“White is the future of Etna,” says Sofia Ponzini, the owner of Tenute Bosco winery in Sicily. In the winery’s vineyards, located in the commune of Castiglione di Sicilia on the northern side of Mount Etna, Ponzini plans to plant more Carricante—the appellation’s key white grape—after watching demand for Etna Bianco grow over the last 10 years. “Before, it was always red, red, red, but now, buyers want both,” she adds.
Indeed, data provided by the Consorzio Tutela Vini Etna DOC supports this premise. According to the consortium’s director, Maurizio M. Lunetta, the quantity of acres planted with Carricante has increased “very quickly” in the last five years.
Lunetta, who provided a few recent examples, pointed to a significant increase in plantings of Carricante, notably in 2018 and 2019. In 2018, 71.5 hectares of new Carricante vines were planted, with another 53.7 coming in 2019. Comparatively, in 2013, new Carricante plantings covered just under six acres.
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Why has Etna Bianco become more popular, especially when the rich, elegant, and expressive reds of Etna Rosso long ruled the territory? Ponzini and other industry professionals suggest a few reasons: changes in consumer drinking habits, increased quality, and climate change. Indeed, these forces have pushed Etna Bianco on track to match Etna Rosso in bottled production by the end of 2024.
Etna Bianco, From Backseat to Driver’s Seat
Viticulture in the ancient volcanic soils of Mount Etna’s slopes dates back centuries. Catania was once Italy’s most prolific wine-growing province until phylloxera swept through in the late 19th century. By the late 20th century, after a slow recovery from two World Wars, production regained a foothold, rising steadily enough to earn Etna Sicily’s first DOC in 1968.
Etna’s growers soon found themselves at the unusual crossroads of opportunity: global interest in volcanic wines, especially reds capable of finesse and power, put Etna Rosso on the map. For decades, red wine production dominated the landscape, with Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio forming the base of Etna’s production. Except in a few wine regions like Bourgogne, red wines have typically fetched a higher price than whites. In recent years, that’s changed as consumers and wine professionals have begun to see white wines not as inferior to red, but as different, if not equal. And Mount Etna’s producers, recognizing another golden opportunity, are seizing on it by increasing their production of Etna Bianco.
The 2022 vintage saw a 28 percent increase in bottled production of Etna Bianco over 2021. Etna Bianco Superiore, an appellation used exclusively for white wines from the province of Milo on the volcano’s eastern slope, saw a dramatic 67 percent increase over that same span. “The eastern and southeastern slopes of the denomination, where Carricante grows in ideal conditions, is where the greatest concentration of production growth is recorded,” says Lunetta.
That trend has continued into 2023: A recent report on bottled wine growth in the first six months of 2023, issued by the press office for Etna’s consortium, says that bottling for Etna wines increased by 6.2 percent over 2022. Etna Bianco specifically has been pivotal to that development. Bottles of Etna Bianco DOC grew more than 19 percent, while Etna Bianco Superiore DOC grew more than 120 percent from the year prior.
Francesco Cambria, the consortium’s president, attributed this expansion to vineyards planted before the suspension of new registrations to Etna DOC; vineyards now bear quality fruit to meet market demand. The suspension, which refers to the decision by the members’ assembly in July 2020 to suspend the registration of new vineyard areas to Etna DOC until July 31, 2024, was instituted to strengthen and protect the denomination by governing its growth in a sustainable manner, commented Francesco Cambria.
The quantity gap of bottled Etna Bianco compared to Etna Rosso has narrowed considerably in favor of white, he says: “With this trend, we expect parity in quantity at the end of 2024.” However, it doesn’t appear that Etna Bianco is cannibalizing Etna Rosso share. “The increase in production and sales of Etna Bianco DOC is not impacting Nerello Mascalese, which is growing—only at a slower pace,” says Lunetta.
Enzo Cambria, the winemaker for Cottanera Winery, also located in the commune of Castiglione di Sicilia on the northern side of Mount Etna, says their Etna Bianco sales growth was impressive enough to spur them to increase production. Cottanera’s sales and winemaking team noticed the trend as far back as 2010 when they decided to plant new Carricante vines and graft over existing Catarratto vineyards to Carricante.
Today, Etna Bianco makes up 25 percent of Cottanera’s sales. The winery produces two 100-percent Carricante wines—one in stainless steel at 60,000 bottles a year and the second in a combination of cement and oak from 45-year-old vines in Contrada Calderara, which provides 5,000 bottles yearly.
“Both sell very well, each vintage selling out within 12 months from release,” says Enzo Cambria. “We have increased the quantities yearly and the price in the last three years, but we are still very competitive in the market.” He has seen strong demand for Etna Bianco in Italy, where Cottanera sells 65 percent of its production of both whites and reds. “In the U.S., Etna Bianco sales remain good with incremental growth year over year, though, for us, the market is still more Etna Rosso driven.”
