Ben Spencer is a journalist and professional winemaker who lives and works near Mount Etna. He explores the Mount Etna wine-producing area in a mixture of culinary history and guide book in his excellent recently published book The New Wines of Mount Etna.
Spencer’s passion and knowledge of wine make his book such a pleasant read for anyone who wants to learn about this fascinating area of Sicily which is undergoing a burgeoning Renaissance of wine production. His book is also a great general guide to the area with many useful tips, suggestions and ways to explore the area around Etna.
It was a pleasure to send Ben Spencer an email with few questions about his work on Etna. I look forward to meeting him in person one day after this Corona lockdown and pandemic is over and taste some of the magic of Etna wines. For now, I’ll have to be happy with grabbing the occasional bottle of Etna wine from my local Sicilian supermarket.
What makes the Etna area so unique for wine production?
Mount Etna is everything good about wine in one place. The high elevation vineyards of indigenous Sicilian varieties in a warm Mediterranean climate mixed with innovative winemakers have created an intersection in the wine world where variety is the name of the game.
Tell us a little more about the particular grape varieties that thrive on Etna.
There are scores of wine grape varieties on the slopes of the volcano. Some of them are international favourites — Chardonnay and Pinot Noir — but the great majority are the native varieties that have come up on the volcano over centuries: Carricante and Catarratto Bianco for white wines; and Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio for the red wines. There are also remnants of relic varieties from centuries ago that have remained in the vineyards, which I write about in the New Wines of Mount Etna.
How is 2020 looking for the Etna wine season?
It’s been one of the strangest growing seasons for owners and workers (because of the CV19 lockdown). They spent the better part of March, April, and May working the vines with little interruption. Some rain and wind caused a bit of Millerandage, but we are seeing good fruit set in every Contrada. Short bursts of precipitation in the middle of July created optimum conditions for veraison, with a hot August and warm September contributing to good acidity and complete phenolic ripeness across the board. As I write this, the musts are fermenting, and the cellars are filling with amazing aromas of a classic Etna vintage.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to explore Sicilian wines on Etna. What’s the best way to experience the area?
On Mount Etna, we do things differently. No one serves you crackers and expects you to be happy about it. We don’t show you pictures of the vines, we walk through them. We won’t point at a poster and say, “That’s the winery.” We’ll bring you there, open a few bottles, have a conversation, and enjoy a leisurely meal. On Etna, you’re a guest. No doubt, by the end of the visit, you’ll also be a friend.
Which are the best wine tasting events during the year people could attend to taste some Etna wines?
The Contrade dell’ Etna is a great experience for tasting the young wines from the recent vintage. It’s usually held in the spring. There’s also ViniMilo, from mid-August to Mid-September. Apart from that, it’s easy to make a series of appointments at wineries and taste in the company of the owners and wine educators. That way, you create your own event. On the off chance that you can make it to Verona for VinItaly, in April, Etna always has a section in the Sicilian pavilion, which is well worth visiting.
In your book, you mentioned how the island’s history is linked to viticulture. Which historical period of domination do you think had the most influence on Sicilian wines.
Etna has seen thousands of years of influence on local viticulture. The era that has had the most impact is the Italian era, from 1860 to the present. In this time we saw a huge wine boom — due to phylloxera — and an abandonment of the terrain during the twentieth century. But by the beginning of the twenty-first century, all the modern tools and intentions were in place for a Renaissance on the mountain.
You live and work in the Etna area, so you know the wines produced there very well, so please do give us some recommendations. I know this is a bit of an unfair question, but do you have a favourite red, white, rose, sweet, fortified or sparkling variety of wine?
I have a hard time telling people what to taste or like because there’s something for everyone from the volcano. If you are really interested in a selected list of wines from each category, I’ve comprised lists from each category in The New Wines of Mount Etna. In addition to the lists of wines to try, there is an entire section dedicated to visiting the area and the wineries.
Your book is filled with beautiful interactions with the winemakers of Etna. What is your most memorable story?
That’s a hard one. I’ve been living here for eight years now. There are so many memorable moments like my first day on the mountain, which also happened to be my first full day in Sicily. I was hired by a local winery with about 500 years of winemaking history, to help them through the harvest. Working in the little mountainside neighbourhood, pocked with micro-volcanoes and steep vineyards, was like a waking dream. Of course, I had a history with wine in California, where I made wine for a decade, professionally, on the Central Coast. But this was different. It was romantic. Simple. And this simplicity compounded every aroma, each sensation and interaction every day since. For me, it was the beginning of the stories I put into the book.
Tell us a little bit about your work on Etna and the Etna Wine School.
Etna Wine School was designed to be a school without walls. There is no way to convey the totality of Mount Etna in a lecture or a walk-around tasting in a ballroom. I knew the courses that I was developing had to move out of the “classroom” and into the landscape. The volcanic terrain, vineyards, and cantinas are the real campus. My intention in writing The New Wines of Mount Etna was to move out from behind the data. To step away from our scorecards so that we can discover these volcanic wines on Etna’s terms. Certainty, for example, arrives in small measures here. Frequent changes in topography, elevation, sunlight, wind, and soils influence the colour, aromas, and flavours of a wine. Still, every neighbour also has an idea of how best to interpret the grapes, terrain, and vintage. They often escape the crosshairs of precise definition. This is part of what makes Etna’s volcanic wines so exciting. Etna Wine School and The New Wines of Mount Etna are great ways to explore this fantastic place.
If you want to order the book simply click on this link which will take you to the Etna Wine School page where you can get a copy.