Three wine bottles: Aged Etna Bianco wine

Building Out Your Cellar with Aged Etna Bianco

Sicily's Most Rewarding Age-Worthy Wine Isn't Red. It's White. And Now Is the Time to Buy It.

9 min read

My recent trip to eastern Sicily — and subsequently writing the First-Taste Guides to Etna Bianco and Etna Rosso — have had me thinking a great deal about how I want to personally incorporate these wines into my own small, private collection. Of the two wines, I am far more inclined toward aged Etna Bianco because the differences from release to just a few years of aging, are more pronounced. That’s not to say Etna Rosso wouldn’t be a killer addition to any collection, but the waiting game is a bit longer in my opinion. And when you have limited space and resources like me, that matters.

The Novelty of Aging Etna Bianco

Unlike white Burgundy or German Riesling, we don’t have a big library of aged Etna white wines to call back upon. While wine-growing on the volcano was observed by the ancient Greeks when they sailed upon Sicily in 1800 BCE, the modern renaissance of Etna only got going in the early 2000s. From a collector’s perspective, this is a rather nascent prospect.

But all the ingredients for greatness are there. Carricante is a high-acid grape with thick skins, and it has a propensity for transparency of terroir. It often reveals the very dynamic terroir of its origins: well-draining volcanic soils, the climatic interplay between high elevations and the nearby sea … even the volcano’s hulking shadow in the evening comes into play. Add to that the diversity and breadth of upper-echelon winemakers (I could tell you 25 of them in an instant), and you have a prime target for cellaring.

So let’s talk about that “aging window.” The one trait that might effect anything longer than 10 years is Carricante’s propensity for low alcohol. That’s one less preservative to help protect the wine long term. Because of that, I hesitate to personally vouch for Etna Bianco beyond 10 years, but that’s only because I haven’t encountered a large enough sample size. I wouldn’t be surprised if these expressive and mineral white wines could dazzle us 20 or even 30 years after harvest in unique cases.

But all of that is besides the point. Aging white wines can be a fun microcosm of the game we play with reds. For myself, I am concentrating on a few Etna Bianco — as well as Friulano — wines specifically for a five- to 10-year window. Open a bottle? Replenish! It’s like my very own solera.

I think that time frame is enough for the wines to evolve into their most beautiful, wholly-different-than-release form, and I find that exciting. Life is short. Pop some corks, people.

A Note on Trimethyl Dihydronaphthalene (TDN)

As author and founder of the Etna Wine School, Benjamin North Spencer points out in his thoroughly researched book The New Wines of Mount Etna, Carricante is capable of developing the aromatic compound Trimethyl Dihydronaphthalene or TDN during its maturation in the vineyard. This sneaky compound is often the result of sunlight exposure at a specific phase in the ripening cycle.

Why does this matter? Because TDN is responsible for an aroma wine pros simply call “petrol” — that famous Riesling note — and TDN can be a real phantom, lying in wait for several years and only emerging in the later years once the fruiter flavors have mellowed.

I personally think “petroleum jelly” is a more accurate descriptor, because it doesn’t smell like gasoline to me, but I understand that it is a divisive tone that can turn some people off. And everyone has a different physiological make-up and tolerance for detecting TDN aromatically. You might not ever smell it.

Now, it is important to note that not all aged Etna Bianco wines show TDN. Vintage conditions have to be just-so for it to develop, and savvy growers can choose to reduce it through leaf-canopy management techniques (but only to a certain extent).

If one does encounter it, you can also aerate the wine or revisit it after an hour or two to see if it has blown-off or integrated. I wouldn’t give up on the wine, and I certainly wouldn’t avoid aged Etna Bianco wines because of it.

Five Tantalizing Tastes of Aged Etna Bianco

Below are a few noteworthy profiles of aged Etna Bianco that have informed my recent discoveries. They’re ordered by most recent to oldest vintage. Below, I offer a list of other current releases that hold tremendous promise for aging.

2020 Palmento Costanzo Contrada Santo Spirito Etna Bianco

           

Location: Northern slope (Passopisciaro)

What’s been said about the vintage: Classic Etna conditions but with a rainy summer.

