Terraces of the Etna

Valeria Coglitore · 8 April 2020 · News

What they are and how they are made

The terraces on the Etna adorn the landscape and facilitate the work of farmers for millennia; they are part of the farming tradition and in the vineyards of Palmento Martinella too they are visible at any gradient change. But what are the terraces of the Etna? Find it out in this informative article provided by the Emilio Sciacca Etna Wine.

How were born the terraces

Have you ever wondered why traveling around the world is it possible to see terraces in so many different places? From Peru to China, passing through Spain, Italy, Croatia, and many other countries, there are terraces wherever there are hills or mountains. This is because, faced with a problem, different populations in different historical moments have reached the same solution. This is what historians call adaptive convergence.  

What are the terraces for

Terraces are systems that make suitable for cultivation hilly or mountainous areas that would otherwise be unusable. They are mainly used to reduce the soil erosion due to heavy rainfall and landslides, but also to facilitate the work for farmers.

Heavy rains in particular, can take away several inches of soil, those on the surface; consequently, without proper terracing, the farmers’ work is likely to be totally unproductive. 

Terraces are therefore an attempt to flatten steep slope terrains, by forming various steps delimited by dry stone walls.

How the terraces of the Etna are made

It all starts with the construction of the dry stone walls (recently officially recognised as UNESCO World Heritage), that is probably the hardest part. The construction technique is quite simple, but it requires a lot of manual skill and patience. The dry stone walls must follow the morphology of the soil and be at the proper height: i.e. the height of a wall must not exceed the base of the one positioned at the higher level of the ground.

After calculating well where it will be placed and how high should it be, you can start the actual construction of the structure. There are no standard rules, it can vary a lot depending on the region, but it mostly depends on the type of terrain and on the stone to use.

There is no need to use any type of bonding agent as mud or cement to hold the wall, therefore it must be based on a very solid ground. For this reason, before proceeding with the construction, it is dug a ditch all along the perimeter where it will be built the wall. The depth of the ditch varies according to the type of soil: since the aim is to reach a more solid layer, it can be a few centimeters deep as well as several tens.

Terraces of the Etna
Terraces of the Etna and Palmento Martinella

Afterward, the stones are placed, but only after having squared them. In setting up the wall, you start by placing the heaviest stones at the bottom and then increasingly the lighter ones by going up in heights, leaving the smallest ones aside and then use them to cover the interstices. A badly constructed dry stone wall will collapse in a short time. Once built the dry stone walls, you will then need to fill the areas delimited by the walls, and the terrace will be ready. Nowadays, efforts are made to create terraces with wider steps in order to allow the passage of agricultural machinery.

Terraces in Italy and on Etna

When thinking about Italy, whether you think of the Tuscany hills or the Amalfi coast, the crops on the slopes of Etna or those in the Cinque Terre, you think about terraces. Italy, in fact, is one of the places where this practice is widely spread. By putting together all the terraces in Italy, it could be covered the distance between the earth and the moon.

The reason for such spreading in Italy is due to the fact that a large part of the agricultural land is located close to the two main mountain ranges that cover the entire peninsula: the Alps and the Apennines. These mountain ranges and hills associated with orogenesis, make large areas of the Italian territory impossible to cultivate without adequate terracing. Particularly, the regions where the terraces are most widespread are Liguria and Sicily. 

In Liguria approximately 8% of the whole agricultural land is terraced, representing the region with the highest percentage of terraced areas in Italy. To better understand the dimensions, by aligning all the dry stone walls of Liguria you can get to make a round of the earth.

Sicily has the highest number of terraced hectares of land in Italy, more than 63000. Among the areas of Sicily most covered by terraces, there is Etna. Along its slopes it is possible to see vine and olive yards built on terraces hundreds years old, giving life to an ancient and deep-rooted wine tradition.

Dry stone walls
Dry stone walls of Palmento Martinella

In 2017 the Emilio Sciacca Etna Wine invested heavily in the recovery of the agricultural and landscape heritage by repairing the terracing of the whole area of Palmento Martinella. A total of 17 terraces have therefore been restored and built using the classic dry stone wall system. The unique landscape beauty mixes with the great value of this antique agricultural technique, that still today is of huge importance both for the protection of the soil and for the production and maintenance capacity of the vineyard itself.