Wine Notes – In the Shadows of Mount Etna
The Bible tells us “there is nothing new under the sun.” But as I walk through the valley of trellised vineyards, I am pleased to be reminded that “ignorance is bliss” and that every place on Earth I look, I discover new wines.
These wines aren’t new, but they are new to me. I let my experiences guide my path and simply question things along the way, then obsess on a given subject. Recently, we had some guests over for dinner and I was assigned to make veal Marsala. Generally, I pick up Taylor Marsala at the grocery store because it’s cheap, but this time I decided that I would search for a “quality” bottle. I visited five wine stores and made a purchase at each. Most of the stores had only one inexpensive selection. Such was the case when I arrived at Andover Classic Wines, where store manager Andrea Lewis informed me that I wasn’t going to find any outstanding Marsala, but she did have some other wines from Sicily that were really hot, and, speaking of hot, were produced in the shadow of the second most active volcano on the planet: Mount Etna.
The volcano, located on the east coast of Sicily, has been displaying its fiery fury this year and depositing ash on the surrounding landscape. You’ve likely heard of the eruptions, but do you know about the explosive popularity of Etna DOC wines? The Etna DOC (“designation of controlled origin”) was established in 1968 as the first Sicilian wine region. For many years, high volume bulk wine was the region’s focus, but the past 10 to 15 years have brought a growing interest in higher quality production. The results are noteworthy. The high mineral content created by ash deposits and lava rocks, mountain elevation and favorable microclimates with hot days and cool nights make this region of Italy unique.
Nerello mascalese is the dominant red grape in the region. By DNA comparison, it’s a cousin to sangiovese, but the qualities revealed from this wine grape are a combination of the tannic strength of nebbiolo and the fruitiness of pinot noir. I purchased a mixed case of wine from the Mount Etna region and blind-tasted each selection so the technical notes wouldn’t influence my findings. Initially, I noted a surprising consistency in Etna Rosso, which I later discovered was partially due to the DOC requirement that nerello mascalese must be at least 80% of the varietal. The wines were very structured, containing strong tannins and plenty of dark fruit flavors. The Etna Rosso to pair with lamb or spicy tomato sauce. My two favorites, which were both 100% nerello mascalese, were Etna Rosso Graci ($33.99) and Etna Rosso Alta Mora ($29.99).
Carricante is the premier white grape varietal in the Etna DOC, and each bottle must contain at least 60% in the blend. If the vines are in the commune of Milo, and are at least 80% carricante, the wine can be rated as “superiore.” I am always suspect when I read the English equivalents of words such as superiore and reserva on a U.S. wine label, but in Italy and other European countries the use of such terms is strictly regulated by law. I enjoyed the Vulka Etna Bianco, which was a standard 60% carricante, but my favorite Etna Bianco was from Barone di Villagrande vineyards. The blend is 90% carricante grown in Milo, but the label didn’t indicate it was designated superiore. Why not?
Alfonso Caltagirone of Barone di Villagrande explains: “The DOC of Mount Etna was born in [our] winery. Professor Carlo Nicolosi [Asmundo of the Nicolosi Asmundo family that has controlled the vineyards since the 18th century] is the man that wrote the DOC disciplinary, and so the superiore concept could be applied only to the carricante from Milo.” He continues: “The 2019 vintage showed a total acidity a couple of decimals higher than the standards dictated by the DOC disciplinary and thus we decided to maintain it with its acidity. … It was a decision to show that the vintage here still matters in terms of difference from year to year and that our wines show the signs of the year’s conditions.”
I will continue my vicarious Sicilian journey to the Italian west coast, where Marsala is located, and search for quality wine from that region. Meanwhile, I was pleasantly distracted by the Etna Rosso and Etna Bianco. These wines can be challenging to locate, but you’ll find a great selection at Andover Classic Wines. Salute!
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