Both of Salvo Foti's Nerello Mascalese wines from Mt. Etna are benchmarks in their respective price points. June 2017's visit with Foti wove the whole story together for me on why these wines stand out from the pack. If I had to pick one Sicilian red wine to stock up on for my personal cellar, it would be Foti's Rosso.
The Rosso is sourced from vineyards planted at 2,300 feet on the north side of Mt. Etna where you'll find the most structured and deeply concentrated Nerello Mascalese. These are among the highest altitude vineyards in all of Europe. With massive diurnal shifts, the preserved acidity here keeps sun-soaked vines capable of producing reds that are vibrant and full of freshness, despite the given ripeness.
This particular wine sees concrete for fermentation and aging, giving this young Nerello Mascalese an approachability that makes it impossible to resist upon release. The comparison to Pinot Noir is difficult for Nerello to escape—while often I see more differences than similarities, in the hands of Foti, there's a striking harmony and sense of place that clicks with this resemblance.
Foti's impact on the wines, vineyards, and producers of Etna is monumental. For many years, his work was tied to other top estates like Biondi and Benanti where he was an oenlogist and vineyard consultant. He began to focus nearly exclusively on his own project in 2001. The name, I Vigneri, derives from the 1435-established Maestranzi dei Vigneri, a collective of vineyard workers who influenced the foundation of these magnificent vines atop Etna.
My great fondness for the traditional wines of Tuscany is no secret, but generally, I've kept Super Tuscans at arm's length. Dominated by Bordeaux variety blends, the category has overwhelmingly spoken less about place and more about a global-capitulating, one-size-fits-all model. Finding examples I'm truly passionate about that don't start at $200-plus upon release has been a challenge, but that all changed with Tenuta di Trinoro's Le Cupole.
Andrea Franchetti's property sits in a remote southeast corner of Tuscany. Le Cupole, the second label of Tenuta di Trinoro, is all about open accessibility with the same sophistication as their top-end, single-vineyard wines. Cupole's blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot is planted on clay and limestone, mirroring Bordeaux's right bank.
Cupole succeeds in grasping my attention due to a remarkable sense of balance, freshness, and crazy deliciousness still rooted in the variety's tell-tale characteristics. Antonio Galloni of Vinous wrote, "The 2018 Le Cupole is a delicious entry-level offering from Trinoro. Freshly cut flowers, sweet red berry, mint, and blood orange all run through the 2018." The finish persists with the sort of lingering minerality that is commonly achieved in Bordeaux but that Super Tuscans often fall short of.
When considering the most soulful and magically unique wines in Italy, the name Paolo Bea always leads the discussion. Their family roots in Umbria's Montefalco region stretch back to the 16th century on this property, now a diverse ecosystem of livestock, vegetables, and fruits.
Five of the fifteen hectares here are devoted to vines, and though the hearty and tannic Sagrantino variety is the focus throughout Montefalco, today we take a close look at the most approachable wine from the estate, the San Valentino.
San Valentino is a unique blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino, and 15% Montepulciano from a clay-dominant single vineyard at 1,300 feet. Wines from Umbria often stand out for extremely forward fruit personality - the high elevation here adds a dimension of snap and buoyancy that makes this one of the world's most hedonistic, yet refreshing wines.
Harvest of these 50-year-old vines usually occurs at the conclusion of October where phenolic ripeness is perfectly achieved for all three varieties. The grapes are fermented in the traditional manner spending 30+ days macerating on the skins. The wine is then aged for three years in stainless steel, and then one year in bottle prior to release.
The three varieties complement each other magically here. Sangiovese providing high-toned red fruit notes with terrific acidity. The combination of Sagrantino and Montepulciano provides inky blue and black fruits with a firm structure. In the end, sweet cherries, fig, tobacco, dried flowers, and hints of charcoal meld together beautifully.
