Rifugio Sapienza – around 1400 meters above sea level is a good place to start. From here you can walk a further 500 meters up or go by cable car. By the time we reached the Rifugio Sapienza it was foggy and freezingly cold. Perhaps nothing startling with that but 30 minutes earlier at the base it was almost 20 degrees. Besides, winter clothes weren’t actually a topic when we headed for Sicily and left a cold October Stockholm in 2004.
The alternating fog allowed us only to see within a ten-foot radius at any time and hence we didn’t climb the extra meters up. As an old videogamer, surrounded by the almost impenetrable fog, I found the atmosphere creepingly similar to the world of Silent Hill – only missing (?) the atmospheric and emotional music from the horror action game.
Little did I know back then that on the north slopes of Mount Etna a vinous revolution had started – awakening ancient indigenous grapes with Nerello Mascalese in the lead. For me – then – Sicily were represented by Marsala, some top modern names such as Planeta and huge amounts of good everyday wine such as the Corvo Rosso. I felt a bit proud having picked up some exciting Nero d’Avola’s to bring with me home but Nerello Mascalese? Never heard of it!
Six years later I finally was introduced to the delicate wines of Mount Etna and Nerello Mascalese – wines with increasing popularity, at least in the wine literature. When checking others writings on Nerello wines it seems almost mandatory to bring up the grape’s similarities with Burgundy and Barolo – or a crossing between the style’s. With no intentions stepping on anyone’s toes I don’t understand the Burgundy similarity but would like to add, a for me, even better comparison, German Spätburgunder. Why? Well, keep on reading and you’ll find out in less than two or three minutes!
Azienda Agricola Graci was founded by Alberto Graci in 2004. Alberto, a native of Catania, returned from his apprenticeship as a Milan banker and took over the family land. Located at Castiglione di Sicilia and Passopiscirao in the province of Catania he , by purchase, expanded the area planted with vines to 20 hectares. The vineyards are planted mainly with the indigenous varieties Catarratto, Carricante, Nerello Cappucchio and Nerello Mascalese – all on the north side of Etna on altitudes of 600 to 1.100 meters above sea level.
Alberto owns three vineyards; the Contrada Arcurìa in the heart of the Etna DOC, the Contrada Barbabecchi in Solicchiata and the newly planted Contrada Feudo di Mezzo.
The Arcurìa vineyard is mainly Nerello Mascalese. In one part of the site the vines are planted 80 centimeters apart in the rows and with 2 meters between the rows. In the other part its alberello – ungrafted Nerello bush vines planted with a meter between the vines in the rows. With a density of 10,000 vines per hectare in one part of the vineyard – and 6,000 in the alberello part, many vines with a most respectable age, low yields and great growing conditions – well, do I need to continue? Pick up a Quota 600 and check out the result!
But wait, it gets even cooler! The second smaller vineyard – the Barbabecchi in Solicchiata – contains two hectares of pre-phylloxera Nerello Mascalese planted in 1904! The ungrafted vines on their own roots grows at an altitude of 1,000 -1,100 meters above sea level and are first harvested in November. The location of the vineyard allows Alberto to use no treatment whatsoever – not even Bordeaux mixture. Feeling you want to taste a Graci bottle now?
The last one, a new planting last year, is the Feudo di Mezzo. The 1,5 hectares are planted with traditional grape varietals such as the Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio for reds and Carricante and Catarratto for whites. Intervention of any kind will be very limited in order to leave the energy of the soil unchanged.
Before moving on – let’s take a closer look at the Etna varietals and mostly on the master grape, Nerello Mascalese.
Nerello Mascalese is the number one grape in the Etna DOC. It ripens late – the harvest normally starts in the middle of October – has large clusters and gives large berries with thin skin. As with many of the Sicilian varietals it is believed to have been brought to the island from Greece. As with many other great varietals it shows a floral note both in the bouquet and on the palate. The wines are delicate and to use a perhaps well-worn phrase – feminine.
The other Nerello – the Nerello Cappuccio, also seen under the name of Nerello Mantellato – also plays an important role and is often used for blending. Believed to be genetically linked to Carignane it is still not confirmed. Adds spiciness to an Etna Rosso.
The white varietals, Carricante and Cataratto, where the former shows most unique character, are also to be found at Etna. Carricante is typical for the DOC and is grown on higher topography, around 1,000 meters above sea level. Noted for both its high acidity and a low pH level which results in wines with impressive longevity. Cataratto is more typical for Sicily and more widely planted. It clones easily which has resulted in lots of new members of the Cataratto clone family.
What about Muncibeddu then – the Sicilian name for Mount Etna – why is it such an exceptional place for vine cultivation?
First of all, its conical shape means a 360-degree range of exposure to the sun. The different altitudes gives a variety of volcanic microclimates and of course microclimate’s in general.
