Nerello Mascalese – Etna’s star red 

Nerello Mascalese has led something of a double life.  On the one hand it has been an anonymous, high yielder in Sicily in general. In this persona it ends up in rosés, simple reds and sparkling wine (or indeed formerly in the EU wine lake).  On the other it has become the subject of massive interest in the particular conditions of Mount Etna to produce a new star in the Italian wine firmament. In its first life it can produce a whacking 230-270 hl/ha. On Etna some very old, even pre-phylloxera, low-yielding vines, grown at 700-900 metres of altitude, contribute to wines of real quality.  Because there is less call for volume at any price now, the plantings on Sicily as a whole are falling (currently 3,400ha), even in the midst of the Etna boom.  

Why the excitement over a long-established variety?  It is I am sure partly the lure of volcano. Even on a perfect sunny day, Etna in the middle distance, smoking politely, is an awesome sight. The black dust from recent minor eruptions can be seen everywhere.  It reminds us how insignificant our lives are, how powerless we are in the face of nature’s raw force.  And from a vinous point of view, Nerello Mascalese, like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese (to which it is related), both requires expert handling in the vineyard and expresses terroir.  The plant is naturally vigorous and so must be short pruned to produce high quality grapes. Leaf picking is critical as without it on cooler sites on Etna it just will not ripen.  It needs a long season in any case. And it demands constant supervision and attention as it is prone to common vine diseases.  But when it is well grown on the right sites it can produce savoury, elegant and even haunting wines.  Ian d’Agata summarises the flavour profile as penetratingly pure aromas and flavours of sour red cherry, tobacco and aromatic herbs with mineral notes.  And in terms of elegance, it can’t hurt that it is pale ruby in colour quickly going to garnet, another reminder of Pinot and Nebbiolo.  

For the purposes of this report I will focus on the three wineries that I visited in early July 2016.  But I also enjoyed Nerello Mascalese from other estates and from other places.  Particular mentions go to Fazio’s 2015 Terre Siciliane IGT (grown in Erice about as far from Etna as you can get on the island for a simple, everyday, version), Firriato’s Cavanera 2011 (Etna: beautiful spice and sour cherry), Feudo Montoni’s Rosato (a rosé from fruit from the heart of inland Sicily), and the complexity of Graci, Quota 600, 2011 (Etna).   

Cottanera, Solichiatta

Cottanera has a history going back to the 1970s and was completely restored in the 1990s.  The estate has a sizeable 64 hectares of vineyards with a range of varieties. The really unusual wine is their Mondeuse, one of Syrah’s parents, which showed a proper l pepper note (a cliché I know), rich fruit and then grippy tannins.  But here we will concentrate on the wines made from Nerello including a Metodo Classico to boot: 

Metodo Classico, 100% Nerello Mascalese NV, from fruit from 2010 and 2011, second fermentation in bottle in 2011 and disgorged in 2014.  At just 1,400 bottles this is a bit of an experiment.  This sparkler works pretty well – lemon fruit, fresh yeast, herbal notes.  Ripe lemon fruit makes the taste rounded and a worthy if local sparkler.  

Barbazzale Rosso, 2015, aged only in stainless steel and mostly Nerello Mascalese with a bit of Nerello Capuccio. The latter is the typical minor blender on Etna which is a bit deeper in colour and a bit fruitier than its more famous relative.  This wine is a big production, 100,000 bottles and one third of the entire estate’s output.  Vibrant ruby colour, attractive raspberry and cranberry to the fore, a touch of mineral restraint. Very good.  

Etna Rosso 2012, 13% – 100% Nerello Mascalese: elegant red fruit, much more mineral and earthy, herbal on the finish, excellent concentration and balanced with bright acidity. Aged in large barrels only.  

Etna Rosso 2008, 13.5%, was then aged in a mixture of tonneaux and large casks. In the intervening years it has developed interesting clove, mulberry and liquorice themes, with a very fine soft landing, outstanding.  There is no doubt that this variety can age in the bottle. 

Tenuta di Fessina, Rovitella 

While Nerello Mascalese is the prime grape on Etna, it is often blended with Nerello Cappuccio. For example, for Etna Rosso DOC while the better known Nerello must be a minimum 80% of the blend, Cappuccio can be up to 20%.  In this role, as we have seen, it offers a bit more depth of colour and some bright, red-berried fruit.  Tenuta di Fessina are currently top grafting Cappuccio on to Mascalese vines for a reason which illustrates one of the challenges of wine production on Etna.  At the moment the estate has access to 90-year old Nerello Cappuccio but this is a leased vineyard so they cannot guarantee supply for the future nor have they the rights to replant when that is necessary. Despite the gold-rush-like fever on Etna, there are still many hectares owned by local families – and long may it continue thus.  

