CATANIA, ITALY Of all the lengths to which wine producers will go in pursuit of potable nirvana, few can match the derring-do of the Cambria family in Sicily.
"The last time the lava came was when we won the Tre Bicchieri ["three glasses," a top Italian wine award], so it must have been 2001," recalled Mariangela Cambria, marketing director for Cottanera, a winery on the slopes of Mount Etna, Europe's largest and most active volcano. In 1985, she said, it was "proprio vicinissima, proprio vicinissima" - extremely close.
Almost three times the size of Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD, Etna is in an almost permanent state of eruption. Smoke billows constantly from its main crater, the plumes serving as a weather vane for residents of the nearby city of Catania, who sometimes must resort to umbrellas to keep ash off their Ferragamo loafers.
It bears saying that Etna would be an awesome sight even without the huffing and the puffing and the rivers of Day-Glo lava that occasionally drool down its snow-collared peak. "La Montagna," as the locals deferentially call it, rises more than 3,300 meters above sea level, covering a staggering 1,200 square kilometres and dominating the eastern skyline of this sun-drenched island off Italy's toe.
"By now, we're used to it," Ms. Cambria told me in Italian when asked if she feared a repeat of 1669, when an eruption incinerated Catania and most of its 20,000 residents.
Reputed by the ancients to be the home office of Vulcan, Roman god of fire and smithery, Etna now stands as a beacon for Sicily's exciting wine revolution. In the late 1990s, Cottanera joined a growing band of several dozen intrepid producers tapping the cool mountain breezes to imbue their modern-styled wines with crispness and finesse, qualities not historically synonymous with hot-climate and traditionally rustic Sicilian vino.
Ms. Cambria says there's a mineral-like quality that Cottanera's wines derive from the infernal lava that comprises the mountain's black soil. That's part of what she's after. Most other vintners try to make their beverages taste like heaven. Etna's renegades want to imbue theirs with a soupçon of hellfire.
Cottanera bottled its first harvest in 2000 on what had been the Cambria family's summer retreat on a windswept Etna plateau 750 metres above sea level. The 100-hectare property is framed by a ridge of ominous-looking peaks. One, Ms. Cambria confirms, is a dormant mini-volcano. To the south is the main crater. The closer you get to the peak, the more you realize you're not in bucolic Banff.
The winery's stainless-steel tanks and smattering of $1,000 French-oak barrels betray Cottanera's break with Sicilian wine's past. Though vines have clung to Etna's slopes for as long as anyone can remember, and barely palatable Etna wine has been made for just as long, Cottanera clearly is part of a new school.
A sampling of recent vintages underscores the point. I particularly liked the richly fruity, concentrated syrah called Sole di Sesta 2004. The Grammonte 2005, a merlot whose name is a blend of two Italian words meaning "big mountain," was superb, with a concentrated core of dark-fruit flavour and seductive note of smoked meat. (The wines currently are not available in Canada.)
Until about 15 years ago, great Sicilian wine was as fanciful a concept as stability in Italian politics. The fertile island is a grape juggernaut, churning out three-quarters as much wine as all of Australia. But the vast majority not used for fortified Marsala was, and still is, sold in bulk.
Much, even today, is shipped to France and Germany, where it is covertly used to turbo-charge otherwise feeble juice. France imported more than 6.7 million litres of Sicilian wine in 2007. Virtually all of it was bulk, presumably for blending.
Starting in the 1980s, local visionaries such as Diego Planeta of the large co-operative Settesoli began beating a new, upscale path for Sicilian wine. Why sell raw sunshine when you can bottle it at a premium? They toyed with new vine varieties, invested in the latest grape-coddling harvest equipment and began bottling and making wine on their estates. "Qualita" suddenly entered the Sicilian wine lexicon.
On Mount Etna, Ms. Cambria and family are at the Sicilian vanguard for more than their extreme location. Like other vintners across Sicily, they've embraced international grape varieties such as syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon along with such traditional local red heroes as nerello mascalese, nerello cappuccio and the white inzolia (a.k.a. ansonica). That strategy, some believe, could be the Trojan horse that brings premium Sicilian wines to global consciousness.
Several of Italy's top enological consultants have been experimenting on Etna's black slopes, too, including Riccardo Cotarella and Giacomo Tachis. The latter, who helped ignite the great Tuscan wine revolution, has said pinot noir from Etna could rival top red Burgundies. One of the best-known U.S. importers of Italian wine, Marc de Grazia, has launched an Etna vineyard, Tenuta delle Terre Nere ("black soils estate"), and has said the mountain is poised to produce wines that will compete with the world's best. And there is a musician on the mountain. Mick Hucknall, Simply Red's lead singer, has a winery called Il Cantante ("the singer").
Further down the slope from Cottanera is Benanti, a top producer whose wines, along with those of Murgo, are regularly available in Ontario and Quebec. The estate was founded 20 years ago by Catania pharmaceutical executive Giuseppe Benanti, whose family had cultivated grapes on Etna a century ago. You won't find a merlot or syrah from Benanti, just indigenous grapes.
And the wines are excellent, like Rovittello ($54 in Ontario), a blend of nerello mascalese from 80-year-old vines and nerello cappuccio. A 1996 Rovittello I tasted at the winery was in great shape, soft and creamy, with slightly evolved notes of earth, tobacco and sweat on a fresh-fruit core. Also impressive was the Biancodicselle 2002, a white based on the local carricante grape, which danced with a tingly mineral character over a rich centre of honey and lemon.
Perhaps the most significant name to arrive is Planeta. Considered the leader of the island's modern wine movement, the firm is run by Diego Planeta's daughter, Francesca, and cousins Santi and Alessio. With holdings in several of the island's regions, Planeta finally bought property on Etna in 2006 to, as Alessio Planeta puts it, complete its rainbow of Sicilian soil colours. "We had a white place in Noto, a red place in Vittoria and a grey place in Menfi," he told me at a tasting in Syracuse, south of the volcano. "Etna is black. It was the only colour that we were missing."
He says the black soil ironically inspired him to plant white varieties, carricante and riesling, which he predicts will best telegraph the soil's rich mineral character.
Mr. Planeta says he did a lot of reading about the craters and lava flows before investing. "You have to think that Etna is not like this, it's like this," he said, using a forearm to indicate a gradual slope. "It gives you the time to escape."
Beppi Crosariol will be in Sicily in August with our Mediterranean Odyssey cruise. For more information, visit globeandmail.com/cruise