A romantic escape, a weekend away with friends… Fiona Sims provides some much-needed inspiration for 2021 after the cancellation of so many travel plans last year, picking four vibrant European destinations that wine lovers will love
Italy: Etna, Sicily
As well as making headlines for its regular pyrotechnic displays, Mount Etna also produces seriously exciting wines – Nerello Mascalese is the red grape king here, and Carricante the indigenous white that reigns supreme. The winemaking heartland on Etna’s prized northern slopes is a 40-minute drive from Taormina. And it’s buzzing. Just 25 years ago there were only four wineries on Etna – now there are 137. Harvests are nerve-wrackingly late, at an incredible elevation. It’s no wonder that wine tourists are beating a path to its producers’ doors. Alongside traditional wineries hewn from black lava stone, there are architectural wonders, such as Pietradolce’s modern winery, blending stylishly into the hillside, with its panoramic views, just a short hop from your equally stylish hotel.
Enjoy excellent wood-fired pizzas at winemaker hangout Cave Ox in Solicchiata, and try local wines from its impressive wine list, then sleep among Etna’s trademark Nerello Mascalese bush vines at bucolic wine farm Tenuta di Fessina, a five-minute drive away.
Eric Narioo, co-founder of UK-based merchant Les Caves de Pyrene, makes personality-filled wines at Vino di Anna with his Australian wife Anna Martens. You can visit their winery in Solicchiata by appointment (email is best), an arrangement you will have to get used to on Etna, where you can expect to pay from about £25 per person. The big names in wine here include Marco de Grazia and his Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Passopisciaro’s Andrea Franchetti and silver-haired Belgian ex-pat Frank Cornelissen, whose controversial views and wines divide critics and consumers alike.
Try one of Narioo’s favourite local restaurants, Terra Mia (+39 393 906 9704), in the country near Solicchiata, where you can feast on pasta with wild fennel pesto, roast black Nebrodi pork and local ricotta with chopped almonds, pistachios and chestnut honey.
Drive to Randazzo along Etna’s newly tarmacked roads (thanks to the volcano’s frequent belching), past vineyards planted on the mountainside on steep terraces, set among oak and chestnut forests, hazelnuts and apple trees. Built almost entirely of lava stone, Randazzo is the closest town to the volcano’s summit, but it has never been fully engulfed. Stroll the dark medieval streets before stopping for an early evening snifter.
Enjoy an aperitif at Il Buongustaio, nibbling on local cheeses and meats before moving on to dinner at gem of a family-run trattoria San Giorgio e Il Drago, feasting on grandma’s handmade tonnacchioli (pasta) with wild mountain greens and rabbit cooked with tomatoes, olives and capers.
Visit another key Solicchiata producer, such as Alberto Graci, who makes elegant wines at his beautifully renovated palmento (mill). Nearby Palmento Costanzo, also stunningly renovated, produces wines within the Parco dell’Etna itself. If you want to peek into the mighty crater, then guided hikes are available with Etna Experience, plus there are shorter guided walks around the lower slopes combined with winery visits.
Head back towards Catania and Etna’s eastern slopes via lunch in Linguaglossa at Dai Pennisi, a superior butcher with a kitchen (they also run a highly regarded gastronomic restaurant with rooms, Shalai Resort), before continuing on to the little town of Zafferana Etnea.
Zafferana Etnea boasts an astonishing 700 honey producers, thanks to the lush plants that proliferate alongside the vines, the slopes thick with lemon and chestnut trees. Just north of town, call in on Palmento Caselle, with charismatic winemaker Salvo Foti, regarded as the godfather of Etna, who believes in the most traditional practices in the vineyard and winery. He is one of the few actually still using the ancient palmento system for vinification, involving manual harvesting, a screw press in stone and wood, and open fermenters with indigenous yeasts.
On the other side of Zafferana Etnea, splash the cash at Relais & Châteaux property Monaci delle Terre Nere, a baroque-style manor house, bagging a table for dinner at its local produce-trumpeting Locanda Nerello.
Pay a visit to pioneering producer Benanti, where a new generation is continuing to shake things up after founder Giuseppe Benanti put Etna wines on the map in 1990 – with help at the time from talented young Sicilian oenologist Salvo Foti. To get a sense of Etna’s wine evolution, sign up for its ‘library vintages’ experience, which also includes a food pairing.