Let’s start this discussion of aged Etna Bianco with a “semi-aged Etna Bianco.” Palmento Costanzo is an excellent, under-the-radar producer with two brilliant contrada Etna Bianco wines worth tasting side-by-side. The other, is from Contrada Cavaliere, but I’m including Contrada Santo Spirito here because of its profound northern slope identity — something I want to see evolve further in the coming years (the current release is 2021).

What the northern slope of Etna offers is a hybrid of its southwestern and eastern slopes: you get drier conditions and good ripening like in the southwest, but more maritime influence due to the air currents that flow up from the Straits of Messina and through the gap between Etna and the Nebrodi Mountains. The 2020 Contrada Santo Spirito (★★★★★) is one of the top wines I’ve tasted this year, with pure aromas clearly suggesting citrus, pear-like fruit and honeysuckle-like flowers. There are also sly herbal touches that evolve from glass-to-glass, and the fuller texture and mouthwatering persistence feels as though it could never tire.

For their two contrada wines, Palmento Costanzo facilitates 24 months of aging total, with half of that time in a mix of stainless steel and oak tonneaux, and the other half in bottle. The Contrada Santo Spirito comes from centenarian vines.

2018 Benanti “Pietra Marina” Etna Bianco Superiore

Eastern slope (Milo)

What’s been said about the vintage: Wetter vintage (especially August) with a leaner profile

Ask Italian wine pros what Italy’s greatest single red wine is, and you’ll get dozens of different answers. But ask them what Italy’s greatest single white wine is, and more often than any other, you will hear Benanti’s “Pietra Marina.” A recent tasting confirmed that indeed, “Pietra Marina” more than warrants the attention.

Such bold proclamations seem silly when you are dealing with a caliber of wine that deals in mysteries and unexplained layers, as “Pietra Marina” does. However, why this consistent praise is relevant is because it sets standards, and for lovers of Etna’s wines, tasting “Pietra Marina” is as much a check of the barometer as it is a sensory experience worth remembering. If you want to become an Etna Bianco aficionado, then you need to, at some point, taste this wine.

What makes “Pietra Marina” so special is the incredible vineyard from which it comes from.

Benanti's vineyards in Contrada Rinazzo, site of excellent Carricante and some of Italy's finest white wines. ©Benanti
Benanti’s vineyards in Contrada Rinazzo, site of excellent Carricante and some of Italy’s finest white wines. ©Benanti

Located in the Contrada Rinazzo of Milo, it is as visually arresting as it is viticulturally fascinating. The 80-year-old vines grow at 2,600 feet in elevation, and the soil is especially fine grained, hailing from a rather recent lava flow in 1669. “Pietra Marina” is a singular plot at the top of the slope, where the soil is a bit rockier (i.e. where it drains better) and where Carricante can become the “minerality maximalist” it has always wanted to be.

For me, the 2018 “Pietra Marina” (★★★★★) was amazing from the get-go, duping my brain into thinking it was a Chenin Blanc that had just sat by the campfire on a beach. As wonderfully disorienting as that first impression was, I quickly found Carricante’s unique citrus and saline bringing me back to reality. Then it changed again. And again. And again (good luck keeping notes with this wine). What is truly brilliant about “Pietra Marina,” beyond its perfectly serene and silky texture and its super salinity, is its evocation — it never stops telling stories that demand interpretation.

As far as technical details go, the wine is given 30 months of rest on the fine lees in stainless steel, and 12 months in bottle. So current releases already have some age to them. Of all the wines tasted, I imagine this one has the most aptitude for 15 or 20 years of aging.

2017 Terra Costantino “Contrada Blandano” Etna Bianco Riserva

         

Southeastern slope (Viagrande Catania)

What’s been said about the vintage: Very hot and dry. A ripe vintage.

Terra Costantino is the first certified organic winery on Mount Etna. Having been established in 1978 by Dino Costantino, the estate had a good 20-year head-start on an appellation that would become one of Italy’s best.

In Contrada Blandano on the volcano’s southeastern slope, they work with ancient vineyards that are intermixed red and white between Nerello Mascalese and Carricante and Catarratto. Harvesting these vineyards requires a vine-by-vine focus that is taxing, but not unique on Mount Etna. With age, the 2017 Contrada Blandano Etna Bianco Riserva (★★★★ 3/4) has seemed to skew into more tropical fruit territory, with a slightly lower acidity and the tones and timbre of a white Rhône. This is likely the product of extreme heat from that vintage. 2017 was unique in that nighttime temperatures on the south and north slopes did not appropriately cool off much, which led to an earlier harvest. Yet somehow, all of this opulence-by-Etna-standards is countered by a salty persistence that levels out the wine. Appealing aromatic notes akin to crushed mint were also memorable. However this vintage may be one to consumer sooner than others, given the growing conditions.

