Three Etna Bianco wines from Palmento Costanzo and Mount Etna with vineyards

First-Taste Guide to Etna Bianco

Is This Italy's Greatest White Wine? That's For You to Decide.

18 min read

Fresh off a recent visit to the volcano where Etna Bianco wines are made, wine writer and Italian Wine Scholar Kevin Day gives us this introductory First-Taste Guide, with insights from winemakers Valeria Agosta Costanzo of Palmento Costanzo and Marc de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere as well as sommelier Troy Bowen of the popular Denver wine bar Noble Riot.

Welcome to Etna

Etna Bianco can turn a casual wine drinker into a wine obsessive in an instant.

Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello and Etna Rosso. As far as fine wine in Italy is concerned, these are the big four — the wines most capable of complexity and endurance over time. But of these four wine regions, only one has a true white wine companion, and that wine is Etna Bianco.

Etna Bianco may not be a household name just yet, but that is changing very quickly. In fact, one could argue that there is no hotter commodity in worldwide wine right now than the rise of this shape-shifting, thirst-quenching, always-mineral, age-worthy white wine.

“I think that the younger consumer has more knowledge about wines [like ours],” said Valeria Agosto Costanzo, the Director of Palmento Costanzo, an exceptional certified organic Etna estate. For many years now, she has noticed that her visitors often range in their 20s and 30s, and they are more interested in the white wines than the red. What they’re discovering is what Italian wine insiders have known for many years: this is quite possibly the best white wine in all of Italy, capable of both whispering untold secrets and singing full-throated arias.

Mount Etna as seen from Firriato's Cavanera Etnea Wine Resort; and Carricante wine grapes on the vine.
The north slope of Mount Etna as seen from Cavanera Etnea, a wine resort owned by Firriato; Carricante wine grapes. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

“They are asking for a very mineral, sapid and fresh wine,” she continued. “And Carricante and Catarratto — but Carricante in particular — is a very acidic variety. This is very much appreciated by wine lovers at the moment.”

Sommelier Troy Bowen agrees that nascent wine lovers have embraced Etna Bianco, but he adds a caveat: “The thing I love about these wines is, I can sell them to anyone.” At his Denver wine bar, Noble Riot, Bowen finds that he is often recommending Etna Bianco to guests — both newcomers and connoisseurs alike.

So what’s Etna Bianco’s secret? There is no other word but alchemy. Only on the northern, southern and especially eastern slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna will you find white wines of this kind of breadth, diversity and versatility, expressing both their volcanic and island origins, while still maintaining an Italian identity in the glass. That’s a lot of attributes to convey in a single sip, yet time and time again, Etna Bianco delivers.

Let’s unpack those secrets and listen to its arias.

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5 Reasons to Try Etna Bianco

  1. You are passionate about Italian wine … but maybe you haven’t left the confines of Tuscany and Piedmont much. If so, it is high time you venture to Etna and taste its wines, both Rosso and Bianco.
  2. You prefer chiseled white wines over fleshier ones – Etna Bianco is never a “big wine.” Carricante’s acidity combined with the volcanic, high-elevation terroir will never allow for that. But in lieu of opulence, the wine provides multi-layered aromas and agility on the palate.
  3. You are working with flavors from the sea in your kitchen – Let’s not get bogged down in specific food pairings, but rather say that Etna Bianco — with its hide-and-seek flavors and proclivity for brininess — shows very well with the more subtle flavors of the sea. It is an invitation to experiment.
  4. You are getting into aged white wines – Etna Bianco is delicious upon release, but with only three to four years of aging it becomes something else entirely: more complex, more dynamic in the glass, more persistent on the finish. Things really get interesting after five years. Go in-depth with my latest report on aged Etna Bianco.
  5. You want limitless possibilities – Etna Bianco’s variety is also its strength. While on the volcano, I met producers using stainless steel, concrete, clay amphora, oak barrels and acacia-wood vessels. I toured vineyards on the north, east and south slope, all with different characteristics from vine age to microclimate to volcanic soil age. And I tasted wines that were pure Carricante and some with a hodgepodge of co-planted native grapes blended in. Combine this with a very talented bench of producers, and you have arguably Italy’s most limitless appellation for white wines.

Green grape clusters of Carricante on the vine near Mount Etna Sicily.
Young vines of Carricante ripen at Tenuta delle Terre Nere. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

What is Etna Bianco?