If Salvo Foti and Ciro Biondi thoroughly tell the story of Etna's past, then Belgium-born Frank Cornelissen illustrates the adventurous spirit of Etna's future. Cornelissen has been producing wine on Etna's highest elevation, north-facing vineyards since 2001. His style has changed quite a lot over the years, but he's perhaps recognized most for his insistence on a zero sulphur approach in the cellar. His name can be a lightning rod in the world of wine, and certainly in Sicily. After years of changing small details in the cellar his wines today are cleaner and more composed than ever before. This is the wild side of Mt. Etna.
Today, I'm happy to offer Frank Cornelissen's Munjebel Rosso, single Contrada Munjebel Rossos, as well as the mythical, Magma.
Cornelissen grew up in a family surrounded by wine in Belgium where his father worked as a wine broker. His studies created an intense fascination for the volcanic terroir on Mt. Etna's north side. He fervently believed there was a unique voice yet to be spoken here, and he had his own plan of attack to tell this personal story of place.
He set his eyes on working strictly with old vines, 40-years of age being about the minimum under his estate. The process started with only 1.5 hectares in 2001 and now has grown to 12 hectares, with vines going back to plantings from 1910.
Everything that's exceptional and intriguing about the Cornelissen wines exists in the vineyard. These are some of the most awe-inspiring parcels I've ever set foot on. Walking among the 100+ year-old Nerello Mascalese vines tied to the local chestnut alberello stakes was a dramatic experience, faced out from these terraces seeing the valley below with towering mountains in the distance. The black sandy volcanic soils that falls through your hand immediately draws to mind the power of this active volcano beneath your very feet.
Frank's work in the cellar is something that needs very little time to detail here. He's moved away from amphora, and oak is never used. All wine are aged in fiberglass-lined tanks. His interests are in expressing Etna without any intervention from materials outside the vineyard. The tanks are completely inert, serving only as a safe vessel for aging. There's zero sulphur added to the wines at any point. This regimen requires the winery to be a extremely clean from top to bottom and every detail of work here is done with the most scrupulous eye. It was evident the second we walked in that this was a very different kind of cellar.
The non-sulphur regimen brings a vividness and bright, fresh quality to the fruit profile that stands out immediately. The minerality from this singular soil is certainly obvious, but the dynamic personality of the fruit makes itself known first. I personally find that non-sulphured wines, when executed the very best, have an added high-toned spicy quality that offers an abundance of concentrated wild fruit that's rare to come across in more conventional wines. This quality can be divisive in some circles of drinkers, but I find it to be fascinating. Coupled with clean winemaking and it's something that rapidly pulls me back for sip after sip, nearly unconsciously.
Last winter's bottle of Munjebel Rosso I opened alongside my favorite local burger proved to be one of the highlight pairings of the season. The experience was a great reminder that these wines, today with their pristine soundness, bear very little resemblance to those produced in many years past where problems related to the zero sulphur regimen were, for me, too problematic. Clean as a whistle is how I'd describe these 2016's!
Munjebel Rosso "Pure Nerello Mascalese from different vineyards, partly from our best parcels where we produce our crus (Zottorinoto-Chiusa Spagnolo, Feudo di Mezzo-Porcaria, Pontale Palino) as well as designated vineyards for this specific wine (Rampante, Piano Daini and Crasà). A classic, traditional Nerello Mascalese with tannins and sweetness of ripe fruit. My vision of a traditional, balanced and rich Northern Valley Etna wine."
CS (CONTRADA ZOTTORINOTO – CHIUSA SPAGNOLO)
"This pure Nerello Mascalese comes from our ungrafted vineyard in contrada Zottorinoto, more specific in the section Chiusa Spagnola, situated lower in the valley floor, a bit hidden in an amphitheater, surrounded by lava. A unique vineyard, planted around 1925 at a lower altitude (620m. asl) producing a profound, tannic wine, a bit more backward and Nebbiolo-ish compared to our other crus and lighter in colour."
