Etna Rosso (Nerello Mascalese)
Forest berry, scorched earth and eucalyptus aromas shape the nose alongside a whiff of mountain hay. On the vibrant, linear palate, an acidic backbone and lithe tannins support pomegranate, sour cherry and star anise alongside a mineral vein of iron. Drink through 2026.
Food pairings for Nerello Mascalese wines include:
- Pigeon breasts in red-wine sauce
- Wild mushroom and eggplant filo parcels
- Linguini with tomato and clams
Etna is a DOC which covers the slopes of Mount Etna, the 3330 meter (10,920ft) active volcano that dominates the Italian island of Sicily. It was the very first DOC on the island, created in August 1968 and followed nine months later by that of Sicily's most famous wine, Marsala.
The most commonly produced form of Etna wine is the standard Etna Rosso, a red made predominantly from the Nerello Mascalese grape variety. Up to 20 percent of Nerello Cappuccio is permitted which is also known here as Nerello Mantellato.
Its bianco (white) counterpart is composed of at least 60 percent Carricante, backed up by Sicily's most widely planted white grape, Catarratto, and a host of minor additions including Trebbiano and Minnella. Superiore Etna must contain 80 percent Carricante and is only permitted within the commune of Milo. There is also a relatively rare rosato (rosé) form also based on Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio.
The Etna wine-producing zone arcs around the eastern side of the volcano, from Randazzo in the north to Santa Maria di Licodia in the south. The graduated topography creates a smooth spread of mesoclimates, as the land climbs up from near-sea-level to more than 1200 meters (3940ft). The highest of Etna's vineyards now rank among the highest in Italy (and even the world), easily matching those of Alpine Alto Adige.
Etna's wine producers are experimenting with vineyard sites further and further up the volcano's slopes, to gauge the effects of the richer, blacker lava flow soils and increased altitude. This most extreme terroir may be tempting fate, but the cachet of owning high-altitude vineyards is growing, and early results from these vines show promise.
From almost anywhere on Etna's slopes, looking eastwards will reveal how much light the glinting Mediterranean reflects back up onto the vines here. The local growers make much of this effect, which is similar to those reported around Lake Geneva and along the Mosel. The added sunshine hours helps to ripen the grapes more completely, even at cooler, higher altitudes. Ripeness is almost never a concern in Sicily, a place famous for its hot, bright, persistent sunshine (at a latitude of 37°N, it is far from the coolest of European wine regions).
Etna's higher slopes are almost the only place on the island where temperatures fall sufficiently low to cause concern for ripeness. In fact, far from posing problems, the cooler temperatures are actually helpful, and offer the luxury of a cooler, longer growing season.
Another major component of the suitability of Etna terroir to winemaking is the volcanic soil type. Numerous eruptions have created several types of soil at different ages that is nutrient-rich is minerals such as magnesium, copper, phosphorus and iron amoungst others.
Etna's international profile received a particular boost in 2001 when Mick Hucknall (of British pop group Simply Red) established his Il Cantante winery there. Today, the terraces of alberello-trained bush vines are of age, and have contributed to the rising fortunes of Etna wines. A similar story has unfolded on another Sicilian volcano, Lipari, to the north in the Aeolian Islands, where designer Carlo Hauner has helped to bring attention to the near-extinct Malvasia delle Lipari wines.
Since its inception, the Etna DOC document has remained unaltered, despite myriad changes in winemaking, viticulture, politics, wine markets and consumer preference. This might be interpreted as a prime example of how Italy's DOC system has been less carefully managed than the French appellation system on which it was based. It might equally be a sign that the original laws were so carefully written that they have remained robust despite the changes going on around them.
A third option is that so little wine is made under the title, and what there is is typically of such good quality, that there has been little motivation to spend time and administrative funding on updating the laws. Whatever the truth, Mount Etna continues to smolder away and vines continue to flourish in its rich, dark volcanic soils.