Etna Bianco currently falls under the Etna DOC, a broad-ranging appellation for red, white, sparkling and rosé wines. The appellation’s boundaries form a reverse crescent hugging the northern, eastern and southern slopes of 11,014-foot (3,357 meters) Mount Etna between 1,500 to 3,600 feet (300 and 1,100 meters). The western slope is more suitable for cultivation of Sicily’s famous Pistachio Verde di Bronte. For purposes of terroir delineation, the southern slope is typically talked about as two distinct southwestern and southeastern zones.

Present-day regulations only call for a minimum of 60% Carricante, with a possible 40% of the wine coming from Catarratto, and no more than 15% other sanctioned “non-aromatic” native white grapes (a long list). In practice, however, most Etna Bianco wines are closer to 100% Carricante, but because of Etna’s ancient vineyards, several great wines are the result of some field blending .

Meanwhile, Etna Bianco Superiore comes from the defined zone around the village of Milo on the eastern slope. These wines must be a minimum of 80% Carricante. Milo is often seen as having the highest potential for Etna Bianco, so it is allowed this caveat.

Like Etna Rosso, wines that come from delineated contrada — effectively villages across the mountain — can be labeled as such. However, unlike Burgundian Village wines, these are effectively single-vineyard wines given how land is parceled.

It should be noted that the Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini Etna has plans to apply for DOCG status. As I’ve warned before, DOCG does not automatically mean a higher quality wine, but rather a more closely regulated and defined wine. However, there is no question that of Italy’s more than 325 DOC wine appellations, Etna is in the top 1% for quality, and it is far more interesting than most DOCGs. Stay tuned.

About the Appellation and Its Wines

Before we go any further, we must take a moment to appreciate the active volcano that lords over this part of Sicily, because its very existence defines every single attribute of this wine region.

The Terroir

Mount Etna is a massive, 600-square-mile stratovolcano that never seems to sleep. During my time amongst its vineyards, the summit constantly omitted a stream of pale gas from its summit. In recent weeks, a new fumarole has formed that blows perfect smoke rings into the atmosphere. From certain angles, these unique plumes look like jellyfish heading out to the Mediterranean Sea. It is as though Etna is amusing itself, passing the time with impersonations like a kid in a bubble bath.

Smoke rings rising from Mount Etna's crater on April 6, 2024 as seen from the vineyards of Palmento Costanzo
Valeria Agosta Costanzo and her team witnessed Mount Etna’s smoke rings on April 6, 2024, and took these images from their vineyard. ©Palmento Costanzo

 

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Soil (Yes, Here It Actually Matters)

But there is always a heightened sense of peril on these slopes. Etna is capable of dangerous eruptions, and while geologists have less fear of a cataclysmic event compared to Vesuvius or Campi Flegrei, fissure eruptions are always a possibility on any of its slopes. These eruptive events occur when lava flows up into a rock seam, spewing forth from the ground and flowing downhill.

It’s the degree of decomposition of that volcanic rock that serves as the first defining characteristic of a vineyard.

I’ve poured over many a vineyard map in my career, but none have been as compelling as the one I kept seeing at wineries across Etna, which charted every single lava flow on the mountain by date.

“About 70,000 years ago, there was a huge explosion that changed the size and shape of the volcano,” said winemaker Marc de Grazia during a visit to his northern-slope winery Tenuta delle Terre Nere. “And there was a huge lava flow that covered everything. After that, we’ve had thousands of other lava flows. There are very few parts within the [elevation] range of planting grapes that have soils that have not been covered by lava. So these are 70,000-year-old soils, and most of them have been covered by more recent lava flows.”

Fissure eruptions typically do not occur at the summit, but rather at lower elevations, bathing everything in its path with 1100º C lava. As we covered in our First-Taste Guide to Etna Rosso, it’s the degree of decomposition of that volcanic rock that serves as the first defining characteristic of a vineyard. Over the course of roughly 500 years post-lava flow, moss and pioneer plants convert the rock into soil suitable enough for grapevines to survive and thrive.

This explains why adjacent vineyards can have dramatically different character traits: the permeability and nutrient mix in the soil depends on what state of decomposition the last lava flow is in, and many of these lava flows are narrow and tongue-shaped.

But that’s just one of many variables at play.

Valeria Agosta Costanzo, Director of Etna winery Palmento Costanzo.
Valeria Agosta Costanzo in her vineyard. ©Benedetto Tarantino/Palmento Costanzo

Weather & Climate

“Etna is considered the island within the island.”
Valeria Agosta Costanzo
Palmento Costanzo

“Etna is considered the island within the island,” said Valeria Agosta Costanzo of Palmento Costanzo. “That’s because Etna terroir — the soil, the wind, the rain — are totally different compared to the rest of Sicily.”

But even within the microcosm of Mount Etna, conditions vary significantly because of how the volcano blocks certain weather patterns and facilitates others. In many ways, Etna Bianco reveals the differences from the three slopes better than Etna Rosso.

