Sicilian wine adventures; Part 2 – Nerello Mascalese



Muncibeddu. There’s something sinister, almost ominous in that name. At least if you don’t speak or understand Sicilian. It means beautiful mountain. Now, that isn’t threatening at all, au contraire,  which is a bit confusing considering the volcano is the most active in Europe. Last eruption? Well, how about January this year. When standing at the foot of the mountain it’s easy to understand Muncibeddu’s power of attraction. It is simply breath-taking and suddenly everything’s so logical why people don’t fear the volcano – and moves from the Etna region. You can’t. Not when you’ve experienced Muncibeddu.

How come some of Italy’s not only most exciting wines, but also greatest, emanate from the volcanic soil around the volcano? I thought volcanic soil was too fertile and thus not suitable for vine cultivation, at least not high end wines. But then, how can anyone be so stupid to cultivate vines with an active volcano as neighbor? Suit yourself some might say. To those I have only two words. Nerello Mascalese. Taste it and you will have no further objections regarding the choice of vineyard location. You might even understand what drives these people!

Nerello Mascalese is bliss. Bottled purity. Some say it’s reminiscent of Pinot Noir, others say Nebbiolo. Sure, we’re searching for references but what’s wrong with being unique? Nerello Mascalese is just a grape we’ll have to get used to and learn its unique style. Few grapes manage but for me this was love at first sight, sorry sip, sorry sniff.

Back to the top and fertile soil vs Nerello Mascalese cultivation. There’s an easy explanation. Vines aren’t cultivated on all sides of Etna. The best place is between the communities of Linguaglossa and Randazzo on the side of the volcano – facing towards the city of Taormina. Not too fertile, not too humid, not too dry. The soil is mainly consisting of gravel of volcanic rock and sand. Thus, when realizing the limitations, hectare wise that is, you have it all prepared for wines of mythical and hard-to-get proportions.

Graci’s Quota 600 was one of the coolest glasses last year. Time to present yet a Nerello master which has impressed – Biondi and their 2007 Outis Nessuno and 2007 M I.

Biondi. Landowners at Etna since the 17th century. Producers of wines filled with personality since 1999. That year Ciro Biondi started the tough work to restore the ancient vineyards of his family. Together with his winemaker Salvo Foti they have, considering the short time they worked on this project, managed to bring Monte Ilice and Outis to a 3 Bicchieri rating at Gambero Rosso. Ok, that doesn’t say anything some might say, at least those who has lost their trust in the Gambero ratings. Forget about glasses. Focus on Nerello Mascalese!

Tasting notes on the reds from Biondi – Vintage 2007:

Nessuno. No-one.

2007 Outis Nessuno, Biondi, 91-92 p

The grapes for Outis is being picked at the east facing slope Contrada Ronzini. We’re around 600 meters above sea level and the vines are bush trained on small terraces. Outis Nessuno, meaning no one, is a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio (80/20).

Pale color, almost Pinot Noir style. Popped and allowed to breathe in decanter for twenty minutes. Big mistake. It needed hours and didn’t offer much. To give the wine a fair chance I left it for day two. Day two: Now we’re talking! Ethereal. Cherries and lingonberries, tobacco and a discrete floral note. A more restrained bouquet compared to for example Graci or Tenuta di Fessina.

On the palate the grape’s trademark bids you welcome. Classy tannin structure with an acidity in excellent harmony. Loads of fruit but dry. Cherries and plum skin. Smoke. Again, the ethereal feeling’s there. Intense and cool at the same time. Long, earthy finish. Love this wine. Give it two or three more years of cellaring though.

Monte Ilice, cultivated at 900 meters above sea-level

2007 M I, Monte Ilice, Biondi, 92-93 p

Due to restrictions in the legislation, Ciro can’t name the M I after the crater Monte Ilice where the vineyard are located. We’re at almost 900 meter above sea-level and the vines, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, are trained like bush vines. Dense plantation (8,000 vines/ha) and at respectful age as well, 40 years. The site is just two hectares and due to the gradient all work is carried out by hand. A bottle of M I is so much more than just wine. It is the result of extremely demanding manual labor.

M I was launched back in 2006. I’m having the 2007. More color to this compared with Outis but still a bit pale. Decanted several hours ahead. Quick sniff – just like the Outis there’s an ethereal air to it. Tobacco, dark cherries, cranberries, violets, dusty summer road, dark chocolate and sandal wood. A step up compared to Outis.

On the palate it shows no mercy. A dense tannin structure but still elegant with fine acidity backing up. Great delineation. Dry taste with notes of dark cherries, cocoa, sandal wood, smoke and a spicy feel. Long, intense finish. Still young and in need of a further three or four years cellaring.

Uncompromising wines yet easy to fall in love with.

Europeans can find a tasting package of Biondi here.