Book Review: The New Wines of Mount Etna by Benjamin North Spencer

Let’s get the disclaimer right out of the way, shall we? I positively adore the wines of Mount Etna, the very active volcano that occupies the northeast corner of Sicily. I have rarely met a Nerello Mascalese or Carricante that I didn’t like. I have made but a single visit to the island of Sicily, and merely one week’s pilgrimage to Etna, but the volcano and its wines hold a very special place in my heart.

That’s why I was particularly excited to check out Benjamin North Spencer’s new book, The New Wines of Mount Etna: An Insider’s Guide to the History and Rebirth of a Wine Region. I only scratched the surface when I was there in 2013, and in the past 8 years, dozens of new producers have come out of the woodwork lava as both locals and transplants eager to be a part of one of the hottest (as in trendy, not as in magma) wine regions on the planet opened up wineries.

Trendy Etna may be, but it has a long and intricate history, something Spencer relates with great detail in this book, beginning in the 8th Century BCE on up through the present. In friendly, casual prose, Spencer, who has lived on the volcano since 2012, strolls through the ages, sharing anecdotes and stories as he winds his way towards modern times. Through this narrative, the reader comes to understand something of Sicilian winemaking history, as well as the central role that Etna has played in the island’s wine journey.

This history makes up the central third of the book, with the opening 100 pages or so dedicated to an overview of the different grapes and wine styles on the mountain, and the latter 110 pages dedicated to a rather comprehensive listing of the producers making Etna wine.

As someone who has drunk a lot of wines from Etna and spent enough time there to appreciate the layers of mystery, culture, and geology that make up the place, I came to The New Wines of Mount Etna with a great level of excitement and anticipation. Nothing even vaguely approximating the premise or scope of this book existed when I first visited the mountain, and so I jumped in with great relish, hoping to have all my questions about the mountain and its wines answered.

Ultimately, however, I found myself frustrated by the book. It may be that I simply want and need something different than what Spencer set out to write, but the organization, style, and emphasis of the book did not provide me with the tools or information that would be most useful in either plotting my next visit, or getting more out of that visit once I was there.

While clearly not a classic travel guidebook in conception, I did take the book at its word as a guide, and because of that, was hoping for a rather methodical breakdown of the Etna wine region in great detail. In particular, and this is just the way my brain works, I was hoping for maps. Lots of maps.

Much to my disappointment, the only real map of the Etna wine region is buried deep within the text on page 162, and is essentially unreadable, serving only to provide the most general orientation to the backwards “c” shape of the wine region that circles the volcano between 400 and 1000 meters above sea level. While the names of some towns outside the wine region are legible, none of towns within the wine region can be seen, nor any roads or other defining characteristics, let alone the locations of the wineries that Spencer lists in the latter third of the book.

That this map appears in the middle of the story, so to speak, rather than as a part of a detailed orientation to the place is indicative of perhaps my largest frustration with the book. Namely that it is far too narrative in structure rather than organizational.

The sole map of Etna it provides has not been placed in the book to help you understand and orient yourself to the details of the region, it exists as an illustration accompanying the story of how the Etna DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata — the Italian equivalent of an appellation) came to be.

Spencer provides a wealth of information to be sure, but it is locked within paragraphs of a narrative that at times has no clear trajectory, and lacks a sure-handed organization and structure that would provide guideposts to the reader, as well as easy-to-reference information for repeat usage.

Leaving aside the first 10 pages, which are part-introduction, part condensed history of winemaking on Etna, the first part of the book starts off straightforwardly enough, with an overview of the different grapes grown on Etna and the different styles of wines they make. These 50-or-so pages mix descriptions of the grapes, their history on Etna, basics about winemaking regimens, and the regulated styles of wine permitted in the region.

Things get a little more squirrelly after that, as Spencer dives into viticulture, geology, the history of eruptions, seafood markets, the Cyclops and The Odyssey, the weather, phases of the moon, the biodynamic calendar, and more. It’s a lot to pack into 40 pages, especially when interspersed with Spencer’s own memories and asides.

In providing the long history of the region in the middle of the book, Spencer takes us on a flaneur’s journey through the ages, freely mixing first-person narration of his own experiences on Etna with historical anecdotes as well as stories of contemporary people and events. It is a stroll replete with detours into a variety cul-de-sacs: the recipe for acqua tina, a low alcohol mix of wine and water; the story of Saint Agatha; the historical ice industry in Sicily; recommended local beers; anecdotes on cartography, and more.