Costanzo produces three white wines from the northern and southwestern slopes, as well as a blend of multiple plots for the entry-level Etna Bianco. She notes that each slope has reliable climatic traits.

The North, the South and the Grand Cru East

“The northern slopes are really windy,” she said, referring to her Carricante vineyard in the Contrada Santo Spirito. “There is rain, but not as much as the southeastern or eastern slopes. And we can say ‘no rain at all’ in the southwest.” Costanzo was also quick to point out that the southwestern slope is the only part of Mount Etna that “sees the sun die,” prolonging photosynthesis and ripening well into the evening hours each day.

Marc de Grazia noted this as well when I tasted Tenuta delle Terre Nere’s “Montalto” Etna Bianco, a wine which hails from the same slope, but at a lower elevation. “It’s a white that has acidity, has the saline quality,” he said, noting Etna Bianco’s most iron-clad traits. “But it has a velvety, buttery kind of sense, which is a characteristic of the south side.”

De Grazia finds Carricante to be very expressive of the particular slope it comes from. Because of that sun exposure, southwestern slope wines tend to be broader and more expansive, while those from the eastern slope are steelier on account of the rainier, windier climate. The helpful analogy Marc de Grazia lent was the difference between the wide-angle lens and a zoom lens on a camera. Both can give you beautiful images, but they frame the experience quite differently.

Mount Etna as seen from Milo vineyards and winemaker Marc de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere
The east slope of Mount Etna as seen from Milo, which winemaker Marc de Grazia refers to as a telephoto lens compared to the south slope’s “wide angle.” ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Nonetheless, the truly great terroir for Etna Bianco is the eastern slope that faces the Strait of Messina. Rainier, cooler and under the influence of the sea, the vineyards here — particularly the 8 contrada of the commune of Milo, the only ones which can earn the Superiore designation — represent the most complex terroir for white wines in all of Italy.

“The one characteristic you’ll find in most well-crafted Etna whites is salt.”
Marc de Grazia
Winemaker, Tenuta delle Terre Nere

Here, the aromas of Etna Bianco might seem upside down, with the tertiary becoming the primary and vice versa. Saline, stony and waxy aromas can all take the lead over Carricante’s delicate yellow and fruit flavors. Lithe and delicate at times, Etna Bianco Superiore is a white wine that requires patience, and is helped with a little age.

“For me, the one characteristic you’ll find in most well-crafted Etna whites is salt,” said de Grazia while we tasted an Etna Bianco that originated in Milo from one of his peers — Maurizio Lunetta and Margriet Van Der Woerd of Casale 120. “It’s really like a sea salt. You get the sea-brine characteristic, but it can be overshadowed,” he cautioned, stating that cellar practices and oak use can quickly mask it.

Indeed, if there is a singular trait on the white wines from Etna’s eastern slope, it would be an accentuation of this salty detail, thanks to the lower sun exposure, the proximity to the Strait of Messina and the low-yielding vines of the area.

Lastly, the north side’s identity is a little harder to pin down, and this is where we need to remember that winemaker choices — and the very open-ended regulations for cellar technique — come into play. Furthermore, the northern slope has seen the largest boom in new Carricante plantings, which adds yet another variable.

De Grazia believe his Carricante fruit from the Santo Spirito Contrada find their form better with oak, so he barrel ferments the wine. “There’s some wines that love to have, and improve, with oak. And some wines? No, they should never even look at it,” he said. “But also, it has to be judicious, the oak treatment.”

Palmento Constanzo’s Etna Bianco from the same contrada is fermented in stainless steel tanks then spends a short amount of time in tonneaux-sized oak barrels. While they are more substantial in texture, de Grazia’s and Costanzo’s Contrada Santo Spirito wines are vastly different: the former carrying a nutty rasp to its voice, the latter singing more of herbs and flowers.

The Grape Variety & Blend

We usually start these guides with a discussion on grapes. But when you have a dynamic mountain blowing smoke rings into the sky — and weirdly, the wines somehow reflect that elemental personality — well, the importance of grape variety feels secondary.

Yet Carricante warrants special attention for its unique ability to transmit that island volcanic character. Winemakers have tried Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Trebbiano and Malvasia on these slopes. They also continue to incorporate Catarratto and little-known locals like Minella Bianca. But there is a reason Carricante carries the load.

In fact, while working on this article, I copied the Etna DOC regulations into Google Translate and noticed that Etna Bianco Superiore has a “minimum loading capacity” of 80%. Immediately, I chuckled. Was this a pickup truck or a wine?

