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Eiling Lim: The best red wines from Etna, Sicily you should try today

Etna is fast emerging as Sicily’s finest wine region and by that extension, one of Italy’s best. Here’s why you should give Etna Rosso a go.

Volcanoes can give and take life. It’s like the phrase of how we perceive a glass to be “half empty” or “half full”. Being an optimist, I view the volcanic ash and rock in a positive light in which it provides farmers with fertile land. And it is the volcanic terroir of Mount Etna that gave birth to Etna Rosso DOC in eastern Sicily, which is considered today as one of the top wine-producing regions in Italy. Many call Etna Rosso the Barolo of the south and the dark horse of Italian red wine due to its unique terroir and its variability.

Grapes transmit the climate, terroir and surroundings

It also transmits the techniques and skills of the winemaker, who is equally important in producing a good bottle of wine. What makes Etna Rosso so intriguing is its high altitude vineyards, the growing zone within sight of the Mediterranean sea and the roots of the vines that anchor into volcanic soils and ash from Europe’s most temperamental mountains. The topography of the volcano combined with high altitude creates a diverse mesoclimate. The Etna Rosso DOC requires the vines to be growing within the delimited zone on the northern, eastern and southern slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna (between 300m and around 1,000m in elevation) and the wine must be composed of at least 80% Nerello Mascalese, with up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio allowed. 

Wine growing in Sicily, Italy
(Photo: Antonio Sessa on Unsplash)

Nerello Mascalese

For years, it was the Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s most planted red variety that captured the world’s attention, but now, it is the lesser known Nerello Mascalese grape. This grape is best described as a cross between Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Nebbiolo from Barolo. Etna Rosso brings together the vibrant red fruits of the former and the earthiness of the latter. The Nerello Mascalese, in addition to a small amount of Nerello Cappuccio (which gives colour to the otherwise pale red wine), produces wines that find a mellow tune between the vibrant elegance of Burgundy and the rusticity and tannic structure of Barolo. In my opinion, this grape might have more in common with Burgundy than the Mediterranean.

Reasons to try Etna Rosso

The uniqueness of Etna Rosso lies in the diversity of its terroir where there are big differences in exposure to the weather due to vines that are planted on the northern, eastern and southern slopes and altitude, and an unusual combination of sub-tropical, Mediterranean, and Continental climates. The mood swings of the volcano are simply part of the terroir. The vines are extremely old where some vines are over 100 years old, surviving the phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century and 2 world wars. One can also experience the signatures left on the wine by the dynamism of ash and lava which has spread across Etna’s slopes for generations. It’s more than a mountain to the producers at Mount Etna. It’s temperamental and it’s definitely alive! Etna Rosso is becoming one the most important and critically acclaimed wines. It is steadily climbing the ladder of fine wines in Italy.

Etna Rosso is very versatile when it comes to pairing with food. Although many experts pick poultry and pork as the ideal, I think it will pair well even with a simple pasta dish. Most importantly, I believe the wine should be served slightly chilled or cool rather than at room temperature. In short, Etna Rosso is an elegant wine with fine acidity and soft tannins that are perfectly attuned to modern tastes. 

Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2019

Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2019

This is an excellent introduction to Etna reds and it’s an entry-level offering by Marc de Grazia who was among the first producers to bring attention to this ancient terroir by bottling single-parcel Nerellos that have become the reference-point wines for the Etna. The estate is about 20-21 hectares of which 15 are planted with vines. The soil at Terre Nere is mostly volcanic ash speckled by black pumice and layered with abundant volcanic rock. Located on the northern slopes of Mount Etna, the vineyards are at 600-1,000m above sea level. Many of the vines here are approaching 100 years old with some plots of over 130 years prior to the phylloxera epidemic.

This bottle was discovered through a close friend who is also a wine aficionado with a wide knowledge of Italian wines while we were on a holiday in Dubai a few months ago. He ordered this bottle during a dinner in Hakkasan and Luc and I were very impressed with the taste and quality of this Etna Rosso. Made of 95% Nerello Mascalese and 5% Nerello Cappuccino grapes, the wine was ruby in colour, filled with fruity aromas such as strawberry and raspberry and black liquorice. With Etna Rosso, it also tends to have nuances of ashy notes, smoked ham, earth and wet stones with black tea undertones. I like the refreshing acidity, fairly aggressive tannic structure which at the same time is refined and elegant. This wine is aged in French oak barrels for a year or so. It’s really good to be enjoyed now, or else it can be put away for a few more years. We liked it so much that once we returned home, we bought a case of this and we opened another bottle during a recent BBQ with friends. For a bottle of this value, I truly recommend this to wine lovers.

Tenuta Delle Terre Prephylloxera La Vigna di Don Peppino 2019

Tenuta Delle Terre Prephylloxera La Vigna di Don Peppino 2019

First released in 2006, this wine comes from the vineyards of Calderara Sottana located on the northern slopes of Mount Etna with an elevation of 600m. The estate has 2 plots of the prephylloxera vineyards that are approximately 1.2 acres and with vines aged between 130 and 140 years old. Nerello Mascalese is the dominant blend here with a small amount of Nerello Cappuccio. The wine is named after the winemaker who tended the vineyards for 7 decades! Ageing is 16-18 months in French barriques and tonneaux. While the Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2019 is entry level, this is one of their most expensive wines, costing five times more.

