Mount Etna – The Awesome Power of active volcanos, and yes red wine with fish #ItalianFWT

Mount Etna in Sicily photo credit rosdemora Adobe stock

Mount Etna – The Awesome Power of active volcanos, and yes red wine with fish #ItalianFWT

Mount Etna, volcanos, and wine. 

In October we pair wine and volcanos with the Italian Food Wine and Travel group.  I’m partial to volcanos, as you will see, so diving into Italian volcanic wine was an exciting prospect.  If you scroll to the bottom, you will find links to my colleagues’ writing on the subject.

I was 12 when I met a volcano.  My father was stationed in Hawaii, and we took a trip to the Big Island and visited Kilauea.  We sat on the edge of the crater as one of my ancestors had done.  Samuel Clemons, you might know him by his pen name, Mark Twain, is a distant relation and I read that he too had visited Kilauea. As you can imagine, at that time it made quite an impression.  In case you are curious, here is a link to his writing on his visit.

Volcanos have a way of putting things into perspective.  They are large and perhaps ominous. When you visit them you are reminded that they are remolding and remaking the land. Kilauea is creating a new island off the eastern shore of Hawaii as we speak.  As a child in Hawaii, I learned to respect volcanos and the goddess Pele, who created these islands and continues to create. 

I have visited a few times since then, with my husband.  The reverence is still there.  I always feel I must be quiet and contemplative in the presence of a volcano.

Kilauea is the most active volcano currently on the planet.  Sitting in second, is the volcano we visit virtually today. Mount Etna.

Mount Etna in Sicily

Mount Etna is on Italy’s island of Sicily.  As I scrolled through the photos of the volcano, I felt that familiar sense of awe as well as a certain giddiness.  I do love volcanos.

You might ask about the last eruption on Mount Etna. Well, this is an active volcano. As I write this, there is an ash warning and yes, the crater is still bubbling. This is a stratovolcano and it has been growing for 600,000 years, from a crater on the seafloor to the 3350 meters (that’s almost 11,000 feet) it now towers above the ocean.

Seems exciting right?  Something you might want to see on the webcams?  But maybe not where you want to go visit a vineyard.  Here’s the thing, volcanic soils are great for wine grapes. The Phoenicians knew that when they planted wine grapes here 3500 years ago.

During the Roman empire, this was a prestigious region for wine, but it declined in the 20th century.  The Etna DOC was established in 1968, but it was not until the 80s that the region really started to grow. 

Andrea Franchetti and Passopisciara

Our wine comes from Passopisciara, Andrea Franchetti’s winery her on Mount Etna.  Franchetti was known for Tenuta di Trinoro, where he was making Super Tuscan style wines.  Being a man who loves a challenge, he came to Mount Etna in 2000.  His writing on coming to Mount Etna is evocative.  It paints a powerful picture.

There’s no mold, no moss; the ground sparkles black like the night; the wine slowly becomes very elegant and strange. During the day a soft light penetrates everything and then there are starry nights; Etna has enormous poetry. Making wine, you have access to it. There isn’t Mother Nature here. You are conducting your viticulture on stuff that comes out of the terrible below.”

Andrea Franchetti from

They have 26 hectares (64 acres) of vineyards on the northern face of Mount Etna.  The wine we tasted, Passorosso, is a blend of 6 Contrade including; Arcuria, Chiappemacine, Favazza, Guardiola, Feudo di Mezzo and Sciaranuova. 

What are Contrade?

Road map of the italian mediterranean island Sicily By lesniewski Adobe Stock

Let’s start at the top. When you get a bottle of wine from Sicily, it might be labeled Terre Siciliane IGT, which means it can be grown anywhere on the island or Sicilia DOC, which is again anywhere on the island, but with higher standards. Then there are 23 DOCs and one DOCG. The Etna DOC is shaped like a backward letter “C” and wraps around Mount Etna beginning in the North and wrapping around the east side and to the south, the west side of the volcano is not included. You can see Mount Etna on the East side of the island just above Catania on the map.

The contrade are like single vineyards blocks, each of which have a different profile based on the lava flow. The vineyards vary in aspect, altitude, and of course soil.  The lava flows happen at different times and as the lava ages it changes and breaks down in different ways.  These contrade are treated by the winemakers as Mount Etna’s version of a cru. These “contrade” are not yet codified, but often the wineries will use them on the label.  