The reason for this translate fail is simple: the name carricante means to “load up,” a reference to the variety’s generous yields. But Valeria Agosta Costanzo noted there is a duality to the name: “Carrico, in Italian, means rich and plenty of character.” (In other words, sort of the way that we say “loaded with character”).

Stone terraces and vineyards on Mount Etna, Sicily
The stone terraces on Etna help to retain soil and make steeper slopes easier to tend. Terraces are used for both red and white grapes. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Carricante is a homebody. You’ll find it mainly on Mount Etna, with very rare successful plantings outside the zone. In fact, it doesn’t even rank in the Top 25 for vineyard acreage on Sicily.

Part of the reason for this specificity is the grape’s demands. It thrives at higher elevations, in rocky, well-draining volcanic soil. Also, despite its generous yields, the grape has a reputation for being difficult to work. Its wines are often low in alcohol and very high in acidity — two traits that only recently became en vogue. In the vineyard, the grape’s preferred terrain means most everything needs to be done by hand, and its susceptibility to sunburn, vine diseases and maladies requires constant vigilance. Even then, Etna is not always a safe haven. The 2023 crop was hammered by downy mildew because of unrelenting rains and heat in May and June. Some producers lost more than 90% of their Carricante and Nerello Mascalese crop.

“Even if we plant a new vineyard, we will plant also with the same small percentage of Catarratto because we feel … there is the history of Etna viticulture that we want to preserve.”
Valeria Agosta Costanzo

Many of Etna’s Carricante vineyards are very old, with some dating back to over a century ago. In these vineyards, it is common for Carricante to have neighbors coplanted with it, especially the Sicilian native grapes, Catarratto and Minella, for which it seems to share a natural alchemy of flavor.

“We can say Catarratto is more rounded in character,” said Costanzo. “It has more exotic fruit, white fruit … but in our case it is just five, maybe ten percent [of plantings] depending on the terrace.”

However, it is important to remember that most Etna producers are not blending certain percentages of Catarratto — or these other allowed non-aromatic grape varieties — with Carricante in the winery. Rather, it is occurring in the vineyard, with the grapes harvested at the same time and co-fermented together. This “field blend” approach underscores the primacy of place over variety even further, so don’t go scouring tech sheets looking for answers on blending percentages. Many producers are not calibrating a blend to attain a certain profile.

“We are an old vineyard,” explain Costanzo. “Even if we plant a new vineyard, we will plant also with the same small percentage of Catarratto because we feel — even in that small quantity of Catarratto, even in that 5% — there is the history of Etna viticulture that we want to preserve.”

A Sommelier’s Perspective

So what does Etna Bianco taste like? And which wines would offer a representative sampling of its iconic taste, its various styles and, most importantly, its various terroir?

“You have floral notes, you have salinity, you have savory notes, you have depth of character, you have some broadness on the palate. There’s something in Etna Bianco for just about everybody.”
Troy Bowen
Sommelier, Noble Riot

Throughout my tasting of more than 50 wines for this article — many of them at the annual Etna Days event on the volcano — I consistently detected the sharp mineral note that defines the volcano’s wild terroir. If you are not comfortable with the word minerality, I get that, but few wines in the world show a clearer sense of this stony, saline, petrichor identity. Why is that important? Because with its sleek texture and forward-moving momentum across the palate, Etna Bianco demonstrates extreme versatility.

“It is a great wine for groups,” notes sommelier Troy Bowen. “You have floral notes, you have salinity, you have savory notes, you have depth of character, you have some broadness on the palate. There’s something in Etna Bianco for just about everybody.”

Furthermore, Bowen loves how his guests don’t come to the table with preconceived notions yet about Etna Bianco, which can’t be said for Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc or Riesling. Ironically, if someone tells Bowen the don’t like Chardonnay (or even, they love it), Etna Bianco often becomes the recommendation. But, he also pointed out, Etna Bianco excels as a conversation starter.

“Often when it is erupting, it’s in the news a little bit,” he said. “It’s fun to say, ‘this wine is literally grown on that very volcano.'”

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Your First Taste

Picking just three wines to feature for a recommended First Taste was nearly impossible, especially with my desire to showcase different sides of the mountain. But I think for newcomers to this wine, the following three check all the First-Taste boxes: (a) representative of the aromas, flavors, texture and tones often found in Etna Bianco, (b) not too expensive, (c) easy enough to find online or in retailers around the United States, and — most importantly — (d) so compelling you’ll be eager for a second taste.