Throughout the first two sections of the book, but especially in the middle, I found myself unsure of where we were headed and how long it was going to take to get there. Less raconteur and more professor might be one way of putting what I needed but didn’t get from this book.

I wanted some lists (perhaps of grape varieties and maybe data about their proportions in the region); some timelines (to give structure to the incredible span of history that are covered in 100 or so pages of narrative); some diagrams (showing how palmentos, the ancient wineries of Etna, actually functioned); and above all, I wanted some maps (of the island, of the region, of the mountain, of the communes, and definitely of the contrade).

If there was one thing I was hoping to get a clear explanation of when I picked up this book, it was the contrade, or what Spencer calls Mount Etna’s “neighborhoods.” The contrade (plural of the singular contrada) are historically named regions within which winegrowing takes place on the mountain. They are names known by everyone who grows wines on Etna, and are shorthand for both a specific bounded location, as well as a specific set of growing conditions.

“Legally,” writes Spencer, “contrade are defined by altitude, aspect and geology, as well as their administrative borders,” saying elsewhere on the page that “Differences become increasingly notable when wines from different contrade are compared.”

Just the page before, Spencer has told us that there are “thirty-six unique compositions of rock, ash, and soil” that can be found in the Etna DOC, but apart from those nine words, he has left it at that.

From my standpoint, this lies at heart of understanding what Etna is all about when it comes to wine: the interplay between these long-established contrade, many of which follow the boundaries of specific historical lava flows, and the nature of the geology that each offers to those who choose to grow wines in that location. But other than two pages of introductory text on the concept, we are left with only a list of 133 contrade in the appendix. Thankfully, that list has been organized by region (south, east, and north) as well as sub-region, but I want so much more. And not just a map that shows each of them clearly, though that would be a start.

What are those 36 different types of soil, and what really makes them different? How do those soil types correspond to different contrade? What is the relationship between known historical lava flows and the contrade? What is the relationship between historical land holdings on the mountain and those contrade? What do winemakers say about how grapes perform differently in different contrade? What are those differences that “become increasingly notable when wines from different contrade are compared?”

Maybe I’m asking too much, or maybe I’m asking for information that Spencer and the industry at large don’t yet understand themselves, but to me it seems like these contrade are the Etna equivalent of Burgundian climats. Simply listing the sub-appellations of Burgundy, such as Meursault or Saint-Aubin, and not explaining why and how they are different, let alone which sections are grand cru and which are simply village-level plots, leaves the reader with only the impression, rather than a true understanding of Burgundy. The same, I believe, is true here with Etna, even if we lack a thousand years of meticulous work by monks to write it all down. The growers on Etna may not have ranked the contrade in terms of quality, but almost certainly there is more to know about each of them, their history and geology, and specifically what those mean for the wines they can and could produce.

The last third of the book I found perhaps the most satisfying, not necessarily because of how it read, but simply because of its clear and useful structure. In it, the Etna wine region is broken down into its three main sections (North, East, and South) and within each a list of producers based in that area is provided. Each of those producers is given a one-page profile with all sorts of handy information, such as their social media presence, their acreage, their production levels, how they train their vines, in which contrade they have plantings, and more. While the narrative text of these profiles varies a lot from producer to producer, making it sometimes difficult to get a sense of what distinguishes one from another, the detailed stats provided about each are incredibly useful.

Now if only we had a map showing where each of them were!

Make no mistake, this book contains more information about the wines of Mount Etna and the history of wine growing in the region than any other English-language (or probably any other language) book before it. Spencer clearly loves the place he lives and the wines that grow nearby, and I learned a lot by reading it. But as a tool for those looking to truly get deep into what Etna has to offer, it comes up a little short in my opinion, perhaps by trying to be too many things at once and not truly succeeding at any of them.

Nonetheless, anyone interested in the wines of Mount Etna or the history of Sicilian wine growing will find something new and interesting to learn in its pages.

Benjamin North Spencer – The New Wines of Mount Etna: An Insider’s Guide to the History and Rebirth of a Wine Region – Gemelli Press 2020, $23.99 (Paperback). Buy from Amazon.