2016 Tenuta di Fessina “A’Puddara” Etna Bianco

             

Southwestern slope (Biancavilla)

What’s been said about the vintage: Widely celebrated for ideal conditions

One of the most fascinating, shape-shifting Etna Bianco wines is “A’Puddara,” from Tenuta di Fessina. Taking its name from the local dialect of the Pleiades constellation, this wine merges the southwest slope’s dry and sunny climate with a high-elevation plot (3,215 feet), so you typically get more tropical fruit tones but also a brisk quickness to the acidity that feels persistent and endlessly fresh. I had the pleasure of tasting this wine’s trajectory seven years after the 2016 vintage (★★★★★), and it not only showed its core character perfectly preserved, but it was pulling personal memories from my mind with each moment. For fun, we sampled the wine in Burgundian and Riesling stemware, finding its broader notes pronounced in the former, and the minerality more pronounced in the latter.

There is a hint of TDN with this wine as it ages, which on those solar southwestern slopes is not surprising. An exceptional wine I will seek out again.

2016 Feudo Cavaliere “Millemetri” Etna Bianco

               

Southwestern slope (Cavaliere)

What’s been said about the vintage: Widely celebrated for ideal conditions

While not currently imported into the United States (though it only feels like a matter of time), this wine from Feudo Cavaliere can teach us a lot about aged Etna Bianco from the southwestern slope. One might assume that with the extended hours of evening sunlight and the ultra dry climate, Carricante would take on richness and resemble something akin to Mâcon Chardonnay. But that is not the case. While the 2016 vintage (★★★★ 3/4) does have 13.5% alcohol (certainly higher than what we get from Milo) and wonderful honeyed edges, it still maintains that beautiful core of footrace acidity that dashes across the palate. This Carricante has not gone slack in its seven years of evolution (tasted in September 2023).

This wine comes from very old pre-phylloxera vines at 1,000 meters in elevation (thus the name). Fourth-generation winemaker Margarita Platania d’Antoni prefers to harvest as late as possible, ferments in stainless steel with frequently batonnage, and holds her wines for release until she feels they’re ready.

Iconic Etna Bianco Wines to Age

These are the wines to build a cellar around. Start opening them anytime after four years post-harvest, but don’t be afraid to hold on to them for even longer.

  • Benanti “Pietra Marina” Etna Bianco Superiore (Milo, Eastern Slope) 
  • Benanti “Contrada Rinazzo” Etna Bianco Superiore (Milo, Eastern Slope)
  • Tenuta di Fessina “A’Puddara” Etna Bianco (Southwest slope)
  • Tenuta di Fessina “Il Musmeci” Contrada Caselle Etna Bianco Superiore (Milo, Eastern Slope)
  • Barone di Villagrande Contrada Villagrande Etna Bianco Superiore (Milo, Eastern Slope)
  • Pietradolce “Archineri” Etna Bianco (Milo, Eastern Slope)
  • Azienda Agricola Biondi “Pianta” Etna Bianco (Southeastern Slope)
  • Palmento Costanzo Contrada Santo Spirito Etna Bianco (Northern Slope)
  • Palmento Costanzo Contrada Cavaliere Etna Bianco (Southwest Slope)
  • I Custodi delle Vigne dell’Etna “Imbris” Etna Bianco Superiore (Milo, Eastern Slope)
  • I Custodi delle Vigne dell’Etna “Ante” Etna Bianco (Southeastern Slope)
  • Monteleone Anthemis Etna Bianco (Northern Slope)

 

Note: Wines featured in this report were either provided as samples or tasted at the winery. Learn more about our editorial policy.

Tenuta di Fessina's 2016 "A Puddara" Etna Bianco
Carricante grapes at ripe stage
Statue outside Basilica Cattedrale di Sant'Agatha in Catania, Sicily
Old vine vineyards at Feudo Cavaliere on the southwest slope of Mount Etna
An old vine of Carricante
The wines of Feudo Cavaliere
Vineyards on the north slope of Mount Etna

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