However, not all sides of the volcano is suitable for vines. To the east it is more humid due to the fact it faces the Mediterranean. On the south side the issue is spelled dryness. The best place ‘to be’ is between the communities of Linguaglossa and Randazzo on the side of the volcano – facing towards the city of Taormina. The area will hardly see an explosion of growth since only around 2,000 hectares are growable. All prepared for wines of mythical and hard-to-get proportions.
The wines that made me eager to learn more about Nerello Mascalese and to buy my largest lot ever of Italian wine were primarily the 2006 Quota 600 but also the 2008 Etna Rosso – both from Alberto Graci.
Alberto’s philosophy is simple; local indigenous varieties that reflects the terroir of Mount Etna. As little human intervention as possible, both in the vineyards and in the cellar work is also a key philosophy for him. As he says: “The region and the soil determine the character, not us”.
The wines are matured in stainless steel tanks or in large old oak vats. Alberto doesn’t use the normal barrique – only vertical large wooden called ‘tini’ – and large, well-used barrels. Why? Simply to intervene as little as possible and to best let the vines reflect their different personalities -and of course the variations of the harvests.
Since Alberto owns vineyards ranging from altitudes at 600 meters above sea level – to around 1000 meters – you don’t have to be an Einstein to figure out what great differences that will mean climatically. Nerello Mascalese adapts excellent to the differences in both altitude and weather which makes it such a treasure to work with for a winemaker.
The fermentation takes place in a combination of large cement and Austrian oak, aaround 30-35 C temperature. Alberto uses wild yeast. After fermentation the wine is transferred into slightly smaller Gamba barrels. Graci strives for the reductive quality of large oak in order to capture the character of the soil and fruit. No styling here with French barriques!
Alberto makes three wines; the Etna Rosso DOC, the Quota 600 Etna Rosso DOC and the Quota 1000 Nerello Mascalase IGT.
Tasting notes on the 2008 Etna Rosso and the 2006 Quota 600:
2008 Etna Rosso DOC, Azienda Agricola Graci:
Pale in color, like a maturing Nebbiolo. Young, expressive nose with red berries (lingonberry, wild strawberry, raspberry), plenty of mineral reminding me a bit of the Sercial’s of Madeira with a smoky scent, a floral note and a scent which sends me to German Spätburgunder; sagebrush. It’s quite unique in its style and although I can relate to the comparison to Barolo I believe this is more a result of not knowing where to place this special style of wine.
Pure red berries on the palate, spices, high acidity, iron like taste, lots of fruit and delicate tannins. It’s a joy to drink and works stupendously well with several kinds of dishes; whether they are fish-, shellfish or meat based. Drink this while you’re waiting for the:
2006 Quota 600 Etna Rosso to show its complete register. It’s a thrill to enjoy already today but in need of several of hours in the decanter. Sourced from the Arcurìa vineyard the hot 2006 resulted in the harvest starting on the 20th of October. Only 30 hectoliters per hectare was yielded – which is 3 or 4 bunches per vine. Maceration on skin for 12 days and then transferred to wooden tini’s for 14 months. Malolactic fermentation occured naturally. Given one year on the bottle before released.
As with the Etna Rosso a pale red color. Right after opening a very promising bouquet and taste which already there indicated this is extraordinary stuff with unique personality. After four hours of decanting it opened up gracefully with smoky notes, flowers, sagebrush, red berries and with that’je ne sais quoi’ feeling you just can’t put words on. Terrific stuff and one of the bouquet’s of the year so far!
Luscious taste with lingering acidity, integrated tannins and luxurious pure red fruit. Smoky mineral feel, orange peel, violets and again the sagebrush sending me to Germany. But frankly; this wine shall not be compared with others; others should rather be compared with the Quota 600 – a reference point for elegance in a glass! Long pure finish. This will probably benefit from a furter two or three years of cellaring and keep for just as many.
2008 Etna Rosso DOC, Azienda Agricola Graci, 90 points
2006 Quota 600, Etna Rosso, Azienda Agricola Graci, 93 points
Where do you live? Berry Bros & Rudd in UK retails the Graci wines. The Etna Rosso is £16,95 and the Quota 600 is £29,50. Savings at a dozen. For other stores consult wine-searcher or wein.cc for Etna wines in general.
For my Swedish readers give the recently started Adlibitum Vinhandel a closer look and especially their great assortment on the wines of the Etna producer Tenuta delle Terre Nere.
Are you an importer? Quick; check the ‘Graci status’ in your country! If available do not hesitate – act!
* Pictures and information on the Graci estate generously provided by Mr. Alberto Graci.
** For further reading check out the article from Wine Enthusiast Magazine – an article which also has been of great help for me.