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The Appellations of Sicily

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

The wines of Etna : Etna Rosso ( Etna Red)

In recent years, Etna has become one of the most admired wine districts of Italy thanks to the finesse and the distinction of its Nerello Mascalese-based red wines. For most of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century, the province of Catania which includes the area around the Etna was focused in the production of bulk wine. The first sign of change occurred in the 90s when the Benanti Estate in conjunction with the renowned enologist Salvo Foti realized the potential of Etna unique growing environment for native varieties like Nerello Mascalese and Carricante.

As improbable as it seems, in the past two decades, dozens of winemakers— Italian and foreign— have planted vineyards here, in the black lava soil on slopes that broach an astounding 45 degrees. (The vintners acknowledge the danger from eruptions, but so far the lava flows have descended on a side of the mountain not covered in vineyards.) Some of those vineyards lie at elevations greater than 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) above sea level.

The sun here— as you might expect in Sicily— is bright.

But what seem decidedly un-Sicilian are the cold temperatures. Indeed, Mt. Etna’s chilly air and resulting late harvest (often as late as November) make the area ideal for snappy whites such as riesling and carricante, a local white grape that yields minerally, racy wines with resiny notes of fennel and citrusy notes of bergamot. In this extreme terroir, many vineyards are planted alberello (“ little tree” or “bush”) style, which is to say, without expensive trellising which, in any case, would be difficult to construct given the terrain. Graci’s Etna Bianco, primarily carricante, is a fantastic example of a wine made from the variety. And the Mt. Etna white that must be tasted for sheer exotic outrageousness is Frank Cornelissen’s MunJebel Bianco, a bold, almost orange-colored wine that smells like orange-spiced tea and tastes of mangoes, spices, ash, and minerals.

Mt. Etna’s reds are not for the faint of heart. The grape is usually blended with Nerello Cappuccio, a good match because the Mascalese is low in anthocyanins (color) while the Cappuccio is low in tannins. Mt. Etna reds are often very delicately colored (lighter even than pinot noir). But beware; what awaits your palate is a massive onslaught of chalky, dusty dryness and the sort of bitterness that oversteeped tea possesses. (I always feel as if someone has just stuffed wet clay in my mouth.) As the Italians might say: You really need to drink them with food. This is Etna signature wine. It must be made from a minimum of 80% of Nerello Mascalese.

Also locally called Niureddu, Nerello Mascalese’s name derives from Mascali, the plain northeast of the city of Catania that separates it from the sea, as well as from the name of a township north of Riposto near Catania, from where ships full of Nerello wine left for other shores. Sestini described the variety in 1760, placing it in the family of the Nigrelli varieties, and Geremia wrote about it in 1835.

One of the reasons that Etna’s wines can be so good is that many vines of Nerello Mascalese are old and pre-phylloxeric.

Etna Rosso is one of Italy’s most exciting wines today: the penetratingly pure aromas and flavors of sour red cherry (unlike the riper cherry of Nerello Cappuccio wines), tobacco, aromatic herbs, and minerals will make a believer of you. Nerello Mascalese wines express more herbs and tobacco than those made with Nerello Cappuccio, which tend to be slightly more floral (though flowers aren’t a typical descriptor of the wines made with either variety). Many find a Pinot Nero-like quality in Nerello Mascalese wines, and both grapes have a remarkable ability to translate even minute differences in terroir; not by chance is the Etna zone referred to as Italy’s Burgundy, with the many contrade, or sectors, of the volcano yielding remarkably different wines.

Furthermore, Etna's international profile received a particular boost in 2001 when Mick Hucknall (of British pop group Simply Red) established his Il Cantante winery there. Today, the terraces of alberello-trained bush vines are of age, and have contributed to the rising fortunes of Etna wines.

Pietradolce 'Vigna Barbagalli' Etna Rosso


Area of production:Contrada Rampante, Area "Barbagalli", Solicchiata. Northern slopes of Mount Etna.

Altitudine:900 mt a.s.l.

Grape variety:Nerello Mascalese.

Soil:Stony, light sandy loam.