Rosato Erse, 2015, 12.5% – a first rosé for Tenuta di Fessina, made with a blend of the two Nerelli in a small production of 3,100 bottles. Cold maceration for 48 hours, short time on the skins for that lovely colour (picture above) – pale copper with an orange tinge; melon, pomegranate and raspberry fruit, quite full bodied with a pleasant grippiness on the palate.  A good experiment.

Erse, Etna Rosso, 2014, 13.5% – an 80/20 blend.   Made to be fresh and drinkable and named after Erse, the Greek god of dew. Classic early drinking red wine fermentation – fruit from younger vines, 10-15 days total on the skins, some pump overs and delestage, aged in stainless steel.  Perfumed, raspberry and rhubarb fruit, moderate but quite firm tannins.  ‘Hard to vinify, easy to drink’ was our guide’s comment.  

Laeneo, Nerello Cappuccio, Sicilia IGT, 2014, 12.5% – a chance to taste Nerello Cappuccio on its own!  Mid ruby in colour – i.e. much deeper than Mascalese-dominant wines – moderately aromatic, violet, blackberry and plum notes, evident but moderate tannins.  

Il Musmeci, Etna Rosso Riserva, 2011, 14% – 95% Nerello Mascalese and 5% Nerello Cappuccio.  Named in honour not of a Greek god but of the owner who looked after the Fessina vineyards and whose work we can now enjoy from these 80-year old vines.  Fruit from the best old vines and selected down to berry level, vinified in stainless steel and aged for 18-20 months in oak, 50% in tonneaux and 50% in larger format.  Pale strawberry colour already tending towards garnet.  Lovely evolved nose with wild strawberry, camomile, meaty and leather themes; evident ripeness on the palate with fine, still youthful tannic structure; long, peppery finish. Very impressive.  

Benanti, Viagrande 

Benanti is one of the original three commercial wineries on Etna, though it its current manifestation it was founded as recently as 1988.  Of course viticulture on Etna goes back for centuries but the modern growth is astonishing: from 3 in 1998 to 131 today in 2016.  It likes to see itself as the pioneer of fine wine on the volcano, under the guidance of consultant enologist Salvo Foti and certainly the wines are of a very high quality.  70% is exported.  The lovely old property and historic palmento (traditional winery with open-top vessels) is on the south side of the mountain at Viagrande. The Serra della Contessa vineyard is also to be found here, 440-490 metres above (the very visible) sea level.  This vineyard was registered in 1910 and probably predates that and has many 90-100 year old vines.  Also on the south side of Etna they have vines at Santa Maria di Licodia (900-950m), on the east side at Milo (800m) and then on the north side at Rovittello (750 metres).  So they have vineyards on all the (vinously) important slopes of Etna.  

Nerello Cappuccio, Sicilia IGT, 2012, 13.5%  – like London buses, you never get to taste Nerello Cappuccio and then two come along in one afternoon.  Grown on bush vines in a recently planted (2006) vineyard. Medium ruby, savoury blackberry and cranberry fruit, nicely framed if in a lean and elegant style, good intensity, intended for early consumption or short term ageing.  

Nerello Mascalese, Sicilia IGT, 2013, 13.5% – from the ‘younger’ vines, i.e., 60-year olds, aged for 12 months in tonneaux. Very precise red berried fruit, an elegance and versatility which would make this a match for many foods (cf. Cabernet Franc in the Loire), fine tannic structure and good length.  

Rovittello, Etna Rosso DOC, 2012, 14% – the two Nerelli blended here from the older vines which produce perhaps three bunches per bush vine (600-700g).  Markedly floral, superb red berried fruit, fine if powerful tannic structure, very good length.  Aged for 18 months in 1,500 litre casks and only released after three and a half years.  

Serra della Contessa, Etna Rosso DOC, 2006, 14% – single vineyard wine from the old bush vines, some ungrafted, adjacent to the property.  Concentrated blackberry and plum fruit overlaid with leather and clove, fairly grippy; lacks elegance of the Rovittello 2012 but has real depth.  (The wine making has changed in recent years with a move from tonneaux and barriques for this wine to large casks.)  

It should now be clear that at least a good deal of the hype surrounding wines from Etna, both white and red, is well founded.  Nerello Mascalese definitely has a range of interesting, even fascinating, nuances to explore and we will learn more about its ability to ageing in interesting ways in the coming decade.  Italy … and Sicilia … has a new star red variety.  

 

 

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