The best way to gain an understanding of a wine is to go where it’s made. Meet the people who produce it. Explore the vineyards. Experience the overall landscape. Smell the air of the region. And taste the wines along with the winemakers. Some may say that’s the only way to understand a wine.
I recently had a chance to do just that on a trip to visit the Mt. Etna DOC in Sicily. The trip was only a few days, so I can’t say that I truly, thoroughly know the wines. But I, along with about fifteen other wine writers, got a great introduction to the region of Mt. Etna, its people and the wines they create.
A couple weeks ago I published an overview of one of the wines we discovered there, Etna Bianco. And now I want to introduce you to another gem from the region, Etna Rosso.
Etna Rosso is a complex and exciting wine, filled with spice and character. At times, it can be edgy and daring… and that’s one of the things I love about it. It typically offers an interesting and harmonious blend of spice, bright fruit, herbs and earthiness. At its best, it’s magical. Etna Rosso has the character and personality that gets me excited about wine.
The Terroir of Mt. Etna
You might say that Etna Rosso is a reflection of the landscape, the people and the culture of Mt. Etna. After all, isn’t that what terroir is really about? Some might think that terroir is just a fancy, romantic concept that wine producers use to sell their wine, but I think there’s a legitimacy to it. It’s a combination of all the influences on a grape besides the vine itself. The climate, the soil, the exposure and the elevation, but also the people are all part of what makes a terroir. If you change any of those factors you’ll have a different wine. So then, what makes the terroir of Mt. Etna?
One of the first things I noticed in Mt. Etna was the aromatics. Walking through the vineyards of Etna, one can’t help but be overcome by the intense and delightful fragrances from the herbs and flowers scattered across the landscape. Oregano, citronella and other herbs and flowers are found everywhere. And after tasting the wines, one can’t help but think that the fragrances from these plants somehow make their way into the wines as Etna Rosso offers some of the same herbal aromatics.
The vineyards themselves are beautiful, wild, rugged, romantic and tough all at once. Many of the vineyards are too steep for mechanical harvesting, meaning that all work must be done by hand. Some vineyards that we visited required driving up steep, pit-filled lava roads in 4-wheel drive jeeps and others required us to climb steep trails by foot.
Although many vineyards are now using more contemporary trellising, it’s also common to find vines grown with the traditional “albarello” (goblet) style training.
There’s a wildness to some of the vineyards, where albarello style vines are mixed in with herbs, bushes, nut trees and flowers in a chaotic but beautiful manner.
Many of the vineyards are terraced, using lava stones pulled from the soil. In one vineyard we visited they had removed so many stones from the soil that they used them to build a “torretta” ( a stone platform) where we stopped for a wine tasting.
Wine producers here credit the minerals in the volcanic soil for much of the characteristics found in the wine.
Lava stones of all sizes are scattered throughout the vineyards and we were told that they fall from the sky whenever the volcano burps—which happens fairly often. Although Mt. Etna is a very active volcano, there isn’t a sense of impending doom from it in the vineyards, despite its intimidatingly massive size. Eruptions are common, but destructive pyroclastic and lava flows are not.
The vines are hearty. Most vineyards we visited, if not all, had vines that were 80-100 years old or more. We were shown one vine in one of Salvo Foti’s vineyards that we were told is over 200 years old.
The people of Mt. Etna are equally hearty, although not quite as old. It’s backbreaking work to maintain any vineyard, but add the steep grades in Etna along with the manual labor and I don’t know how they do it. But winemakers we met, such as Alberto Graci, Salvo Foti, Ciro Biondi, Marc de Grazia, Giuseppe Benanti and others seem to thrive on it.
There’s a true excitement about the wine that exudes from the winemakers here. While Etna has a long history connected to wine, the region has been experiencing a rebirth of its vineyards over the past 30 years and the current generation of winemakers have a seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm to push these wines further. They strive to preserve history, while adopting contemporary winemaking techniques where it makes sense to improve the quality of their wines. It’s all about balance.
Creating Etna Rosso is an art and I met a number of vintners who saw a synergy between art and their wine. Most notable were the producers at Al-Cantàra, who name their wines after Sicilian poems and have collaborated with hundreds of artists to develop artwork that reflects the poetry and the wine.
The Deliciousness of Etna Rosso
Etna Rosso is made primarily from Nerello Mascalese. Wine must be at least 80% Nerello Mascalese in order to be labeled as Etna Rosso DOC. This grape gives the wine its structure with rich tannins and vibrant acidity, but it also adds plenty of spicy and aromatic fruit.
And when it comes to fun grape names to pronounce, it doesn’t get much better than this. In case you don’t know it, the pronunciation is, neh-REHL-oh MAHS-kah-LEH-zeh.
