Etna’s Fields of Dreams

Small is still beautiful on Europe’s “hot” volcano as newcomers continue to arrive

Etna’s Fields of Dreams
Michele and Claudia Calabretta, with son Marco, are juggling three kids, their original careers and developing their vineyards and new wine label, Tenuta Boccarossa. (Robert Camuto)
Aug 26, 2022

If you follow Italian wine at all, there’s not much surprise in me saying that Etna is the country’s hottest appellation and, so far, this century’s zero-to-hero success story.

After an eclectic band of locals and outsiders ignited a scene here in the early 2000s, wine families from across Sicily and Italy have followed, buying vineyards and restoring abandoned wineries to add Etna rosso and bianco to their portfolios. The most recent big player in the house is Northern Italy–based Tommasi Family Estates, whose holdings stretch across the Italian boot. This spring, Tommasi purchased about 38 acres of vineyards on Etna’s north face.

But Etna’s estates remain relatively small, owing to the appellation’s patchwork of family-owned plots and its often steep and difficult-to-cultivate terraced vineyards. The scale of these properties limits production.

In the past 15 years of traveling regularly to Etna, I’ve watched two generations of winemakers, autodidacts and entrepreneurs arrive from across Europe and the world. Some have thrived, and others have run out of cash or the steam to keep things going.

Read more of Robert Camuto's coverage of Mount Etna

The beauty of Etna is that there is still room for dreamers and that they keep coming.

On a midsummer trip to the mountain, I met the owners of one of Etna’s smallest new entrants: Michele Calabretta and his wife, Claudia—both 41, wide-eyed, successful professionals with three kids in tow.

Their boy-meets-girl-meet-vineyards story combines Sicilian roots (his) with a Teutonic drive (hers). Now they are in their fifth vintage of Tenuta Boccarossa, in which they expect to produce about 330 cases of Nerello Mascalese reds and white Carricante.

For me, their Boccarossa wines lie within the sweet spot of well-made Etna rossos and biancos in which the vineyards—not the winemaking—shine with bright elegance, layers of fruit and spice and a kind of overall wildness.

“It’s very hard work,” Claudia says as she walks—a toddler attached to her hip—through an uneven Nerello Mascalese vineyard at an elevation of more than 3,000 feet. “But then there’s always the romantic part.”

That romance is driven by the mountain itself: Its lava flows and black volcanic sands form a soaring landscape with wildly varied microclimates, expositions and altitudes. The vineyard in which we are walking—positioned between vineyards of 21st century pioneers Frank Cornelissen and the late Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro—sits just above the altitude limit for the Etna DOC, meaning the red wine it produces must be bottled as IGT Sicilia.

An added romantic element at Boccarossa is Michele’s homecoming. He hails from a family with five generations in the tiny winegrowing town of Passopisciaro and returned there from the north to take up the work of past generations.

His great-grandfather cultivated vineyards and made wine, most of it sold in a family store in Northern Italy. After World War II, Michele’s grandfather continued to make wine while also opening a local distillery that he ran right up until the early 1970s.

The business of wine—which, on Etna, experienced a long decline in the 20th century—ended in Michele’s family with his grandfather. Michele’s father, a high-school physics teacher, continued to make wine as a hobby, with Michele’s help.

Michele studied mechanical engineering at university and then left Sicily to follow his “other red passion,” working up north for Ferrari.

He pursued a PhD and later jumped to Lamborghini, where he made frequent trips to Ingolstadt, Germany, home to the automaker’s parent, Audi. It was there he met and began dating Claudia, a native of Bavaria who was earning a doctorate in international copyright law.

In 2010, experimenting with a group of friends back home on Etna, the couple made their first wine together.

“We had the idea to make wine in a very careful Burgundian way,” says Michele of the wine-loving group. “It was just for fun—a hobby together.”

The following year, Michele jumped at the opportunity to move back to Sicily to work for an automotive microelectronics producer in Catania.

Michele then bought their first vineyard land on Etna, totalling a little over an acre of Nerello Mascalese and including other traditional blending grapes like Nerello Cappuccio (used for color and aroma) and Alicante Bouschet (a 19th-century Grenache cross that contributes higher alcohol level and color).

One evening, over a bottle of wine, Claudia floated the idea of the couple starting their own wine brand. “I said, ‘Michele, this wine is so good, why don’t we make wine with our own label,’” she remembers. “And at some point, you have to make the decision to do it on a professional level.”

The couple made the leap in 2018, producing 600 bottles of Etna Rosso in rented cellar space, where they aged the wine in a couple of well-used barriques. Because the family name Calabretta was already being used on wine by Michele’s cousin Massimiliano, they settled on Boccarossa and sold the wine to area restaurants and friends.

Their rosso is now pure Nerello Mascalese, and the couple doesn’t use either of the blending grapes. “If you have a severe preselection, you don’t need to add Cappuccio or Alicante,” says Claudia.

They have since bought a white wine vineyard and more have followed. Now they have more than 7 acres of organically farmed vineyards (some certified, some still in the process), with another 18 acres of land that they plan to plant in coming years. They are renovating the old family distillery in Passopisciaro for a small winery, and Michele’s father and another local father-and-son team help out in the vineyards.

In July, the couple bought from Michele’s cousins a couple of acres of long-abandoned vineyards once owned by Michele’s great-great-grandfather. “It’s emotional to restore something that is part of our roots,” says Michele.

For now, Michele and Claudia are brimming with a prime-of-life energy that seems inexhaustible. Michele works his full-time engineering job in Catania, and Claudia consults remotely as an attorney two days a week. Much of the rest of the time they are making their wines, with the help of a local enology consultant, and selling them.

I’ve seen it before and still always find it inspiring—the way wine fills new generations with this desire to create.

“In Germany, you have nothing, and you make something,” Claudia says. “Here in Sicily, you have everything—history, culture and nature—and oftentimes people don’t do anything.”

“It’s so rich here in so many things,” she adds. “We had to do something.”

People Red Wines Italy Sicily Etna

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