Establishing Etna: Benanti

The delicate, smoky and saline wines of Etna have rapidly become some of Italy’s most famous – but the region’s renaissance is recent. Rachael Ryan – Senior Buyer at Vinfolio, our US arm – sat down with Salvino Benanti, whose father was one of Etna’s pioneers
Establishing Etna: Benanti

Main content

Inspiration often strikes at unexpected moments. For Salvino Benanti, owner of the eponymous winery, it was late at night in his office at a London investment bank, when he overheard his boss on a phone call, apologising to his wife for not being home. “I heard him say, ‘Imagine one day, if this all works out, we’ll retire and move to the Mediterranean.’” Salvino recalls this moment, which became a turning point in his life: “I suddenly thought, well I could do that tomorrow.”  

Salvino’s late father was Dr Giuseppe Benanti, a former pharmaceutical company owner, who himself also once pivoted mid-career to return to his small Sicilian hometown to make wine and is today widely credited with launching a winemaking renaissance in Etna that has propelled the tiny region from relative anonymity to international recognition and acclaim. 

Although wine has been produced across Sicily for centuries, the area around Mount Etna where the Benanti family is from had fallen into obscurity by the 19th century, with many poorly maintained or abandoned vineyards and virtually no commercial wine production. In the early 1980s, however, Giuseppe embarked upon a decade-long research project, where he methodically studied the soil types, local indigenous grapes and microclimates. In a very short time, he came to realise the potential of his birthplace. Giuseppe hired a local oenologist named Salvo Foti in 1988, and the two joined forces to make wine. He found in Foti an equal level of passion, drive and belief in the potential of Etna. Together they crafted the first release of Benanti wine from the Etna DOC in 1990, neither likely realising that they had sparked the resurgence of a neglected wine region. 

Benanti aerial view 16:9 (3)
Today Benanti farms 28 hectares of vines across Etna

Shaped like a backwards crescent, the DOC of Etna is anchored of course by Mount Etna, an active stratovolcano that rises nearly 11,000 feet above sea-level. Mount Etna towers over the eastern side of Sicily, breaking the skyline in dramatic fashion and creating a wine region that is distinct not only within Sicily, but the wine world at large. 

Generations of eruptions have altered the soil content, creating a patchwork of soil types around the peak. The high elevation provides respite from the hot climate of lower-lying Sicily, and the vineyards on the north side are protected from the hot Sirocco wind blowing from the south. Mount Etna remains one of the world’s most active volcanoes, with eruptions, ash clouds and lava flows nearly every year, albeit very slowly and in a predictable direction, away from villages and vineyards.  

Only a few decades ago, the most well-known grape in Sicily was Nero d’Avola. Often made in an accessible, full-bodied and bold style, Nero d’Avola was easy to grow, and easy to love. Frequently blended with international varieties to add colour and weight, it quickly became an international hit. Many assume the southerly latitude relegates Sicily to only wines like Nero d’Avola – dark and dense. Mount Etna tosses this logic out the window, however.  

The rocky, steep vineyards of Etna have always been planted mainly to three indigenous varieties: the red grapes Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, and the white grape Carricante. Nerello Mascalese produces wines that are light in colour, with elevated tannins providing ample structure. The wines can be ethereal, and much like Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, have a remarkable transparency that allows the specific location to imbue itself into the wine, with even neighbouring plots expressing themselves quite differently. With sour cherry and wild red plum notes, as well as faint tobacco, someone tasting Nerello Mascalese blind for the first time might be excused for thinking the wine was perhaps a gentler style of Nebbiolo, or alternatively a more grippy, savoury style of Pinot Noir. In many ways the variety captures the best of both. Yet, until recently, Nerello Mascalese was obscure. “It was considered to be a bulk wine. People didn’t know it that well, so we weren’t noticed at first,” Salvino explains.  

The active volcano that defines Etna's soils and wines

Nerello Cappuccio, with its darker colour and softer tannins, has often been used as a blending partner for Nerello Mascalese, making it more approachable, though for many producers, it has fallen out of fashion as Nerello Mascalese ascends the ladder of critical opinion. Carricante, on the other hand, is a high-acid grape, with intense minerality and a slightly saline character. Described by Ian d’Agata as “potentially one of Italy’s greatest cultivars, white or red”, Carricante can thrive at high elevations and develops fascinating, almost Riesling-like petrol aromas with age. 

