Last week, I sat with Enrico N. - director of Italian wines at one of the largest wine distributors in California - Wine Warehouse - to taste wines from the fast up-and-coming wine region - Mount Etna in Sicily.
"These wines are related to volcano, rather than Sicily", explained Enrico. "Until early 60's, wine was a source of calories in Italy. The quality difference between then and now is astounding." Recently I wrote about how the advent of stainless steel tanks allowed Silvio Jermann to revolutionize winemaking in Friuli in 1970's. Similarly in Sicily, new technology and equipment brought about quality unseen even 10 years ago, allowing the region to move from bulk production of jug Syrah, much of it exported to the Australian market, to making truly fine wine. Growing grapes on the dangerous slopes of a live volcano is a hard way to make a living. Yet, a few dedicated pioneers are starting to show the world what this region can achieve, and the market is beginning to respond, rewarding them with higher prices and attention of Italian top food-and-fine publication Gambero Rosso, the organization behind the prestigious Tre Bicchieri wine guide. Much credit for the Etna's revival goes to Salvo Foti - currently consulting at Gulfi and Benanti wineries, Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro (and Tenuta di Trinoro in Tuscany), and Marc de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere.
Staring down from high above the sea, Mount Etna serves up reds that are a superb match to seafood, especially after a couple of years of bottle age as tannins dissipate. As usual, Donato Enoteca provided a perfect setting and expert dishes for the occasion.
Though from the first look and whiff comparisons with Nebbiolo are inescapable, let's face it - these wines are not Barolo. But what they may lack in mind-boggling truffles, roses, and tar of the great Nebbiolos, they deliver in a twist of ashy, intense candied cherries and raspberries, balancing acidity, and a touch of spiciness in a medium body frame that as a package is unlike any other wine on earth. In the past having had Graci 2007 Etna Rosso with Donato's signature squid ink pasta and spicy tomato - it was one of those food-and-wine combos that make life worth living, my friends! And while neither red Burgundy nor Barolo go particularly well with seafood, Etna reds just work. The cat is starting to get out of the bag, and the orders to roll in, Enrico attested.
Over the past couple of months, I had the pleasure of tasting rosso (reds) from 3 different fine producers of Nerello Mascalese -- Benanti, Passopisciaro, and Graci. Wow!
This time Enrico featured 3 reds - 2006 Benanti Rosso di Verzella Etna Rosso (blend of 80% Nerello Mascalese and 20% Nerello Cappuccio), 2005 Benanti Rosso Il Monovintigno (100% Nerello Mascalese) Sicilia IGT, and 2007 Passopisciaro (Nerello Mascalese) Sicilia IGT. All three wines were a joy to drink with food. The $16 Benanti Rosso di Verzella just has amazing QPR. The $36 Il Monovitigno was my fave - more concentrated, serious, darker, with a hair of funky character, while the $32 Passopisciaro walked the line between the two, the most elegant of the trio - concentrated yet light, and still just a touch tannic. (Side note: Passopisciaro also makes an eye-openingly good unoaked 100% Sicilian Chardonnay called "Guardiola", which in a blind tasting could easily pass for a Chablis). Janscis Robinson, the world's most famous wine writer and influencer, too raved about the wines of Etna, and Passopisciaro in particular, as early as 2004 (read her account here).
I guess there are two takeaways for me:
1. Wines of impressive quality are coming out of Sicily's Mount Etna. While they will not make me abandon Burgundy or Barolo, these wines cannot be ignored. Something magical is happening there.
2. While I love the stereotypical white wine + seafood pairing, the Nerello Mascalese grape from Mount Enta just brings something edgy to the party that white wines cannot match - it is gastronomically and intellectually a must-have accompaniment to seafood that will impress both wine newbies and wine snobs alike.
Watch it, drink it - it is grand cru territory in the making, my friends.
For a more complete write-up of Mt. Etna wines, there is also an excellent "The Wines of Mt. Etna in Sicily: Wine's Next Big Thing?" overview at intowine.com.