Carricante Fuels Etna Bianco’s Explosive Growth
Historically, Mount Etna producers interplanted a clutch of native white varieties, including Carricante, Catarratto, Inzolia, Grecanico, and Minnella, primarily for blending into Etna Bianco. The DOC rules require Etna Bianco to encompass at least 60 percent Carricante, with as much as 40 percent Catarratto or other whites filling out the rest. Etna Bianco Superiore, permitted solely in Milo, requires a minimum of 80 percent Carricante.
Though Catarratto is Sicily’s most widely planted grape, producers focused on premium Etna Bianco have leaned into Carricante as the driving force behind wines of quality, complexity, and character. Increasingly, producers are opting to bottle varietal Carricante.
“Carricante is an indigenous grape that gives rise to wines of undoubted character and energy, rich in freshness and flavor, very representative of our viticulture and increasingly loved and sought-after,” says Francesco Cambria.
An increase in quality and the ageability of Carricante is another reason Ponzini believes Etna Bianco sales have increased. “Etna producers have learned to master the grape while treating it with the seriousness afforded Nerello Mascalese,” she says, noting that she now prices her whites in line with her Etna Rosso.
Ponzini also notes that southern Italy, aside from Fiano and Greco di Tufo, hasn’t really enjoyed a star white grape, especially a “mountain wine” that competes with northern Italy’s refined, cooler-climate whites. This prospect is attractive for growers who believe Carricante from Etna can now angle for this market share.
Additionally, Carricante is proving adaptable to wilder weather and climate change. Due to its thicker skin, Carricante has better disease resistance than Nerello Mascalese. This feature makes it appealing to organic growers like Tenute Bosco, who often have to manage downy mildew after unusually heavy rains. Further, in the face of heat spikes or hotter vintages like 2017, Carricante retains its freshness and structure. Ponzini was impressed during a recent tasting of whites from that harvest.
Etna Bianco in the U.S. Market
The inherent qualities of Carricante from Etna match changing consumer tastes, which are moving towards fresher, lighter wines, believes Angel Prado, a sommelier at the southern Italian-inspired restaurant Sorelle in Charleston.
“Etna Bianco is a leading category for us in white wine bottle sales,” says Prado. “Many of Sorelle’s customers are looking for lower alcohol, elegant, restrained, mineral-driven wines that work well with our menu. Thanks to the volcanic soils, Carricante has this wonderful high salinity that can cut through butter sauces without overpowering our fish and vegetable dishes.”
Though Sorelle carries many Etna Bianco SKUs, Prado says the category is so popular that they find themselves restocking every week. “We love it, our customers love it. More people are recognizing the quality of the white wines from Sicily,” he says.
At Sorelle, best-selling Etna Biancos include Benanti’s ‘Pietramarina’ Etna Bianco Superiore 2018. Staff receive great feedback on the wine when they pour it as a pairing with the reserve tasting menu. “It’s one of my favorites; it’s an exciting expression of Carricante,” says Prado.
Prado reorders a case of Guillermo Russo Etna Bianco 2021 every week. “Priced at $78, we sell through a lot of this wine. It leads with this lovely salinity and is crisp and enjoyable for the price point.”
Wholesalers in the United States have also noticed an uptick in demand for Etna Bianco, attributed in part to the general popularity and awareness of Etna DOC but also retailers and sommeliers seeking competitive white wines of the caliber of Burgundy. “New York has always been a big market for Etna,” says Will Sugerman, the vice president and general manager of Vintus New York. “The red wines are obviously the most important, but the whites are increasingly interesting to buyers.”
According to Sugermen, people are paying more attention to Etna’s whites as prices from other great regions continue to climb, most notably in Burgundy. “Wine professionals love to compare everything to Burgundy, but I think the elegance, power and minerality that you find in the wines from Etna, of all complexions, make it a reasonable leap, especially under $50 SRP,” he concludes.
At Sorelle, for customers who mention Burgundy or California, “we show them Etna Bianco,” says Prado. During opening week, instead of offering a Chardonnay by the glass, Sorelle listed an Etna Bianco that was fermented and aged in older oak. “We brought guests looking for a wine with more body, Ciro Biondi’s Pianta, which we sold as a Coravin pour from the 2019 and 2020 vintages. They take a Burgundian approach to Carricante. The wine was a success; the only issue was keeping it in stock,” says Prado.
Of course, the dominance of white grapes over red on Etna may or may not come to fruition. The denomination’s most bottled type of wine remains Etna Rosso DOC, with a little over 1.3 million bottles, while Etna Rosso Riserva DOC continues growing. When asked if he plans to plant more vines, Enzo Cambria said yes—but not for Etna Bianco: “Nerello Mascalese in Contrada Diciassettesalme.”
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