Some of these vineyards sit outside the Etna DOC as they are higher on the slopes of the volcano than the original DOC accounted for.  Such is the case with the wines of Passopisciaro.  Their main vineyard sits only partially within the Etna DOC.   

Nerello Mascalese

Grape Vine with Leaves Close Up – Italian Vineyard on Mount Etna, Sicily – "Nerello Mascalese" DOC Wine Photo by ItalianFoodProd Adobe Stock
Grape Vine with Leaves Close Up – Italian Vineyard on Mount Etna, Sicily – “Nerello Mascalese” DOC Wine Photo by ItalianFoodProd Adobe Stock

Nerello Mascalese is an ancient grape that has spent almost 4 centuries on the slopes of this active volcano.  The best plots date to the early 20th century, with some planted before phylloxera.  These older plots are planted to bush-trained vines known here as Alverello (small trees).  They are tied to a stake to keep them from falling over and are less densely planted than trellised vines. 

Alverello are also low to the ground, which allows the soil to warm them during cold nights.   They are also late harvesting when grown in this style and sometimes harvest will extend to late November.

The grape likely has Sangiovese as a parent as per recent DNA testing and possibly Carricante. Others site Mantonico bianca as a parent.  The grape is noted to make wines with good acid and medium to high tannins with red fruit and spice.  This is often recommended for Pinot Noir lovers, due to its similar weight and ability to pair widely.

Passopisciaro, Passorosso 2014

Passopisciaro 2014 Passorosso Etna DOC made of Nerello Mascalese from Mount Etna

As I mentioned, the Passorosso is a blend across 6 contrade, with different soils, aspects, and altitudes.

The geeky bits

100% Nerello Mascalese, from vines between 70 and 100 years old. It is fermented in Stainless steel for 15 days, completes malolactic fermentation, and ages in large format neutral oak for 18 months.

15% abv. $45 (at GaragisteLV)

Now on to the poetic

“The 2014 vintage presented us with a lightning-quick harvest.  After four months of dry heat, a single stormy night in late October brought in the cold.  Starting on the 23rd, the moon was waxing, the season closing; the grapes tasted different every morning, and we harvested them in vineyards at all altitudes as the become suddenly ripe.

The last on the mountain with grapes on the vines, we harvested large areas very quickly as we realized that the hot summer had managed to ripen whole vineyards quite evenly.  By the 2nd of November, the moon waxed hard enough and drew even the vines living in the coldest corners to perfect ripeness.”

My tasting notes

This is a wine that moves you. It lifts and fills like a deep breath.  In the glass it is vibrant and bright, a light brilliant ruby color.  As I dipped my nose in there were bright red fruits, anise, sour cherry, then grilled meat, smoke, and savory notes.  On the palate sour cherry and red plum vibrated. If you picture this wine filtered through lava rocks you get the idea.  There is a leanness, a sense of altitude, with clean air moving. 

This is a bright wine, bursting forth from soils of lava.  I am taken back to the big island of Hawaii, watching bright green life sprout forth in fields of black lava.  Yeah, that’s what it’s like.

It’s delicious and I want to drink this again and again.  It sits at 15% abv, but it doesn’t come across hot or out of balance at all. Eric at Garagiste said they fell in love with this wine when they opened and are determined to keep in on their wine list.

Red wine with fish

I looked for a pairing, something Sicilian, and came across Polpette di tonno.  These are croquettes with tuna.  While tuna is a fish, in Sicily it is considered red meat (it is a red-fleshed fish after all). 

I adapted a few recipes and mostly just tossed things in a bowl figuring I could add more if the consistency was not right.  I used torn white bread, tuna in oil, bread crumbs, capers, parmesan, ricotta, egg, and parsley.  I made balls and rolled them in more bread crumbs and stuck them in the fridge while I heated the oil.  They fried and drained.  Other variations included milk instead of ricotta, some had bread soaked in the milk and one suggested drizzling with olive oil and baking.

They were beautiful with the wine. We had a marinara dipping sauce and a cheese plate.  That was dinner and it was heaven. 


