Mount Etna erupted on Tuesday, sending a huge cloud of ash billowing into the sky above Sicily. Incandescent lava flowed down the banks of the volcano, and pumice and rock rained down on homes in the surrounding area.
The pictures of the volcano’s elemental fury went around the world, capturing the imaginations of millions. But for those who live in the shadow of Europe’s most active volcano, it is a regular occurrence. In fact, Etna rules the land and its people, and dictates so much of their daily lives.
Stephanie and Ciro Biondi
Stephanie and Ciro Biondi grow grapes and make wine on the south side of the volcano, in the province of Catania. They have been producing Etna D.O.C wines since 1999, and were among the first to take up the mantle of a forgotten winemaking tradition in the area, with around only five other producers bottling at the time. Today, the region’s reputation has a new appreciation, the although the whole Etna D.O.C. area is comprised of only 950 hectares, the Biondi label is shipped all over the world.
Back on Etna, however, the volcano is queen, and the recent eruption, while not devastating, was scary.
“It happened at about two in the afternoon,” says Stephanie. “There were these intermittent explosions, like a ‘boom’ every ten minutes or so, and I could see there was activity. I walked up to the vineyard to try and film it but it quietened down. Then suddenly, I heard a huge explosion and we went rushing out and said ‘my god!’ it was just apocalyptic. It was very scary. They said it was a new opening, a new bocca, and the lava flowed very quickly.
“The lava flows into the Valle del Bove [Valley of the Ox], and it starts to fill up. When the lava starts to trickle over the edge, that’s when it’s time to worry.
“I was looking at Ciro and I could see in his face that he was worried. The last really big eruption was in 1669, when Catania was destroyed, and another in 1968 in Mascali, where the lava flowed very quickly and got down to the coast… it’s something that Ciro is quite concerned about because we are due for a big one. Luckily it quietened down, but there’s always that uncertainty about living with Etna.”
The Biondi vineyard in winter
That uncertainty is a fact of life for those living on Etna, but it leads to a great respect for the mountain. It is true that today wine producers all over the world have to contend with problems that in the past didn’t exist. One thinks immediately of Californian producers battling wildfires and climate change. However, on Etna, the destructive force of nature is a real presence and has been for thousands of years.
“There’s an enormous amount of reverence towards Etna in this area,” says Stephanie. “Despite the fact that she can be incredibly destructive. We used to go skiing on the other side of the volcano, and a whole ski station was destroyed by lava flow, but everyone was very accepting of it. There’s nothing you can do, so you just get on with it.
“During the 1992 eruption, the lava got down as far as Zafferana, it got dangerously near the town. The Americans stationed at the NATO base here were airlifting huge blocks of concrete and dropping them to dry and divert the flow of lava away from the town. Not even the American military could change Etna’s mind.”
An ancient Greek phallus unearthed in the Biondi vineyard
Viticulture on Etna has a long history. The Biondis' vineyard has been in Ciro’s family at least since the 1600s, the house that contains the cellar in town goes back to the 1500s, and certainly, there are centuries of winemaking tradition in the Biondi family. There may well be more. The Biondis have unearthed evidence of the practice dating back to the Greek period. In their vineyard, they unearthed a phallus carved from lava stone, a Greek millstone and other artefacts that are evidence of an ancient settlement on their land. Most likely it was abandoned because of an eruption. Even then, it was Etna who decided.
“When Etna erupts, the airport has to close because of the ash cloud. There are traffic warnings, with scooters banned from the roads. With all the ash on the roads, it’s like black ice, it’s so slippery.
“I went down to the car this morning and it was covered in ash. You have to wash the ash off the car because if you use the windscreen wipers, you’ll scratch the windscreen because it’s like little pieces of glass.
Examples of the pumice that fell after the eruption of Etna
“Last night there were large pieces of pumice raining down, about the size of a ping pong ball. They are light but they can cause damage. There’s a big clean-up underway in Catania. Our swimming pool is just full of black ash.”
Etna, they say, is a healthy and happy volcano. She erupts regularly, most years, and it’s something the locals take in their stride. However, with eruptions, there is usually seismic activity. Italy is plagued with earthquakes and they can cause a lot more destruction than the visually more impressive lava flows.
“The tremors can be really scary,” says Stephanie. “The last big tremor we had was the day after Christmas two years ago. It was quite shallow, about five metres deep, and instead of shaking from side to side it went up and down. It was awful, there was so much damage done, 65 families lost their homes. Tremors can break up the land and terraces can collapse. It happened to us a few years ago.
“Etna erupts all the time, but not like last night. Sometimes she just wants to remind us that she’s there.”
Thankfully an eruption such as the current one doesn’t affect the grapes or the wine. The ash acts like a fertiliser for the soil, and contributes to the unique characteristics of the wine. On a daily basis, the Biondis are more concerned with managing the weather.
Their vineyard is at altitude - about 700 metres above sea level - so the grapes don’t ripen until very late in the season. Harvesting usually takes place at the beginning or the middle of October, when the weather can change very quickly.
Biondi vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna
“Because of the high altitude, you get a great variety of temperature. During the summer, the temperatures can go up to 35 degrees during the day and drop to about 11 degrees at night. It’s a real microclimate with big differences from vineyard to vineyard. We have three vineyards just 200 metres from each other, two volcanic cones, but the wines are totally different.
“There is a common thread, but the terroir is all about the soil, the aspect…. so for example, the whites are really crispy, crunchy, there’s a lovely saline [quality] and acidity. People say that the whites on our side are influenced by the sea, while the whites on the north, the same varietal, have more fruity characteristics.
“For the whites, Carricante is the main varietal, about 80-90%, but we’ve also got Minella, which is indigenous to Etna, and is slightly oval-shaped. In Sicilian dialect ‘minne’ means ‘breast’ so they’re like breast-shaped grapes. The other one is Cataratto, which you get all over the island, and gives a nice acidity. For the reds, there’s Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio.
Grapes ripening on the slopes of Etna
Despite volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and a microclimate subject to dramatic change, Etna has been kind to the Biondis, and has bestowed some excellent vintages on them in recent years.
“The 2020 vintage has shown already to be wonderful, it’s still ageing. 2019 is showing beautifully and waiting to be bottled, 2018 the current vintage, was a tricky year, because we knew it was going to start raining so we brought the grapes in. In 2015, we didn’t, and we had about 40% less because of the rain. The quality was great, though, because we were incredibly selective about the picking, but we are subject to the weather and the changes.
“That’s the incredible thing about growing wine on Etna - every vintage is different. In 2012, we had a really hot year, we harvested early because we could see the sugar levels creeping up, so if you take 2012 from Etna, it’s probably higher in alcohol, it’s bigger, more structured, whereas 2018 is very elegant, it’s lighter.”
Running a business is always about managing uncertainty. That’s not always possible when you’re subject to the whims of Etna, but she definitely gives more than she takes away.
“We don’t have insurance for volcanic activity,” says Stephanie. "That’s considered an act of God, isn’t it?”