The spotlight is on Etna at the moment. Making wine on an active volcano must be special and, at times, even adventurous. Lava came pouring out of Etna earlier this year. Donnafugata, a well-known Sicilian wine producer, started making wine here in 2016. They discovered an incredible variety of soils, microclimates and growing conditions. Etna is a small but fascinating wine region. We met the team from Donnafugata on Zoom to hear their story.
A Donnafugata bottle is easily recognizable. On each label there is an image of a woman’s head with windblown hair. The figure fuses into an image of a volcano. Colours are sparkling. Donnafugata means escaping woman. The inspiration for the name comes from the novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa that takes place in Sicily in the 19th century. A story of an old world that is disappearing and a new and different world coming. “For us”, says José Rallo, the daughter of the founder, “it symbolizes a winery looking forward, towards the future.” The book was turned into a block-busting film by Luchino Visconti, starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon.
This is a longer version of an article published on Forbes.com.
Giacomo Rallo created Donnafugata in 1983 in Marsala, on the west coast of Sicily. Now, the company has 410 hectares, and the family has vineyards and wineries in five locations: in Marsala, in Vittoria in the south-east part of Sicily, on the island of Pantelleria, in Contessa Entellina in the inland, south of Palermo, and on Mount Etna, the volcano.
“We started investing in Etna in 2016”, says Antonio Rallo, Josés brother, “and we now have almost 21 hectares, all on DOC Etna land and all on the northern slopes of the volcano. It rains less here than on the other sides of the mountain slopes, and we are protected against cold winds from the north, which favours a regular ripening.”
Etna, at 3,326 metres, is the highest active volcano in Europe. It erupts regularly; the most recent one was in March. Etna DOC was established in 1968 as the first DOC in Sicily. The vineyard area on Etna is around 1000 hectares and covers the north, east and south slopes of the volcano.
It is a mountain area, and the climate differs substantially from other vineyards in Sicily; it rains more, and there’s snow in the winter. But the spring is mild, and the summer is warm, however with important day and night temperature differences which gives the wines both freshness and finesse.
The soil is, of course, volcanic but very varied, composed of lava from different eruptions over a long time. The mineral composition and the texture differ a great deal. In general, it is sandy, porous soil with good drainage. The vines, often trained as bush vines (alberello), are planted with high density. Some vineyards are on terraces with drystone walls built with lava stone. “It is a labour-intensive viticulture”, says Antonio.
“There is an incredible degree of diversity inside the vineyards”, says Pietro Russo, oenologist at Donnafugata. This diversity has given rise to specific plots called contrada or cru; you could call it single-vineyard wines. Donnafugata makes two prestigious contrada wines: Marchesa in Castiglione di Sicilia, and Montelaguardia, situated in the commune of Randozza, at the far west of the northern slope.
These two contrada wines from vintage 2018 will be released after the summer (2021). 2018 was a challenging year, colder and rainier than usual. The grapes needed to be sorted carefully. The quality was high nevertheless, and the upside of a cooler year is the more pronounced freshness.
Etna Doc Rosso Contrada Marchesa 2018, Donnafugata, Sicily
It is a superb and complex wine with concentration, elegance and length. It has nuanced aromas of tobacco, raspberries and fresh herbs. The tannins are smooth, and you can drink this wine with pleasure already. The acidity is refreshing and adds to the structure. It is fermented in stainless steel tanks during 10-12 days at 25 degrees C and aged in 2–3-year-old oak barrels for 14 months. It stays 18 months in bottle before being released.
In 2018, Donnafugata made 5,336 bottles and 208 magnums of Contrada Marchesa from a plot of 2 hectares. The grapes grow in Castiglione di Sicilia at an altitude of 750 metres, in lava soil with a sandy texture. The vineyard is formed like a natural amphitheatre. It is sunny but breezy. (~60 euro)
The grapes grown on Etna are local. The main red variety is nerello mascalese which is often blended with a small percentage of nerello cappuccio.
A nerello mascalese wine is often exquisite and sometimes makes me think of pinot noir. You can find it in other regions of Sicily, but it is rare. “In the past, especially in the 1980s, you could find nerello mascalese around Sicily, but now it is more and more just in Etna. The grape loves the Etna soil, the Etna climate, the cold nights. These conditions are not easily found in the rest of Siciliy”, says Antonio.
Fragore 2018, Etna DOC Rosso Contrada Montelaguardia, Donnafugata
Quite full-bodied but still very elegant with a long and persistent taste. Spicy, complex aromas and hints of medicinal herbs. It’s tasty and delicious. It spends time in oak barrels, but as they are 2-3 years old, the oak flavours stay in the background. The production is small, with only 3,076 bottles and 51 magnums. (~60 euro)
“The lava soil here in Montelaguardia comes from an eruption that happened in 1614-24. It was an eruption that lasted ten years, and the soil has a particular mineral composition”, says Pietro Russo. “It is also slightly warmer here, which means early ripening. The vineyard is surrounded and protected by forest.”
Sul Vulcano 2018, Etna DOC Bianco, Donnafugata, Sicily
Etna also has a local white grape variety, carricante. It is a grape that is more or less unique for Etna. Sul Vulcano shows a pleasant, fresh nose of green apples, white fruit, citrus, melon, peaches and fresh herbs. It is long on the palate, with a good body. After the manual harvest, the must ferments at 14-16 degrees C, partly in stainless steel and partly in French oak. It then ages in oak for ten months. (~19.50 euro)
Etna is considered a woman (probably with a fierce temperament), and, on the label, a striking woman-volcano is pictured. “Her intense colours, reds, yellows, shades of grey and black, are the colours of the volcano”, brand ambassador Marta Gaspari tells us.
Dea Vulcano 2018, Etna DOC Rosso, Donnafugata, Sicily
Here the vines are young (as opposed to the 70-year-old vines used for the contrada wines), enhancing the fresh and fruity character. It is light in style but, as always, with nerello mascalese, rich in finesse, with red berry aromas, tobacco, and also a bit floral and peppery. A refreshing, juicy finish. It has aged for 14 months, partly in stainless steel tank and partly in oak. (15.50 euro)
Marta Gaspari tells us the story about the label: “In mythology, Etna is the goddess-volcano, daughter of Uranus and Gaea. Here, her flaming hair is blowing in the clouds, and her body is deeply rooted in the earth.”
Sul Vulcano 2017, Etna Rosso DOC, Donnafugata, Sicily
An attractive combination of dark cherries, violets and a good structure with tannins and freshness. The colour is light, but don’t be misled, the aromas are intense. And it is definitely a food wine; to be enjoyed with Mediterranean specialities. (19 euro)
The prices are from Donnafugata’s online wine shop.