a duet of seductive red wines from sicily's mount etna

I came late to Mount Etna wines, those delightful wines produced from little-known varieties on ancient vines in the shadow of lava-spouting Mount Etna in northeastern Sicily. But over the last few years recognition of wines from this region has increased and I have belatedly become an ardent fan of the wines.

As I indicated in a previous posting (The Wines of Mount Etna: From High-altitude, Volcanic Vineyards Come Wines with Attitude), Mount Etna with its volcanic soils and high-elevation vineyards is an excellent area for growing quality wine grapes. Also, because Mount Etna’s vineyards were spared the ravages of the phylloxera root louse that wiped out some of Europe’s best vineyards, Mount Etna is home to some century-old grape vines. These ancient vines are gnarly and fragile but they produce some amazing grapes.

The primary wines of the Etna region are dry red and white wines as well as some rosato (rosè) wines. Etna Rosso (Etna red) wines are primarily blended wines. By regulation they must have a minimum of 80 percent Nerello Mascalese (neh rel’ loh mahs’ kah ley’ zeh), a little-known indigenous variety that grows almost exclusively in the Mount Etna region. It is a deeply colored, thick-skinned variety that contributes gritty tannins and vibrant acidity to the Etna Rosso blend. Wine cognoscenti value Etna Rosso wines for their ability to articulate a real sense of place.

The junior partner in the blend is another indigenous red variety, Nerello Cappuccio (neh rel’ loh cah pooch’ cho) which can constitute 10 to 20 percent of the total with other local red or even, surprisingly, white grapes making up any difference. The Nerello Cappuccio contributes spicy aromas, red berry flavors and perhaps a touch of elegance to the Etna Rosso blend.

Etna Rosso wines come in a variety of styles that can vary from traditional to modern to, well, unconventional. They can vary markedly from one producer to another depending on the individual producer’s style as well as the environmental conditions of the vineyards.

Etna Rosso wines have established a well-earned reputation for top-end quality at generally affordable prices and are some of the most exciting wines to come out of Italy in recent years. The two wines reviewed below are good examples of why Etna Rosso wines are generating so much buzz and acclaim.

Italian Wine for march – under $20

Cottanera, “Barbazzale” Etna Rosso 2013 (about $18)

Like several other Mount Etna wineries, the Cottanera winery is relatively new - at least by Italian standards. Although the company was initially established in the 1960’s, the wine-making side of the operation didn’t begin until the 1990’s when Guglielmo Cambria and his brother Enzo decided to plant vineyards in what previously had been a grove of hazelnut trees. They released their first bottled vintage in the year 2000.

Today Cottanera has approximately 135 acres on the northern side of Mount Etna at elevations ranging from 2,300 to almost 2,500 feet above sea level. They produce a variety of red and white wines. Their red wines include those based on Mount Etna’s archetypal Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio red varieties. They also produce a variety of red wines from “international” varieties such as Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Their white wines include those made with the indigenous Inzolia and Carricante varieties as well as some Viognier.

Cottanera’s “Barbazzale” is a blend of 80 percent Nerello Mascalese and 2013 Cottanera Barbazzale Etna Rosso20 percent Nerello Cappuccio from the estate’s Aurora vineyard which lies approximately 2,300 feet above sea level. The wine is fermented in steel tanks at controlled temperatures and then aged in a combination of steel tanks (70 percent) and barriques (30 percent).

The 2013 “Barbazzale” opens with enticing scents of blackberries and strawberry jam. It is medium-bodied with a lively freshness accompanied by rich, intense, brambly, red-fruit flavors. It has a lively streak of acidity typical for Mount Etna DOC wines with tannins playing only a minor supporting role. It has a delightful red fruit finish.

This is an engaging, elegant wine with a very modest price tag. It is a good introduction for those who have not yet become acquainted with the virtues of these high-altitude Mount Etna wines.

italian Wine for march – over $20

Bonaccorsi, “ValCerasa” Etna Rosso 2008 (about $28)

The Bonaccorsi estate is located on the northeastern side of Mount Etna. Although the Bonaccorsi family has been tending their mineral-rich, terraced vineyards for several generations, the modern winery dates back only to the last decade of the 20th century when Alice Bonaccorsi began working with her father, Vincenzo, in his winemaking initiatives.

At Alice’s urging they set about producing more serious wines than what had heretofore been the case. Toward this end they called on famed oenologist Salvo Foti, who is himself a successful Mount Etna producer, to assist in their quality-enhancing initiatives. Their first release in 1997 was a commercial success and encouraged them to buy more vineyard properties and expand production.

Today, Alice manages the Bonaccorsi estate along with her husband Rosario. Only indigenous varieties like Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Capuccio and Carricante are grown on their 38-acre estate. The vineyards are all organically farmed. The high-altitude vineyards include some ancient vines as well as some newer vines grafted from selected old vines. The estate produces only a small number of wines and the most prominent are the ValCerasa Etna Bianco and ValCerasa Etna Rosso.

2008 Bonaccorsi "ValCerasa" Etna RossoThe 2008 "ValCerasa" Etna Rosso is well-made, mature and ready-to-drink. It is an 80/20 percent blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio harvested from vines with an average age of 35 years. The grapes are hand-harvested in mid-October and macerated on the skins for 15 days with secondary fermentation taking place in small French oak barriques. The wine is then aged in wood casks for 10 months and then spends a few additional months in the bottle prior to release for sale.

The wine is ruby-colored with vibrant red fruit and kitchen spice aromas. It is medium to full-bodied and richly suffused with plenty of ripe fruit flavors balanced with a good streak of acidity. There's complexity and elegance underlying the fruit flavors with plenty of depth and grip on the back end. The finish is long, persistent and has a distinctive, pleasantly bitter note.

It is an elegant and delicious wine that ranks high on a quality-to-price basis. It is a lot of wine for a relatively modest price and shows why Mount Etna wines are now starting to find their way into wine cellars and restaurant wine lists.

Like many other Etna Rosso DOC wines, the Bonaccorsi “ValCerasa” is a good companion for a variety of dishes such as roast pork with herbs and fennel, butterflied lamb, mushroom risotto, chicken or turkey sausages and sweetbreads.

©Richard Marcis
March 7, 2016

To view other wine of the month selections, see Monthly Wine Reviews

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