Sicilia’s Mount Etna – One of the Most Thrilling Locations on the Italian Winemaking Scene
The tallest active volcano on the European continent, nearly 11,000 feet high, Sicily’s Mount Etna supports extensive orchards and vineyards on its lower slopes, blessed with fertile volcanic soils. Wine Guide Gambero Rosso describes the area as “one of the most thrilling locations on the Italian winemaking scene, attracting attention and investment from the rest of Sicily and beyond.” American importers of Italian wines are all scrambling to include a Mount Etna winery in their portfolios so that they can bring these extraordinary wines to the United States. San Francisco Bay Area importer Oliver McCrum is now representing the organically farmed Girolamo Russo estate on the north side of Etna near the town of Passopisciaro. Giuseppe Russo was a concert pianist before taking over the family business in 2005 after his father Girolamo died in 2003. He cultivates Nerello Mascalese, the noble grape of Mount Etna, which makes complex wines from the complex volcanic soils of the area. The reds show an impressive delicacy as well as great structure. Giuseppe Russo farms 15 hectares of vines in three different crus, San Lorenzo, Feudo, and Feudo d’Mezzo. Many of the vines are around 100 years of age. The winery produces just 2000 cases of wine. The Etna Rosso Feudo won the coveted Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri award in 2007 and again in 2010, while the Etna Rosso San Lorenzo won the award in 2009.
Antica Tenuta del Nanfro
Antica Tenuta del Nanfro is located in Sicilia near the ancient city of Caltagirone, which had been dominated by the Arabs first and then the Normans, who left behind rich palaces, the cathedral and several churches, the Nobles Club house, the City Hall near the theater, the Bourbon prison now a museum and the marvelous Santa Maria Steps. In the 19th Century, grandfather Lo Certo ran a wine shop, where Sicilian gourmets and wine connoisseurs would come to buy and taste the best local wines. He then purchased land in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria district, planted vineyards, and began to make his own wine. Today, the wine shop is run by Lo Certo’s son Nino Lo Certo, and the winery is managed by his grandson Concetto Lo Certo. Organically farmed, the Nanfro estate covers 49 hectares, 7 hectares planted to olive groves and 37 hectares planted to vineyards, including the red grapes Frappato di Vittoria and Nero d’Avola and to the white grapes Inzolia, Chardonnay, and Grillo.
Since the late 1800s, the Mancini family has been cultivating grapes on the island of Sardegna in the heart of the Gallura growing area. In 2002, Giovanni Mancini founded Cantina Pedres so that he could make wine from the family’s own vineyards instead of selling the grapes to others. The family owns 100 acres at an altitude of 1000 feet, located in the municipalities of Monti and Calangianus, where they cultivate the wines of the region, mostly Vermentino di Gallura, but also Moscato di Sardegna, and Cannonau di Sardegna. They also grow very small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sirah, and Sangiovese. The Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Thilibass was honored with Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri award in 2009 and 2010.
Italian Wines of the Month
Cantina Pedres – 2009 Cannonau
This delicious wine is very smooth, maybe too smooth if you like your reds more textured. But what the Pedres Cannonau lacks in structure, it makes up with intensely spicy aromas and flavors. Typically, Cannonau di Sardegna has soft tannins and lighter pigmentation and, in other parts of the world, is most often used in blends. In the Southern Rhone and California, Cannonau is called Grenache and is currently inspiring much interest among California winemakers. Widely planted throughout the world, Grenache nevertheless takes on different qualities in the regions where it is grown. In Spain, Cannonau or Grenache is called Garnacha and is usually blended with Tempranillo although the Spaniards also make Garnacha as a single varietal wine. Serve this versatile wine at cool room temperature. You might even chill it for a short time in the refrigerator.
Cantina Pedres – 2011 Vermentino Brino
The origins of Vermentino are obscure, but the some scholars believe that it is indigenous to Madeira in the Portuguese archipelago and arrived in Italy via the Spanish. Possibly related to the Malvasia family, it makes distinctive wines in Sardinia and Liguria and along the Tuscan coast. It is possibly related to Piedmont’s Favorita. The Pedres Vermentino shows bright aromas and clean, refreshing flavors. Serve chilled.
Tenuta Nanfro – 2009 Cerasuolo di Vittoria Sammauro
Fermented in temperature controlled stainless tanks and then aged for six months in cement tanks, this charming wine is 50% Nero d’Avola and 50% Frappato di Vittoria, which is the typical blend in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria appellation. Frappato is a lightly pigmented and fruity wine with very smooth tannins so it softens the power of Nero d’Avola. The Sammauro is lively and elegant with aromas of red berry, flowers, and spice. On the palate, the wine is balanced with refreshing acidity and soft tannins. At 13.5% alcohol, this is a versatile, medium-bodied red that pairs beautifully with lighter, warm weather dishes, including grilled salmon. Serve around 65 degrees.
Tenuta Nanfro – 2010 Nero d’Avola Strade
Nero d’Avola is capable of making big and profound wines. The Nanfro Nero d’Avola Strade is a different portrayal of the grape, medium bodied with cherry and flowery tones. Fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged for six months in cement tanks, the wine is elegant with appealing dark berry and spice flavors. Serve at cool room temperature with grilled meats.