A study done in 2008 suggests that Nerello Mascalese is related to Sangiovese, but it definitely has developed it’s own unique character.
The other main grape found in Etna Rosso is Nerello Cappuccio, which is also fun to say. It’s primarily added to take the edge off the potentially aggressive tannins from the Nerello Mascalese and to brighten up the color.
Nerello Mascalese tends to create a rather brownish wine while Nerello Cappuccio is more of a purplish-red. The brown hue from Nerello Mascalese is even visible in the ripe grapes themselves. And when looking at a glass of wine with a significant amount of Nerello Mascalese you might think it’s much older than it is, just due to the color.
My first impressions of Etna Rosso was that it reminded me of a Barolo, but a little more approachable. It offers similar spices, flavors, tannins and acidity, prompting me nickname the wine “nebbiolo junior.” But different from Barolo, Etna Rosso doesn’t need as much time in the bottle before it’s ready to consume. You might say Etna Rosso matures more quickly, but that’s not to say it can’t handle aging.
Going through my notes I found a lot of common themes, such as cherry, rasperry, powerful aromatics, bright acidity and tons of spice. It can be quite challenging to describe the nuances that distinguish one wine from the next and words like cherry, raspberry and spice just don’t do enough to explain what makes a wine stand out. It’s the balance, the harmony, the texture, the subtle surprises that make a wine special. And sometimes you can’t put that something special into words.
Regardless of the fact that my words can’t do enough to tell the full story of these wines, here are a few that stood out as something special, something to get excited about, something to remember.
Benanti, Serra della Contessa, Etna Rosso DOC 2004
This wine exudes the character of Mt. Etna with deep, earthy aromatics like smoky mushrooms harmoniously counterbalanced by red plums and vanilla. The palate brings dense raspberry flavors with plenty of spice and firm tannins. The finish is seemingly never ending and delightful.
Tenuta Monte Ilice, Etna Rosso 2010
The complexity on the nose of this wine makes it interesting, offering cedar, leather, violet and plum aromatics. The palate is loaded with tasty raspberry flavors and spices. The tannins and acidity are perfect. It finishes long with a raspberry tea quality.
Al-Cantàra, O’Scuro O’Scuro, Etna Rosso DOC 2008
The artists at Al-Cantàra created a masterpiece with this wine, offering intense aromas of cherry and raspberry spiced with nutmeg and vanilla. It also shows some cured meat aromatics. The palate brings chewy red berry flavors balanced with a touch of earthiness. Enjoy this wine with charcuterie.
Girolamo Russo, A’Rina, Etna Rosso DOC 2010
Fresh and spicy red raspberry give this wine a bright and refreshing nose. Lively acidity makes the palate sing too, offering plenty of bright raspberry and cherry flavors. This one is all about the vibrant fruit flavors. The mouthfeel is nice too and the finish is relatively long.
Cottanera, Etna Rosso DOC 2008
Powerful floral fragrances give the wine a wow factor while red raspberry, cherry and nutmeg aromatics round it out. The acidity of this wine is superb, adding vibrancy to the cherry, raspberry and red plum flavors. And, of course, there’s plenty of spice on the palate too. Simply put, this is a lovely wine.
Tenuta della Terre Nere, Etna Rosso DOC 2011
This is the one that stood out above all the others for me. I had to keep going back to taste it again and again as it was simply amazing! The nose abounds with floral and red plum aromatics that have stratospheric intensity. It’s fascinating, harmonious and exciting. The palate brings what’s best described as “deliciousness.” The complex medley of raspberry, strawberry, plum and spice flavors are lively, dense and evocative. It finishes with a long raspberry tea flavor.
Although I geeked out over this wine and found it to be delightful, I actually found it a little challenging with food. The powerful aromatics and spices make it compete with some foods. Therefore, I’d recommend either enjoying this wine by itself or with simple cheeses.
Crasale, Etna Rosso DOC 2008
The nose of this wine is sexy and aggressive, offering a complex medley of intense nutmeg, cherry and raspberry offset with soft mushroom and a floral twist. Dense tannins and vibrant acidity give the wine an incredible mouthfeel. Concentrated raspberry and cherry flavors are coupled with intriguing spices. The finish is long and spicy.
Nicosia, Fondo Filara, Etna Rosso DOC 2010
This is a beautiful wine, overflowing with violet, herb, raspberry and plum aromas. The palate is really well balanced, offering spicy raspberry and red plum flavors with herbal notes adding to the complexity. Chewy tannins give it a nice mouthfeel. Licorice, nutmeg and cherry flavors linger on the finish.
Disclosure: I tasted the wines of Etna as a part of a sponsored blogger tour of the region, organized by Consorzio Tutela Vini Etna D.O.C.. My travel and accommodations were provided by the sponsor.