Palmento Costanzo's 2021 "Bianco di Sei" Etna Bianco wine

2021 Palmento Costanzo “Bianco di Sei” Etna Bianco ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

2021 Palmento Costanzo “Bianco di Sei” Etna Bianco

           

Location: Northern slope (Passopisciaro)

While participating in the annual Etna Days Grand Tasting, I made sure to stop by the table for Palmento Costanzo, where I first met Valeria Agosta Costanzo. While their wines are not the most visible on the U.S. market, they are among the best: refined, detailed, never taxing on the palate, and expressive of site. I tasted the 2021 “Bianco di Sei” (★★★★ 3/4) there, and again back in the United States this spring, and it is one of the most emblematic Etna Bianco out there — a perfect starting point for your journey.

Part of the appeal is how fresh and lively the wine comes across: it demands nothing of the drinker, but can please any palate seeking out deeper detail. It’s pure fruit shifts from time to time, suggesting apples and lemon one moment, peaches with salinity the next. Their “Mofete” Etna Bianco is the true “entry-level,” and a good first-taste candidate as well.

2022 Barone di Villagrande Etna Bianco Superiore

       

Location: Eastern slope (Milo)

Want to explore Milo’s grand cru status, but with a twist? Start with Barone di Villagrande, the most historic winery on the volcano, and a family which is largely responsible for the creation of Milo’s superiore-status. Here is a winery that put its faith in Carricante before it was fashionable, thanks to the work of Carlo Nicolosi-Asmundo. Their entry-level Etna Bianco wine is as accessible and easy-to-please as any on the volcano. I tasted the 2022 Etna Bianco Superiore (★★★★ 3/4), which is fermented and aged in 500L acacia-wood barrels for 10 months. Acacia seems to tease out an inherent yet soft sweetness to the aromas of the wine — a very different yet less assertive expression than some of the oak-barrel aged Etna Bianco wines. Wonderfully silky and generously juicy, I found the 2019 Etna Bianco Superiore to be texturally perfect.

2022 Tenuta delle Terre Nere “Montalto” Etna Bianco

         

Location: Southwestern slope (Biancavilla)

American importer turned winemaker Marc de Grazia is an icon of Mount Etna. His first vintage at Tenuta delle Terre Nere (“estate of the black lands”) was in 2002, and while Benanti, Barone Villagrande and Passopisciaro deserve ample credit for reviving Etna’s reputation as well, de Grazia’s charisma and outspoken advocacy helped it establish the international attention it deserved. He was also instrumental in lending support and mentorship to dozens of other wineries, which of course fueled the profusion of options we now enjoy. Lastly, de Grazia also popularized the singular terroir-focused contrada approach that defines many of the best wines — white and red — on the mountain.

Coming from the southwestern slope in the contrada of Biancavilla, the 2022 “Montalto” Etna Bianco (★★★★ 3/4) is a superb example of how Carricante can absorb sunlight and reflect it back in the glass, all while preserving the focused lines of salinity that define Etna Bianco. There is a hint of herbaceousness on this wine that complements the deep citric flavors and tones. It is broad, yet still juicy and persistent. If you tend to prefer bigger white wines, “Montalto” is the ideal starting point with Etna Bianco; you can always backtrack to the more “quiet” wines of Milo and the eastern slope.

The Aging Potential of Etna Bianco

Etna Bianco is not one of those white wines that merchants or wine directors need to move quickly. In fact, if you see an older vintage for sale, you are in luck, for Etna Bianco is establishing itself as one of the premier age-worthy white wines in the world. Personally, I would be just as excited to have an iconic Etna Bianco wine in my long-term collection as I would any Chablis or white Burgundy. (And I’d have a hell of a lot more money leftover, too).

Part of the appeal in aging Etna Bianco lies in the short-term as well as long-term possibilities. I don’t have the resources to age cases of wine, nor the patience to wait 20 years as so many conversations around aging wine tend to go. So that makes aged Etna Bianco in the five- to 10-year window deeply appealing and rewarding. One gets the thrill of the collecting wines and charting their nuances over the years, while doing it with only a few shelves in their wine refrigerator.

Red Corkscrew Illustration ©Opening a Bottle

Want to know who I think are the standout producers on Etna? Subscribe to Opening a Bottle so you can unlock my paywall and read not only the Essential Winemakers of Italy profiles I’ve written, but my new Tasting Report on aged Etna Bianco wines. I also include a selection of wines that I think have tremendous potential for aging, and best of all, you don’t need decades of time to reap the rewards.

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Tasting Report: Aged Etna Bianco

Additional Resources in My Research

 

Note: Many of the wines tasted in researching this story were part of a fully funded press trip to Mount Etna that was put on by Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini Etna DOC. Furthermore, samples from Palmento Costanzo were sent upon request. Learn more about our editorial policy.

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