Are you ready to dive in and talk and learn about these wines?  Join the Italian Food Wine and Travel group on Saturday, October 3rd at 8 am Pacific time on twitter.  Follow and use #ItalianFWT to join in the conversation!

If you want to discover and learn more about Italian Volcanic wines, take a look at the pieces below. 

Sources, resources and further reading

As always be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up to date on all of our posts.

Robin Renken CSW (photo credit RuBen Permel)

Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.

When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.

pinit fg en rect red 28

Robin Renken
[email protected]
  • Nicole Ruiz Hudson
    Posted at 16:25h, 03 October Reply

    This is a great post. You explain the contrada system, so clearly and succinctly. You also make me want to see a volcano as I’ve never actually been to one, and how cool that you’re related to Samuel Clemens! The polpette look delicious and I love tis description of the wine: ‘This is a wine that moves you. It lifts and fills like a deep breath. ” Basically, I was completely engaged throughout.

    Also, did you happen to see my two post on Passopisciaro? Beautiful wines.

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 16:34h, 03 October

      Thanks so much, Nicole! It took me a bit to wrap my brain around the contrade system. It’s really so fascinating when you think about it.
      As to a volcano…Hawaii is just a hop skip and a jump! Do it when you can! Or maybe Etna, I’d go!
      Thank you for the compliment! I am off now to read your posts on Passopisciaro!

  • wendyklik
    Posted at 10:31h, 04 October Reply

    I am so glad you paired fish with red…it is the theme I have chosen for an upcoming Fish Friday Foodies event.

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 17:00h, 04 October

      I look forward to hearing about that Wendy!

  • advinetures
    Posted at 13:34h, 04 October Reply

    Why am i not surprised you’re related to Samuel Clemons?! What a fantastic article on so many levels. We’ve had the opportunity to visit Mt Etna, i just wish i had read this before we went so many years ago! I’m re-reading this one when we get home as there was so much useful info.

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 17:05h, 04 October

      I will also recommend checking out Nicole at Somms Table. She has two wonderful pieces on Etna and Passopisciaro!
      As to Samuels Clemons…my great uncle did a genealogy (my father’s side of the family). From a young age, my father shared this with me and I’ve always been proud to be distantly related to such a rambunctious writer. I was thrilled to find the piece he had written on his visit to Kilauea. I remember reading a plaque about it on the volcano. He and his crowd would evidently take out their lawn chairs and have tea at the edge of the crater! LOL

  • Vino Travels
    Posted at 05:18h, 05 October Reply

    Glad to have you as part of our group. That plate looks great. I had plenty of tuna with red wine when I visited last fall. Andrea’s quote above is a beautiful way of growing grapes on the volcano.

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 07:55h, 05 October

      Thank you Jennifer. I so enjoyed this virtual trip to Mount Etna.

  • Linda Whipple, CSW
    Posted at 14:31h, 05 October Reply

    Wow, Robin, I don’t even know where to begin. Related to Mark Twain?! What a family history. As for volcanoes, I now live in the shadow of Mount Rainier and yes, it was a jaw-dropping experience to visit and stare up at that massive, snow-covered volcano. Andrea’s quotes are sheer poetry and the wine sounds like it, too. I fell in love with this same grape when I tasted an Etna Rosso.

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 14:54h, 05 October

      Ah…he’s a distant relative on my Dad’s mother’s side of the family, but as a kid, I thought it was pretty cool.
      You are in volcano country now! They might be a little quieter, but the reverence is still the same.
      I love that you and I both were drawn to these Mount Etna wines. Andrea seems to have a bit of the theatrical about him.

  • Lynn
    Posted at 01:33h, 06 October Reply

    Franchetti’s description of making wine on Etna is powerful. Volcanos are really about life and death. I wonder whether contrade will become similar to cru someday. Certainly seems worthy as they’re all specific and different. I’ll have to research that point. Finally your tuna polpette look fantastic!

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 09:24h, 06 October

      I know that Franchetti, while not creating the idea of the contrade, did set up an event for winemakers to show off the differences in the contrade. (I think Nicole at Somms Table was the bearer of that great info!) I know that is the direction they would like it to go. I look forward to hearing about what you find out.
      Thanks for the compliment on the polpette. They tasted as good as they looked!

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