CR (CONTRADA CAMPO RE)
"This pure Nerello Mascalese comes from a partly ungrafted vineyard Campo Re, situated at the far Western side in the valley floor, at the entrance of Randazzo. The vineyard altitude is 735m. asl and is characterized by deep soil which, in humid vintages creates major difficulties to obtain ripe fruit. The wines are profound and tannic, and more backward and Nebbiolo-ish compared to our other crus."
PA (CONTRADA FEUDO DI MEZZO – PORCARIA)
"This pure Nerello Mascalese is produced from our old vine alberello cru Porcaria, situated at 640 m. asl. in the contrada Feudo di Mezzo. A challenging location in order to achieve perfection in maturation. It has the power as well as refined elegance in the balanced vintages when everything falls into place. A complete wine."
VA (CUVÉE VIGNE ALTE)
"This pure Nerello Mascalese is a blend from our 3 highest vineyards (Vigne Alte): Tartaraci, Monte Dolce, Pettinociarelle. It expresses beautifully the value and precision of the old vines, ungrafted Nerello Mascalese on the high terraces in the Northern valley of Mount Etna. The most Burgundian of all our crus."
MAGMA (CONTRADA BARBABECCHI)
"Our “Grand Vin” from our Barbabecchi vineyard at 910m. asl. Planted around 1910 and North-North East exposed, capturing the first and cool morning sun rays. This pure Nerello Mascalese from ungrafted old vines produces a profound wine, rich as well as elegant at the same time with character and personality: liquorice and oriental spices. Only produced in great vintages where we achieve full phenolic ripeness."
In so many ways Ciro Biondi is the perfect introduction to the land of Mt. Etna. Of all my visits, Biondi's estate is the closest to the southern port town of Catania, my home through my June 2017 stay. As I drive up from the sea toward the massive volcano looming above I'm still greeted by the palm trees and scenery most reminiscent of the Mediterranean. It's in this southern portion of Etna where the Nerello Mascalese-based wines are the very most elegant and softly-textured. The charm and infectious enthusiasm of Ciro Biondi is an easy way to be pulled into the history of Etna.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Biondi Outis Etna Rosso for $40 per bottle.
Biondi's family has been farming vines in this small southern town of Trecastagni since the early 1800's, and began estate bottling in the early 1900's. Climbing the hills of his property 100-year-old vines point to a rich history, but it's the greek artifacts littered throughout that constantly remind Ciro of Sicily's past of guests, influencers, and ever-changing rulers. He admits that although Sicily is in so many ways independent of Italy, it would be lost without someone to rule her. Its history of wars and conquerors simply knows no other way.
The steep terraces that make up each of Ciro's three vineyards are iconic. Immediately you have a sense you've been here before, but of course it's only through images you've stumbled upon in years past. Like most of Etna the black volcanic soil is evident, it falls through your hands like sand when you pick it up. Toward the very top of the steep terraces the soil and rocks turn a Mars-like red. I press Ciro on whether he ever has separated fermentation tanks to show the differences, but he's happy capturing the entire vineyard in one picture. He's discovered the need to limit his input into the winemaking decisions and do everything he can to let the place speak as honestly as possible, with the very lightest touch. Ciro reminds, nature is so much more powerful than he is, his best work over the years coming from recognizing that truth.
And the wines show it. Here, Nerello Mascalese is light and perfumed, calling to mind Pinot Noir more so than some of its darker interpretations on the north side of Etna. A small amount (10-20%) of Nerello Cappuccio is historically blended to offer some darker characteristics. But, without a doubt, this is Etna at its most delicate, graceful, and aromatic.
Ciro's Outis is a blend of his three vineyards. Pale colored, with bright red fruits and that faint note of dusty volcanic soil that offers the structure and backbone defining these light reds from the south. Rose pedals, bright cherry, and notes of fig linger on the finish here. If Etna is to seduce you for the very first time I imagine Outis would be the wine to do it.