How it’s Become the Ultimate Wine and Foodie Destination
For wine lovers and romanticists of all types, Europe has long been a vacation destination to check off the bucket list. One of the most popular places for travelers has always been Italy. Known for its robust and rustic fare, it makes for a prime place to taste some of the world’s most renowned cuisine. Add a lengthy list of vineyards to that and it has become a haven for those seeking a wine-tasting and gastronomic journey.
While Tuscany is probably one of the most well-known wine regions in the boot-shaped country, the vast popularity of the Mount Etna region in Sicily is quickly catching up to the vibrant wine offerings in the country. Mount Etna is a volcano, an active one at that, which has erupted on occasion over the last few thousand years. It might sound surprising that a place on the brink of disaster could be home to some of the best wines produced in recent years, but it has become one of the hottest wine destinations in all of Italy.
Why is such a precarious place becoming so precious for wining and dining? To understand that, you must first know about what makes this unpredictable area so coveted for wine makers. Homer refers to Etna as the home of the untamed land of the Cyclops. The main wine zone in this region is nestled up on Mount Etna at an elevation no less than 3,500 feet, making it the record-holder for the highest commercial vineyards in the entire world. In the winter, this is incredibly risky for winemakers. The geography presents great difficulties in tending to the vines with modern equipment, so it all must be done by hand. The kind of patience this requires is nothing short of astounding.
But it’s that extreme attention to detail and patience that really pays off. The soil in the Etna region is extremely rich thanks to the volcanic nutrients, which are incredibly suited for the growing of grapes. Plus, the high elevation of these vineyards adds even more to the environment. So while risky, the payoffs are huge for Etna winemakers. Between the soil and the climate, it renders the grapes a distinctive color and lends deep complexity in flavor. Additionally, the richness of the volcanic soil features a large concentration of sand that is resistant to root pests that wiped out other European vineyards late in the 1800s. Some of the vines growing here have been growing for over a century, and while fragile, are remarkably enduring.
This is not some new technique. Mount Etna has been an area of flourishing vineyards since the 6th century BC back when Sicily was first colonized by the Greeks. It wasn’t until 1968 that this region achieved DOC status, but even then, it remained largely unknown to the world until more recent times.
Some credit this movement and resulting demand for wines from the Mount Etna region with Giuseppe Benanti and the wine he began producing from his unique varietals in the 1990s. Among the wine elite, these wines became increasingly popular. Among the winemakers, there became a surge in interest in this area, with many clamoring for space and buying up land on the mountain to harvest their own unique varietals and create legendary wines.
Etna Bianco wines are blends as well, 60% Caricante (80% for Superiore), blended with Catarratto and/or other white varietals including Minella. A high quality Caricante can be described as a dry Riesling like wine, refined and pure in its graceful mineral aromas and lively, lemony flavors, complicated by aniseed, green apple, orange flower, chamomile, and unripe apricot.
Rosato wines are also produced from these local grapes.
But the wines in Sicily’s Mount Etna region are only part of what makes it such a special place for gourmands to visit. The other factor is the cuisine. Splendid cuisine and beautiful wine go hand in hand. The Sicilians have long known this but to those visiting, it is the height of gastronomy, and makes for an amazing journey of food and wine.
One way to experience all of this epicurean excitement is to embark on vineyard tours. There are so many of them that it is impossible to see them all on a short trip, but there is great fun in trying.
In the northern region of Mount Etna, Gambino offers wine tastings for a mere 10 euros. Appointments are recommended even though they do accommodate those that stop in to the best of their abilities. However, it’s best to err on the side of caution and reserve your space. At Passopisciaro, you’ll taste wines by Andrea Franchetti. The tasting of 3 wines costs just 20 euros. For 5 euros, you can enjoy your flight with an array of regional salamis and cheeses. Or stay for lunch for 45 euros. To ensure you will not be turned away, make an appointment. At places like Cornelissen, the cost of the wine tasting depends on the cost of the bottles that are opened. You must make an appointment here – no exceptions. However, it’s worth every euro spent for the enjoyment of the wines you’ll find here. If you want to make a night of it, try Scilio where you must reserve your space, but you can enjoy the overnight accommodations available.
