemaking facilities), giving Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, and Carricante (Etna’s main grape varieties) a more vibrant and refined expression.

Since its inception in 2008, ‘Contrade dell’Etna’ has grown exponentially. In its third year, it moved to Fattorie Romeo del Castello in Randazzo, staying true to Franchetti’s philosophy of a convivial gathering. However, its growing popularity has stretched the event’s original principles. Now managed by a private PR company, it is held on the grounds of the Picciolo Golf Resort hotel. As of the 2024 edition, held from April 11-13, 209 wineries participated, showcasing the diversity and richness of Etna wines.

The international acclaim of Etna wines, driven by their vibrant energy, saline minerality, age-worthy elegance, and powerful storytelling, has captivated wine lovers globally. This volcanic terroir, with its beautiful century-old vines and dynamic landscape, has firmly established Etna as a producer of fine wines worthy of global recognition.