Sicily is hot, almost desert-like, with rainfall only making an appearance for a short time in winter. Despite this harsh climate it is a surprisingly rich and diverse island when it comes to agriculture. Citrus fruits, nuts, and grains flourish under the hot sun and the influence of its many occupiers has provided for a culinary reputation that is held in high esteem.
Although vines were abundantly grown the fruit was predominantly turned into bulk grape juice exported to blend with wines in northern Italian regions or dried. Cooperatives began to emerge in the 1950’s but most wines were made for local consumption. Nero D’Avola finally put Sicily on the map as a serious wine producing region, with a reputation for bold, structured wines with a touch of spice that brought to mind Syrah.
Sitting just quietly in the background, biding its time, was another native red grape light in colour but rich in complexity: Nerello Mascalese. Grown in the volcanic soils of Mount Etna in a micro-climate that offers cool and moist conditions so alien to the rest of Sicily, a small number of producers recognised its potential and began investing in vineyards.
The Etna wine-growing region is on the eastern slopes of the volcano facing the bright Mediterranean whose reflected light is said to help ripen the grapes. The higher up the volcano your vines are the better. The cooling climate and richer soils that can be found at higher altitudes encourage the grapes to ripen slowly allowing for more minerality in the final product. That these vines are planted in old lava flows becomes abundantly clear when tasting wines from some of the better producers. Terroir is a tricky concept to get across in words and is certainly a term that is overused. But in well-made Etna Rosso’s it is hard to overlook.
2016 Davide Fregonese Etna Rosso Riserva £39 per bottle
Made from a small, single vineyard plot of Nerello Mascalese around 700m above sea level. 2016 is the first vintage for Fregonese’s Etna but there’s nothing novice about it. More akin in colour to Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo it has great balance and highlights the mineral elements of the soil. Red cherry on the nose with notes of liquorice and a light vanilla finish that is propped up with an earthy, herbal undertone. Strangely, for us, we would advocate trying a glass of this without food to get a feel for its many layers.
2012 Il Custodi Etna Rosso Aetneus £34 per bottle
Made from Nerello Mascalese with a small amount of Nerello Cappuccio, the focus here is on old vines that provide a concentration and depth of flavour the younger ones don’t. Surprisingly light in body it has a fresh, soft nose with a strong minerality. Liquorice and marzipan come through fast but the fruit is bright with good acidity. With a few years behind it it has a wonderful softness that opens up a wealth of flavours.
2014 Passopisciaro Passorosso Terre Siciliane IGT £35 per bottle
Made from 100% Nerello Mascalese this a weightier example of Etna Rosso with more depth although possibly less complexity than some of its contemporaries. Bright acidity with lots of red fruit on the nose and a hint of liquorice appearing towards the finish.