Venture further south into the Central Mount Etna region and you’ll discover a bargain at Murgo Winery. With some of the most revered wines, the tastings are only 8 euros. Make sure to reserve your space, especially if you would like to stay in this beautiful place for the night. For those who want to fill their days wandering around through the sights, shopping and dining, Enoteca Etna Wine is a fantastic wine shop in Riposto with wine tastings that require no appointment. It’s always nice to know a place where you can pop in at the drop of a hat for those days when you wish to keep your itinerary less rigid.
In the Southern Mount Etna region, Benanti offers vineyard tours in English as well as several different wine-tasting options. Make an appointment to enjoy the basic wine tasting here for about 50 euros. Looking to give your wallet a break? Visit Biondi where the wine tasting is free, however you must have an appointment reserved first.
Beyond the fantastic array of wineries and vineyards in this breathtakingly beautiful portion of Sicily, there are other ways to discover the food and wine culture here. While spending your time at the vineyards is always a good time for wine aficionados, some people prefer to dine at their own leisure, sipping and savoring every bite. In Sicily, you’ll never find a bad meal, particularly in the Mount Etna region.
There’s no need to do fine dining on every occasion though. You can enjoy the fresh and eclectic cuisine here along with a perfect selection of the area’s finest wines in just about any establishment. A great way to get a wine tasting along with a meal without venturing up the mountain is to stop into Il Buongustaio. It’s a casual and inviting place with true Sicilian hospitality. Here, you’ll get to sample some of the area’s best wines from different Etna vineyards without having to travel to each one. Plus, the food is casual and easy with fresh local ham, salami, and cheese, paninis, and other simple yet tasty fare. As a bonus, you can also purchase bottles of wine here that you can take home with you. Stopping here is a wonderful option for those who don’t have the time to get to every winery they want to visit.
Tucked away out in the vineyards, you’ll find Trattoria N’Da Calata, a wonderfully rustic place that incorporates fresh-picked local produce into their dishes. Each day, porcini mushrooms are picked right from the foothills of Mount Etna and served here, making for a truly exquisite tasting experience that is astoundingly cheap in price, particularly for the area.
For a true taste of Sicilian cuisine, hospitality and Etna-produced wine, locals and tourists alike hold Parco Statella in the highest regard. It is here that you can dine al fresco with a view of the resplendent vineyards to enjoy while you sip and savor the delights. Foodies advise the 12-course tasting menu that gives you a bit of everything from cheese and salami to heartier items, prepared fresh with seasonal items. It goes best with endless amounts of wine and is ideal for a sampling of authentic Sicilian food.
Etna Quota Mille is another special place anyone with a penchant for fine wine and food will love. It’s housed in an old millstone that was restored and rebuffed into this spectacular scene. The old grape machines once used here have been preserved as décor, making for a unique setting. Sicilian fare prepared in the most extraordinary of ways is found here. The main menu is always changing to reflect the seasons, and the knowledgeable staff helps provide impeccable guidance when selecting one of the regional Etna wines to pair it with. The tasting menu here offers a glorious way to eat and drink the best of the region in both wine and food. There is also a tourist menu with options that highlight the best of the region for visiting Foodies.
Another exceptional dining experience to be had is at the absolutely gorgeous venue of Ristorante Veneziano. It provides a unique opportunity to sample the foods and wines of the Etna region with spectacular plates of perfect Sicilian cuisine. It looks like something out of a painting, surrounded by the foothills of Mount Edna. As lovely as it is on the outside with plenty of fantastic photo opportunities, the inside is warm and welcoming yet full of class. The garden area outdoors also makes for a wonderful place to enjoy your meal. The chef here expertly prepares local ingredients, particularly the regional porcini mushrooms that grow right on the neighboring mountain. It’s a comfortable place with a quiet elegance, making for a truly sublime degustation experience.
Because of the richness of opportunity for wining and dining in the Mount Etna region, this excellence in pairing is why many people are foregoing trips to Rome and Venice and taking the road less traveled. While it is quickly becoming known as a must-visit wine and food destination, the Mount Etna region is still much less traveled than other places, making it an ideal place for a romantic getaway.
The surrounding area and the live volcano also add an edgy element to the visit. It’s exciting, unique, beautiful, and refined. Yet, the vibe one finds here is one of welcoming charm. It doesn’t feel stuffy and overdone like other wine regions around Europe. The heartiness of everything from the local people to the sumptuous cuisine to the splendid bottles of wine composed by distinctive varietals all make it a place unlike anything else in the world and is exactly why it has become the ultimate hot spot, pardon the pun, for those who love to eat and drink.