Nerello Mascalese is as capable of producing robust, tannic wines as it is able to give delicate reds of great elegance. This Nerello from Grottafumata, on the southern face of Etna, falls in the latter camp, with low alcohol and vivid flavors of red fruit. The hints of cracked pepper, smoke, and sour cherry come into perfect focus with a nice chill, making this vibrant red the ideal substitute for a cru Beaujolais when you’re leaning more Italian.
Grottafumata means “smoky caves,” named for the caves formed by a nearby river that has eaten through the lava and the smoke from naturally occurring sulfur in the lava that steams up from the caves. Mauro and Mariangela have won many awards for their olive oil in Italy and we can see why. It is an incredible all-around oil—herbaceous and savory with a light touch and it tends to go well with everything. Their wine project is on the opposite eastern slope of Mount Etna. The contrada where their vines are located is called Monte Ilice, situated between the towns of Trecastagni and Zafferana Etnea. Monte Ilice is an absolutely incredible slope, due east, that rises at least at a 45-degree angle, high on the slopes of Etna at 700 to 840 meters above sea level. Grottafumata works 1.4 hectares here, along with the help of the landowner who is in his eighties and still works the vines with his brother. Many of the vines are franchi di piede (planted on their own rootstock) and up to 100 years old.
Italy’s southernmost region and the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily has no shortage of sunshine to grow high-quality grapes on a yearly basis. It also does not lack a history of winemaking: since the Greeks settled here almost three millennia ago, the vine has played a major role in the island’s agricultural makeup. Production of cheap bulk wine for blending dominated much of its recent history until now, as we are witnessing a quality revolution that puts forth its great diversity and quality of terroirs, indigenous grape varieties, and local production methods.
While Sicily’s historical reputation is for sweet wines—Marsala and the Muscats of Pantelleria stand out—a number of dry whites and reds are enjoying the spotlight today. The cooler, high-altitude slopes of Etna, with its ashy volcanic soils, have seen an explosion of activity from producers both local and foreign; both whites (primarily from Carricante) and reds (Nerello Mascalese) here are capable of uncommon freshness and finesse. Other noteworthy wine regions are Eloro, where Nero d’Avola gives its best; Noto, an oasis of dry and sweet Moscatos; Vittoria, with its supple, perfumed Frappatos; and Salina, where Malvasia makes thirst-quenching dry whites and deliciously succulent passiti.
Countless foreign invasions over the centuries have given Sicilian architecture and cuisine a unique exotic twist, making it a fascinating destination for gourmands as well as wine importers. With a wealth of dedicated artisans proud to show off the riches of their land, you can bet there are many exciting things still to come from this incredible island.
I want you to realize once and for all: Even the winemaker does not know what aging is going to do to a new vintage; Robert Parker does not know; I do not know. We all make educated (hopefully) guesses about what the future will bring, but guesses they are. And one of the pleasures of a wine cellar is the opportunity it provides for you to witness the evolution of your various selections. Living wines have ups and downs just as people do, periods of glory and dog days, too. If wine did not remind me of real life, I would not care about it so much.
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