As I’m typing away on this review, I have opened a bottle of this on my writing desk. When I nosed it a few hours ago, I could sense that the aromas were tight and the tannins were chewy but very fruity. A very similar red fruit-forward nose like a Burgundy. Hours later, however, the wine opened up to more aromas. It has pungent flinty nuances to the red cherry, strawberry, plum and wild flowers. I can’t help but to notice the dense tannins once again and it is indeed a rich wine with lingering flavours. Overall, the wine is well balanced with a juicy finish. I like the freshness it brings to the palate, but at the same time, it is better to be put away for a few more years. After all, I am killing a baby here to gauge its potential for ageing.

IDDA Etna Rosso 2017

IDDA Etna Rosso 2017

IDDA means “she” in Sicilian dialect of which they consider the volcano a woman. This 2017 IDDA is a maiden release between an adventurous joint venture between Gaja and Graci which started in 2016. One of the most important events in the recent history of Etna wine was the arrival of Angelo Gaja in Sicily. Today, they own 21 hectares of vineyards between 600 and 800m above sea level in the villages of Belpasso and Biancavilla. The participation of Angelo Gaja in this region further strengthens the image and value of the volcano’s terroir and positions it amongst the most interesting areas in Italy for wine production.  And at the same time, Alberto Graci is one of the most acclaimed and talented winegrowers in Sicily who has been producing wine on Mount Etna since 2004. Therefore, this joint-venture seems to be a recipe for success.

2017 is a scorching-hot vintage. In general, 2017 was immensely trying for the whole of Italy where extreme heat and drought plagued the country even on Etna itself. Many wine growers had a difficult season and the yield was also reduced. According to Gaia Gaja  (daughter of Angelo) and Alberto Graci, the compact basalt rocky soils at Mount Etna make for a unique situation in which vine root systems can find ample humidity underground despite dry and sun-drenched soil at the top level. If one digs just under the surface, the soil is cool and moist. This is one example of the uniqueness that lies in this ancient, volcanic terroir.

We had a chance to taste this wine during our vacation to Dubai. It was ironic to discover Etna Rosso wines in a country not known to encourage alcohol consumption. Nevertheless, I find this wine to have a gorgeous burst of sweet aromas such as raspberry,  cherry and candied fruits, red liquorice, some burnt wood spices and herbs such as oregano. On the palate, you get a gentle earthiness and hint of flint. It has very soft tannins, with the right amount of grip and some white pepper that might come from the Nerello Cappuccio. It is a refreshing wine with some tartness balanced by the ripe fruits which caresses the palate. This is a very enjoyable wine and value for money.

Passopisciaro Contrada ‘G’ Guardiola 2017

Passopisciaro Contrada ‘G’ Guardiola 2017

Andrea Franchetti arrived in the winter of 2000 as one of the first producers to rediscover old vines of Nerello Mascalese, with vines between 70 and 100 years old. The Contrada (cru) ‘G’ (Guardiola) is an ancient domain located between 800 and 1,000m above sea level, which is one of the highest vineyards of the estate on the edge of the lava flow from Etna’s 1947 eruption. The estate produces 8 different wines and 6 of which are Nerello Mascalese focused. It has also been one of the wineries at the forefront of a major renaissance in the last couple of decades.

Made of 100% Nerello Mascalese, the grape showcases the terroir – the lava flow, aspect and altitude of this contrada. The wine is then aged for 18 months in large neutral oaks with minimal intervention in their winemaking techniques to allow the differences in its terroir to shine. I love the nose of summer berries intertwining with hints of floral notes such as violet and rose. It has a very deep and complex taste consisting of smoke, minerals, dried pomegranate and fig and herbs like thyme and star anise. I love the refined tannins and although it may taste a bit extracted on the palate, the wine is extremely intense, polished and structured. The aromatic intensity will awaken your senses and that’s how I felt when I first tasted this wine. It’s a perfectly poised wine and definitely one to be aged!

Profumo di Vulcano Etna Rosso 2017

Profumo di Vulcano Etna Rosso 2017

We stumbled upon this wine at our favourite Italian restaurant. Upon discovering the wonderful wines of Etna Rosso in Dubai, we tried to taste from as many different producers as possible. This Profumo Di Vulcano 2017 by Federico Graziani comes from a small vineyard that dates back to the 19th century of 1.5 hectares in the the northern slopes of Mount Etna at 600m above sea level. The vines here are also 100 years old on average and some planted prior to the phylloxera epidemic. This wine is made predominantly from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccino grapes, to which a few clusters of Alicante and Francisi are also added. It is aged for at least 18 months in small wooden barrels, and omitting decanting and filtration.

Literally translated as the “Scent of Volcano”, this bright ruby wine produces whiffs of earthiness, smoked meat, bonfire and ash. Although the fruit aromas are also present such as blueberry, blackcurrant, raspberry, red plum and blood orange, I can’t help but to notice that there is an air of “funkiness” to this wine. It reminds me of mushrooms, sous-bois, forest floor and tobacco. The wine needs time to open up as we did not decant the wine and I find it is more pleasant to drink when it’s a little bit chilled. The finish is long and it has soft tannins. However, among the Etna Rosso wines I’ve reviewed here, this is probably my least favourite due to the overpowering ashy notes.

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All images by Eiling Lim unless stated otherwise. Hero and feature images by Samir Kharrat on Unsplash

Eiling Lim

As Malaysia’s first independent bottler for whisky and other spirits, I am also an oenophile. Always on the lookout for a good bottle together with my husband, soulmate and partner-in-crime Luc, life for me is a journey of discovery. As the saying goes, life is too short to drink bad wines.