Discovery Tasting: Planeta and Etna

Volcanic wines are – no pun intended – hot at the moment. So the chance to taste Planeta’s range from Etna with winemaker Patricia Toth was a treat not to be missed.


Old terraces and new vineyards high up on Etna. The ‘clouds’ in the background are from the volcano

Grapes have been grown, and wine made on Etna for hundreds of years – until recently, most of it of no great distinction. But there has been a big quality shift over the last 20 years, and it’s arguably one of the most talked-about regions in Europe now.

Commentators have described it, variously, as ‘Italy’s Burgundy’ and ‘the Barolo of the South’.

Planeta planted its first vineyard on Etna in 2009, buying a dozen ancient terraces in Sciaranuova. At over 800 metres, it’s one of the highest vineyards on the mountain, which might explain the winery’s decision to major mostly on white wines, made largely from the native Carricante grape.

There has been much talk in Etna about the ‘contradas’ – the various sub-regions the area is divided into. But Patricia Toth warns against viewing them as an equivalent to Burgundy crus or village appellations.

The Contradas are more administrative than terroir driven – and some, such as Feudo di Mezzo are BIG!

‘Contradas are bigger units – more bureaucratic, defined in the last century,’ she tells the Sommelier Collective. But, unlike Burgundy, they aren’t driven by the nature of the terroir.

‘One contrada can contain five or six different lava flows, and it is this that gives a character to the soil.’

Patricia Toth
Winemaker, Patricia Toth

Etna, of course, is still very much active – making it a truly unique place to make wine. But even once you get past the volcano throwing out plumes of smoke and grumbling to itself just 15km away (albeit 2,500m higher) this is a highly unusual terroir.

Patricia describes it as ‘mountain viticulture’. Not only are the vineyards from 500-900m above sea level, but there are three mountain ranges nearby of around 2000m. Weather patterns here are distinct and vary significantly from one place to the next.

‘We have vineyards in Montelaguardia and Sciaranuova,’ says Patricia. ‘They’re only five minutes drive apart, but they’re 200m different in altitude and, crucially, are based on two different eruptions.’

The soil, too, is extraordinary. ‘It’s really a collection of different volcanic ash,’ says Patricia. ‘It has twice the average of organic material you’ll find in Europe, but there’s no clay at all.’

Although Etna is quite a high rainfall area, the vineyards drain like sand.

Soil types on Etna. Mostly ash, and with no clay at all, drainage is like sand

The Whites

Planeta’s Etna whites are based on the local grape Carricante. Its profile is not yet that well known – perhaps because in the past it used to be blended in with red grapes – a once common practice across Europe.

Until recently, older growers used to pick it religiously on October 6th, which might explain the lack of interest in making it as a single varietal.

Etna terraces, made of lava – looking down into the bottom of the valley

‘People thought Carricante was a simple grape,’ says Patricia. ‘But it’s a bit like Furmint or Riesling. It gets aromatic maturity in the last few weeks of the vegetative cycle, so to get real flavour you have to risk it a bit.

‘It’s not a light aromatic compound – more like Riesling. It has a low pH and can age well.’

Patricia describes it as a ‘linear variety’.

The Etna Bianco 2019 comes from the lower vineyards in Montelaguardia, which are slightly warmer and more sheltered. The result is a rounder, softer, more ready-to-drink wine.

Patricia – who likes to taste in colours – sees it as a ‘yellow’ wine – peachy and approachable.

She has added to this character by putting 15% of the wines into tonneaux, though there is no evident wood character.

Map showing the altitudes of the Planeta vineyards. And yes, that’s an active volcano at the bottom.

The Eruzione 2016 and 2018 are a step up in quality and ambition. When Planeta took over these vineyards they had been abandoned for 50 years. Somewhat counter-intuitively, they cannot be labelled Etna DOC because the Sciaranuova vineyard is too high to be included in the boundaries of an appellation that was drawn up a long time ago, when people thought it was too hard to get grapes ripe at this altitude.

Naming the wine after one of the volcano’s most famous eruptions, however, is a neat way of making it obvious where it comes from, without breaking any rules!

You can see the location of Sciaranuova on the ‘contrada’ map above – it’s a green block on the bottom edge.

The wine is 90% Carricante, with 10% Riesling. That’s because while Carricante can be complex on the nose, it is still often slimline on the palate; adding Riesling – ‘more like Claire Valley than German style,’ says Patricia – helps to add weight to the mid-palate. Still, though, she says this is a ‘white, linear wine.’

‘2018 is wilder and more open,’ explained Patricia. ‘The 2016 is more organised. It was one of the most relaxed years I’ve had since I worked here.’

Members of the Sommelier Collective had some interesting food matches for these, including ‘anything with squid ink’, swordfish and a Brazilian fish stew, moqueca.

‘These wines are quite salty and mineral, so umami-driven fish dishes can be great,’ said Patricia.

The wine, the vineyards – and a chunk of lava. Etna in a nutshell

The Reds

Nerello Mascalese is the reason that some have likened Etna to Burgundy or Barolo – but making premium wines here is, as alluded to earlier, quite a recent phenomenon.

‘We have to remember that premium wines from here have only existed for 20 years,’ says Patricia. ‘It’s exciting to see all the different styles of Nerello Mascalese that exist now.’

The variety’s name means ‘little black from the village of Mascale’. So called because it isn’t as dark as, say, Nero d’Avola. But what’s it typically like?

‘Stylistically, it has some distance between the nose and the mouth,’ explains Patricia. ‘The nose is floral, gentle, flexible – then in the mouth there’s quite an intense tannic compound which is a lot less delicate than the nose.’

Note the ‘less black’ nature of the bunches that give Nerello its name

For this reason, while it can have similar colour to Pinot Noir, Patricia thinks the Barolo parallel is more appropriate.

Etna Rosso 2019

From the lower vineyards at 5-600m above sea level, the soils are richer and deeper. And this combination gives a wine that is softer and slightly fruitier. ‘It’s a great match with local cold cuts, like salami,’ says Patricia.

Planeta have developed a shorter skin maceration for Nerello Mascalese – 14-18 days. ‘There’s a kind of greenness in the seeds, so we don’t like to move the solids much,’ explains Patricia. ‘It’s more like a static extraction.’

This gentler, softer expression is becoming more popular on the island.

‘A lot of southern varieties need to have the courage to have less structure and colour – to enjoy their softness and elegance,’ she says.

Eruzione 2016 and 2018

As with the Eruzione Carricante, these wines were from the higher Sciaranuova vineyard, outside the appellation, so are classed as a DOC Sicilia. Yet they are evidently more ambitious: blacker and ‘inkier’ on the nose, with more elegant tannins.

‘I always find finer tannins here,’ says Patricia. ‘And I can keep the wine on the skins way longer.’

The team use a ‘Piemontese method’ which involves leaving the wine for a spontaneous fermentation, then sinking the caps, and filling the tanks up with wine without working the skins.

‘I close it and we don’t touch it for the net 25-30 days,’ says Patricia. ‘That gives a very fine extraction.’

Top vintages from Etna are 2011, 2014 and 2016. The Sommelier Collective’s members concurred, rating the latter Eruziones (both red and white) their favourite wines.

If you’re looking for a blind-tasting pointer for Nerello, Patricia suggests ‘modelling clay – it has a very linear and mineral note’. And in terms of matching, the higher-altitude Eruzione, she says, requires major protein.

Maria Boumpa agreed, suggesting it would work well with duck ravioli.

Spectacular night sky and a building made of lava. Etna has a genuinely unique terroir

Watch the video

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