Growing method:Bush (alberello) pre- phylloxera, 80-100 years old.

Harvest:Second ten days of October.

Clear garnet starting to mature. Delicate nose showing fine spice, a touch of leather and subtle stone fruits. Ethereal sensation on the palate with freshness, intensity and clear-cut aromas with a degree of austerity. Spicy finish with a vegetal touch. Keep.Aging:Tonneaux and bottle.

Girolamo Russo Feudo - Etna Rosso

The Girolamo Russo estate was founded in 2005 by Giuseppe Russo, in memory of his late father. The family are native of Passopisciaro, one of the key villages at the heart of the rebirth of Etna’s most important grape variety, Nerello Mascalese. This is the north face of Europe’s largest active volcano, Mount Etna, in the north-eastern corner of Sicily. The Russos have 26 hectares of land in and around Passopisciaro, with 15 hectares of vineyards surrounded by olive and hazelnut groves. The vineyards are high up, between 650 and 780 metres above sea level, inland from the beautiful town of Taormina. Many of the free-standing bush vines are over 80 years old, surviving in harmony with Etna’s black, mineral-rich volcanic soil. Giuseppe works the vineyards organically and makes the wines himself. He vinifies each parcel separately, seeking out their individual identities in a series of wines that reflect the diverse character of their terroirs.



VARIETY NERELLO MASCALESE with small amounts of Nerello Cappuccio

PRODUCTION AREA Contrada Feudo (Randazzo)




COLOUR Intense ruby red

NOSE Intense perfume of fresh fruit, cherries, and wild berries with notes of wild Mediterranean herbs

PALATE Full, very elegant, with a lively vein of acidity that keeps it fresh and vibrant, well structured, with lovely length

Tenuta delle Terre Nere

In front and to the right of the cellar in Calderara Sottana there are two parcels, in the midst of a larger vineyard that have survived phylloxera. They, therefore, are over 130 years old and stand on their original rootstock. In 2006 the winery decided to vinify the grapes from those parcels separately. 2006 was a splendid vintage, rather on the monumental side. These parcels yielded a wine of such unearthly finesse that, although the wine from the neighboring old vines was a real beauty, the Prephylloxera, displaying a very similar character, seemed to feed from heavenly pastures: the quintessence of Calderara. It is a bit shier and will need more time than its younger sibling.

I rarely advice decanting a wine, but in this case I do. Its elegance is measured, its authority understated, its sophistication effortless. A grand wine. I suggest many savoury fine courses in very moderate quantities. Allow the wine to grow as the dinner does.

Appellation: Etna Rosso D.O.C.

First released vintage: 2006

Production area: contrada Calderara, township of Randazzo (Catania)

Varietals of grapes: 98% Nerello mascalese, 2% Nerello cappuccio

Extension of the vineyard: 1 ha

Yield per hectare: 3-3,5 tons/ha

Characteristics of the soil: volcanic, shallow, rich in rocks, traces of ash

Exposure: northern slope of Mount Etna, 600 meters a.s.l.

Average age of the vines: the vines are previous to the phylloxera plague happened in late 1800

Type of cultivation: en goblet and modified en goblet

Harvest: first decade of October

Vinification: alcoholic fermentation under controlled temperature (28-30° C)

Aging: spontaneous malolactic fermentation and aging in French oak barriques, tonneaux.

Bottling after 16-18 months of wood aging and 1 month in steel.

Colour: intense ruby with mahogany hues

Nose: complex, with notes of wild flowers, red fruits and noble spices

Flavour: concentrated, but also balanced and elegant at the same time, long-lasting pleasure

Food matches: red meat, game, seasoned cheese

Suggested serving temperature: 18-20° C

Alcohol %:

This ends the Etna Rosso, of course there are many producers, the ones above are among the most successful and with that the most expensive ones. They will be easy to find in US, as the market is really growing exponentially for these wines. I strongly recommend to try them and finally add them to your wine memory bank. Next blog we will focus on the Etna white. At the end of February 2019 to first week of March 2019 we will travel to these regions, so follow us to have a more in depth personal experience on these wines and pictures of the area.



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