While some viticultural generalities are true across the region – trace elements such as iron and phosphorous are uniformly high across the DOC, for example – the soils are surprisingly varied between contradas (a delineated local municipality of sorts, often borrowed by winemakers in Etna to signify which part of the DOC their wine hails from), of which there are 142. Even a change of a few hundred feet in elevation can mean a difference in depth of soil as well as soil structure. 

Although to outsiders, living next door to an active volcano might seem to be a risky proposition, Salvino, like most Sicilians, doesn’t seem to be overly concerned.  The ash that often floats down from the volcano is not necessarily a bad thing, he explains, unlike the ash from wildfires. While ash from burnt wood and vegetation is highly acrid and easily taints wine with a bitter aftertaste, volcanic ash, on the other hand, is odourless and tasteless. When it falls in Etna, it hardens into flakes of pumice, Salvino explains, which crunch underfoot like breakfast cereal, but soon break down into a much finer, sandy texture, as it becomes part of the soil and terroir. 

After 25 years at the helm of his winery, Giuseppe passed the torch to Salvino and his twin brother Antonio in 2012, giving them full ownership. The brothers, in many ways, led parallel lives. Born in Sicily, the two were educated abroad, and both worked as bankers in London. And, most fortunately, both were of a similar mindset when it came to the family winery. Having felt they had achieved enough in their careers, Salvino and Antonio came to a mutual decision to move back to Sicily – the lightbulb moment Salvino experienced in his office was a sentiment shared by his brother.  

Benanti family 16:9
Salvino Benanti (right) with his late father, and brother Antonio (left)

By the time they took over, Etna was fully on the radar of wine enthusiasts around the world, who were intrigued by the prospect of mineral-driven wines made on the side of an active volcano. The beginning was not easy, however, Salvino says, as their father was forced to step back and let his sons build their own path together. “We had a lot of confrontation and debate. My father was stubborn, and wouldn’t listen to anyone, but we had the final word. He became a loud advisor with no power,” Salvino laughingly remembers. They made tough decisions, including selling off a few vineyards and reducing the number of wines produced. “We were a bit ruthless,” he admits. 

Today, the brothers act as co-general managers, overseeing the production of 250,000 bottles of wine per year, all made from the three indigenous varieties, coming from five distinct contradas in the DOC. Their white wines are made from 100% Carricante, vinified in stainless steel and never aged in oak, while the red wines are either mono-varietal, or comprised of Nerello Mascalese blended with a small amount of Nerello Cappuccio. They avoid new oak in the winery, choosing instead to age in neutral vessels where “the elegance expresses itself quite freely”, Salvino explains. 

When people think of Sicily, they think of opulence, richness and power. “This is not correct,” Salvino emphasises. Though only 5% of Sicily’s wine production comes from Etna, the wines could not be more different than the rest of the island – and southern Italy for that matter. “We are about elegance, leanness, and cellar-worthiness,” he explains. 

Salvino elaborates on the distinct shift in style since he and his brother assumed control. He explains that in the early days of the winery, more oak was employed and the wines were more forward. “In the 1980s, no one knew or cared about Etna, so I think my father was trying to capture the world’s attention, maybe trying to connect with Nero d’Avola drinkers.” When Salvino and Antonio took over, however, they were open-minded and “free from prejudice”: “We didn’t have a pre-formed view of anything,” he says. This allowed them to examine the wines with fresh eyes, and rather than try to emulate another region or variety’s style, they made the decision to allow the grapes and soil of Etna to speak for themselves. “We realised that what the world wanted from Etna was more pureness.” And this is something they continue to strive for. “We would like more purity, more elegance, more finesse, always,” Salvino emphasises.   

Benanti Etna Vineyard
Benanti has vineyards on each slope of Mount Etna, allowing them to offer a complete picture of the appellation

In less than 40 years, the spark that Giueseppe Benanti provided ignited a revolution, one that his sons – along with a host of other winegrowers and winemakers on the island – carry on today. 

Salvino feels that there is now a clear Etna identity, supported by many up-and-coming younger producers. From only a few decades ago, when his father was introducing the wines of Etna to the world, there are now over 440 producers within the Etna DOC. The appellation, however, remains a niche even within Italy, producing only 5.8 million bottles per year, making it smaller than Barolo.  

And this next generation of winemakers continues to push forward. The producers in Etna recently voted unanimously to apply for DOCG status, a process which can take up to 24 months to get approval, though it seems inevitable given their region’s sharp upward trajectory. Some rules will become more stringent, such as lower mandated yields and longer ageing requirements – as Salvino puts it, “We will be forced to go down a more difficult route” – but ultimately this will only help to continue to uplift the quality of the wines and their reputation. 


Rachael Ryan