Girolamo Russo – 2012 Etna Bianco Caricante Nerina
This aromatic wine is 70% Carricante and 30% Cararratto, Minnella, Inzolia, Grecanico, and Coda di Volpe, Carricante being the chief white varietal in the Etna appellation. The Nerina was aged for 2 months in stainless steel tanks and six months in oak barrels. Because the wine was aged in oak, it is more complex, but at the same time, oak flavors are not intrusive. The wine is a beauty, round and plush with scents of apricot but, at the same time, a reflection of the minerals and ash in Etna’s volcanic soils. Serve chilled with grilled fish and poultry, risotto, and dinner salads.
Girolamo Russo – 2011 Etna Rosso, Nerello Mascalese, San Lorenzo
This Nerello Mascalese from the San Lorenzo cru won Gambero Rosso’s coveted Tre Bicchieri award for the 2009 vintage. San Lorenzo is Girolamo Russo’s highest vineyard at an altitude of 2,460 to 2,600 feet, and the vines are 60 to 100 years-old. Like Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, Nerello Mascalese has lighter pigmentation and shows a beautiful translucent color. Because the grape is thin-skinned, the wine has very soft tannins. This eight-hectare San Lorenzo vineyard produced only 375 cases, aged for 18 months in 30% new oak barrels and 70% second use. That we are able to pour this beautifully delicate and elegant wine into our glasses here in the U.S. is little short of a modern miracle. Serve at cool room temperature.
Girolamo Russo – 2011, Nerello Mascalese, Feudo
Grapes for this 2011 Nerello Mascalese were harvested from the Feudo vineyard at 2,100 to 2,300 elevations. The Feudo is rounder and plusher than the San Lorenzo but probably won’t age as long. Winner of Gambero Rosso’s highest Tre Bicchieri award in 2007 and 2010, the Feudo is rounder and plusher than the San Lorenzo but probably won’t age as long. The wine has typical aromas and flavors of bright red fruit with hints of tar and minerals from the volcanic soils where the grapes were harvested. Like the San Lorenzo, this is a beautiful and versatile food wine that can be served with many dishes. Serve at cool room temperature around 65 degrees F.
Italian Regions of the Month
Some say that today, Sicilians have less Italian blood in their veins than Phoenician, Greek, Arabic, Norman, Spanish, or French. Because Sicilia is on a crossroads between Europe and Africa, it has been overrun by many different cultures, which have left their traces on this beautiful island, the largest in the Mediterranean. The Greek cities of Sicily flourished during the 6th and 5th Centuries BC, and their ruins are some of the most impressive outside of Greece, especially the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. The Romans took over in the 3rd Century BC, followed by the Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Byzantines. The Arabs ruled from the 8th to the 11th Century, although not much has survived from their rule. The Norman era began in 1060, and the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalu are their brilliant achievements as is Santi Peitro e Paulo outside Taormina. The 17th and 18th centuries saw the accomplishments of the Spanish Viceregal court, especially the palaces and churches of Palermo.
Nature also has its achievements in Sicilia, its magnificent beaches, remote hill towns and plains, its mountain ranges, and spectacular Mount Etna, one of three active volcanoes, which has rendered the land immensely fertile. In fact, Sicilia has more vineyards than any other region. The western province of Trapani alone produces more wine than the entire regions of Toscana or Piemonte. But much of this wine is either shipped north as blending wine or distilled into industrial alcohol. The proportion of DOC wine is only 2.5%, most of which is Marsala, Sicilia’s proudest wine despite decades of degradation when it was flavored with various sweetners. The English created Marsala in the late 18th Century and made Sicilia its prime source. Marsala, as well as Moscato and Malvasia, rank with the best fortified wines of Europe.
Sicilia has now switched its emphasis to lighter, dryer wines, both whites and reds. The pale white, dry Bianco d’Alcamo is the only DOC wine made in significant quality. The dry white and red wines of Etna, whose vines drape over the lower slopes of the volcano show notable class as does the pale red Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Increasingly prominent are the fruity aromatic whites, Inzolia, Catarratto, and Grecanico. Native reds have also achieved prominence, such as Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, and Perricone. The newly introduced French varieties, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah are also producing exciting results.
Facing Spain to the west, Lazio to the east, and the island of Corsica a stone’s throw to the north, the island of Sargegna is still mostly undeveloped. The rocky Costa Smeralda in the north draws tourists to its resorts, while the island’s agriculture and viticulture dominates the south where its capital city and major port, Cagliari, is located. The rugged Gennargentu mountains, the lair of legendary bandits, provide sweeping views to the east. Throughout Sardegna, the prehistoric nuraghi towers made of stones still inspire the curiosity of scholars who are unsure of their origins or purpose.
In the 8th century BC, Phoenician traders influenced wine making in Sardegna, and much later in the 13th century, the Spanish conquistadors brought Iberian grape varieties to the island. Today, these Spanish grape varieties, Vermentino, Cannonau, Monica, and Carignano, among others are the most widely planted on the island. But the indigenous Nuragus, named after the nuraghi towers, is the leading white variety and occupies as much as 1/3 of vineyard space. Described by outsiders as having an antiseptic quality, the wine seems to appeal mostly to Sardinians. Sweet wines are also traditional in Sardegna.
The older vineyards have traditional head-pruned arberello vines whose leafy canes bend to the ground. Such vines are lower and less influenced by the winds from the sea. The newer vineyards are likely to be trained on vertical trellises and planted in locations where they are protected from winds by hills or trees. While the most respected wines are produced by estate wineries, most Sardinian grape growers sell their grapes to cooperatives where the wine is made and sold.