Etna Bianco: what it is and why it is weird (and delicious)

Etna Bianco is a white wine with an unusual salty and savory flavor that is made from a blend of native Italian grapes grown on Mount Etna in southeastern Sicily.

Mount Etna is cool because it is a gigantic mountain on an Italian island. It towers over the city of Catania like a Hollywood backdrop. The mountain is also cool as it is the largest active volcano in Italy, and it really is active. Check out these crazy photos in the New York Times of Etna doing its thing.

Then there is the snow. Yep, it snows on Mount Etna and people put on downhill skis and go skiing. There are even two ski areas, Linguaglossa and Nicolosi. Nicolosi has 4 ski lifts and 14 groomed trails.

But Mount Etna wins the most cool points for its wine. Volcanic soil makes for good wine and Etna’s dirt is no exception. The red wine blend labeled Etna Rosso has long been well-respected in the wine world. But it’s Etna Rosso’s kid sister, Etna Bianco, the white blend with a growing reputation that I’m feeling excited about today.

Etna Bianco is as unique as you would expect a wine from a snowy volcano on an island in the sea to be. It has an unusual salty and savory flavor that sets it apart. The French refer to this as a wine’s salinity (salinité) and Etna Bianco has plenty of salinity to go around. Add to this its high acidity and low alcohol and it makes for a fresh and exciting wine too. The word zippy comes to mind. Flavors of minerals, stones, herbs, and flowers are common.

Etna Bianco is made from a blend of native Italian grapes and must be at least 60 percent Carricante and can be up to 40 percent Catarratto and 15 percent Minnella. Other grapes may be used as well. While Etna Bianco Superiore must be at least 80 percent Carricante and can only be made with grapes from a specific area on the eastern side of Mount Etna known as Milo.

I tend to get the words Carricante and Catarrato mixed up. Both names refer to the high yields for which the grapes are capable. According to Ian D’Agata in his book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Carricante is a reference ” to loading up” a cart or donkey with grapes and Cataratto comes from the Italian word for a cataract or large waterfall. I’m also not the only one to make this mistake, D’Agata also notes that Carricante is sometimes confusingly referred to as Catarrato.

But they are very different grapes. Carricante is the more esteemed, and you can find, and should look for Etna Bianco made from 100% Carricante. Carricante loves mineral-rich mountaintops and can grow at very high altitudes making Mount Etna an ideal home. It can produce racy and salty wines with flavors of lemon, apricot, apple, chamomile, and orange flower, with a profile that tends to be sharp and angular.

Catarrato Bianco, on the other hand, is a medium to full-bodied wine sometimes compared to Chardonnay which is used to soften the blend in Etna Bianco. It’s also planted in boatloads in Sicily. It’s the most planted grape on the island and the second most planted white grape variety in Italy after Trebbiano. But it’s abundance has never been equated with quality. It’s just easy to grow, and also easy to oxidize and is therefore used in the production of Marsala, the sweet fortified dessert wine, also from Sicily.

Although to be fair, I have enjoyed Catarrato wines too. We had a decent bottle a couple of weeks ago that was all ripe citrus and which went well with my spaghetti with clams (spaghetti alle vongole).

So look for Carricante-rich Etna Bianco at your local wine shop for an unusual salty treat and maybe sip it while contemplating a post-pandemic ski trip on an active volcano overlooking the sea.

Photo by 6657176 from Pixabay.

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