David 18 August 2016
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and one with a long and significant history. Medieval Sicily was a seat of culture and trade, with early 14th century Palermo home to 100,000 inhabitants. At that time only Venice and Milan boasted larger populations in the whole of Europe. The flipside is post WWII Sicily, marred by poverty, violence and the presence of the Mafia.
Sicily also has an incredible wine history, dating back over 3000 years. With its hot climate, it was renowned for many centuries for its sweet wines. Since the 1800s the island’s most famous wine has been its fortified Marsala, which more recently has fallen out of fashion. Modern Sicily is a powerhouse of the Italian wine industry, producing about 10% of the country’s wine. Until the 1980s though, most production was of bulk industrial wine, much of it used by Italy’s northern regions to beef up thinner cool climate wines.
The last few decades have seen big changes in Sicilian wine, especially since 2000 with the advent of EU grants. An influx of exciting new producers has seen significant improvement in quality as well as a reduction in quantity. These days Sicily offers many unique and interesting wines.
Sicily is blessed with many indigenous grape varieties, most of which are obscure. But a few are gaining worldwide recognition, most notably Nero d’Avola. It’s the island’s most planted and popular red variety and produces warm, robust reds. The other important, but lesser known red variety is Nerello Mascalese.
Nerello Mascalese (also known as Nerello Calabrese) is often referred to as the Burgundy of the Mediterranean. Described as a cross between Barolo (Nebbiolo) and Burgundy (Pinot Noir), it combines the elegance and aromatics of Pinot with the assertive tannins and acidity of Nebbiolo, giving it great structure. It's these seemingly contradictory characteristics that I find so attractive about Nerello Mascalese.Flavours associated with the variety are; red fruit, spice, cinnamon, dried herbs and floral notes. Decanter Magazine 2015 notes: “Nerello Mascalese is the main protagonist, producing pale reds with good structure, perfumed berry fruit, and wild, gamey flavours. Comparisons with Nebbiolo are apt – there’s a similar tension between highly strung acids and assertive yet refined tannins… making top wines that can be as regal, complex and ageworthy as anything further north.”
While Nerello Mascalese is grown in several areas of Sicily, it’s synonymous with the slopes of towering Mt Etna, one of the most exciting wine regions in the world. Etna is Europe’s highest volcano and, according to National Geographic, the world’s second most active after Kilauea in Hawaii. Serious eruptions within the last year sent lava 1km into the air. While not considered a threat to locals these days, in 1669 it killed about 20,000 people.
Known locally as ‘Mongibello’ or beautiful mountain, the brooding Mt Etna is a special place to grow grapes. The appellation covers around 3,000ha and is Sicily’s coolest wine region. Appellation rules stipulate that Etna Rosso DOC must constitute a minimum of80% Nerello Mascalese, the remainder of the blend made up of Nerello Cappuccio. Vineyards on Etna sit at altitudes between 600 and 1200m, high enough to soften the effects of the scorching Sicilian sun. Also significant are the unique mineral and ash-enriched soils which, when combined with warm days, cool nights and wide temperature variations, “endow the wines with extraordinary richness, minerality, fragrance and depth.”Melbourne based Italian wine expert Michael Trembarth.
Interestingly, while Phylloxera (an aphid like pest) wiped out most of Europe’s vines in the late 19th century, the louse was unable to take hold in Etna’s volcanic soils, so some of Europe’s oldest vines are found here. Many of these vineyards were abandoned after WWII, only to be revived in the last few decades as a new wave of dynamic winemakers rediscovered this treasure trove of 100-plus year old vines.
I’ve been interested in Nero Mascalese for quite a while but most of the good ones are pretty expensive and the affordable ones not that great. Then recently I came across this gem for less than $40. Definitely worth trying a bottle.
Pietradolce Etna Rosso 2014
Pietra dolce means ‘sweet stone’ - the estate’s acknowledgement of the importance of the unique volcanic soils of Etna to the quality of their wines. Pietradolce was founded in 2005 by Michele Faro and his family, near the town of Castiglione di Sicilia. They have 11 ha of beautiful vineyards, many terraced, on the prime northern slopes of Etna between 600 and 900m elevation. The vines are tended traditionally and without the use of chemicals and most are grown as traditional bushes without trellises.
In an incredibly short space of time Pietradolce has gained a reputation as one of the finest producers in Sicily, receiving praise from several high profile critics.
“Pietradolce is my new Etna darling. This estate has always been on my radar, but the wines have never tasted as good as they do now. Michele Faro and his team (winemaker Carlo Ferrini is a consultant) have made impressive leaps and bounds in quality - from the stunning historic vineyards they own to the immaculately designed gravity winery that is coated with slabs of volcanic stone… Pietradolce boasts some of the most beautiful vineyards I have ever seen.” Monica Larner, The Wine Advocate, September 2015.
Not only that, Gambero Rosso (Italy’s bible of wine) recently awarded Pietradolce’s flagship wine, the Vigna Barbagalli 2012 as its “2016 Red Wine of the Year.” The 2010 vintage of the same wine received 100 points from influential critic James Suckling. It’s clear these guys know how to make great wine.
The estate makes 3 Etna Rosso (reds), as well as an Etna Bianco (white) and an Etna Rosato (Rosé). This wine is the estate’s entry level Etna Rosso and is made from 100% Nerello Mascalese, hand-picked from one of the estate’s vineyards at 600m. After fermentation the wine was left to macerate on skins for 18 days before being soft pressed. It was then aged for only 3 months in lightly toasted, fine-grained, French oak barrels. The aim of the light touch of oak was to add complexity without losing the unique characters of the Nerello Mascalese.
The wine is a clear and bright, light garnet. On the nose it’s beautifully aromatic, initially with cherries, marzipan and prosciutto. On the palate it’s lively and fresh, with sour cherry, ripe tomato, almond, dark chocolate and quinine notes. As it opens up, it becomes more perfumed and sweeter berry fruit, vanilla, cedar and rosemary aromas emerge. Delicious, crisp and cleansing acidity gives bite, with lovely grippy tannins on the perfectly savoury finish. Terrific structure. This elegant, mid-weight wine is a pleasure to drink as you tuck into your favourite meal.
"There's a balance and refinement to this pretty wine with dried-cherry, berry and citrus rind undertones. Medium to full body, a solid core of fruit and a clean finish. Taste the unique character of Etna here. Drink now.” 93 points, James Suckling, October 2015.
By chance James Sucking visited Pietradolce a few months ago. You can see him talking with Michele Faro about his wines here and visiting the Barbagalli vineyard here.
This wine is a perfect introduction to the the magic of Etna Nerello Mascalese. The best around for this price.
I can offer it for $35 a bottle. Click here to order.