Sicilian Wine Adventures – Part 31; Hanging With Giuseppe Russo

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Mouth-to mouth resuscitation of a long gone article series……aaaaaaaaand it’s back! No, I never stopped pouring those gorgeous and transparent wines from Etna. Just had to temporarily kill a darling or two posting wise. But then a bit unexpectedly I’m standing there again, on the slopes of Mount Etna, choked with the urge to tell the world about the joys of Nerello Mascalese. So, here goes, part 31 from an island hard to resist.

It’s early March. The weather is gorgeous and the view from Catania is nothing but magnificent; clear blue skies with the majestic volcano dominating the picture. Two hours later I’m in Passopisciaro, a tiny village roughly 700 meters above the sea level, and it’s pouring down with rain. Etna’s hiding behind a wall of grey clouds and for a second I feel duped; what about the great photos I was supposed to shoot?

Via Guardiola, Passopisciaro

Via Guardiola in Passopisciaro

In Passopisciaro I’m meeting up with my cicerone for the day, the most humble and likable Giuseppe Russo. Signore Russo runs the family boutique estate of Girolamo Russo; a young business with the first wine released only in 2006. Still, the vineyards has been with the family for a long time. It’s just that Giuseppe’s father, Girolamo, never bottled himself but sold the grapes to producers. When Giuseppe took over after his father passed away, he decided to start bottling under an own label – Girolamo Russo. Less than a decade later much has happened. Although the wines impressed from the very start, they’re today even better. More defined and with greater expression of its origin. Probably a combination of gained confidence and a more clear view of what Giuseppe strives for.

“They’ve just arrived,” Giuseppe tells me and points at the Slovenian tonneaux. “I will start using them with the 2015 harvest. If I don’t like the style I can always go back to the barrique,” he tells me and points at the modest storage facilities of the smaller casks. Until now he has been using barrique only for the ageing of his red wines. More new oak in the two premium wines, Feudo and San Lorenzo, seasoned for the ‘a Rina. But the feeling is still lesser oak in more recent vintages compared to his first releases.

Girolamo Russo

The cantina of Girolamo Russo

We’ve just returned back to the cantina after a vineyard safari and end up talking about 2014. Giuseppe’s almost rolling his eyes when explaining how good it turned out. “I loved the 2011’s, but 2014, é buono,” he says with bonheur. The first wine to demonstrate this is his 2014 Rosato made entirely with Nerello Mascalese. It’s a pale wine, not much color here, but the identification marks of the grape surely are evident. Pomeogranate, oozing wet rocks, a dash of flowers. Bone dry on the palate and with impressive concentration. Fine acidity adds precision. Yet it’s easy to understand and enjoy. Reminds a bit of the rosato from Tenuta delle Terre Nere. There will be around 5,000 bottles of the 2014 which is up for bottling now. To compare, Giuseppe also fetches a bottle of the 2013 Rosato. A different animal, more delicate in its appearance, but nonetheless a fine wine as well. It becomes quite evident already at the rosé level how big a vintage variation the Etna producers are experiencing every year.

Feudo, Etna

Feudo

When heading for the Feudo vineyard, Giuseppe points to the right side where yet a trademark of Etna is cultivated. Hazelnuts. “Next time you visit, all these are gone. I’m going to uproot them and plant more Nerello,” he tells me. For a hazelnut allergic like myself this is extra good news; I salute every step towards more vines in the world and less nuts. But it’s also easy to understand him. The location is a top one and, no offense dear friends of hazelnuts, it’s a waste of great land at the moment. The Feudo are divided in to different parts, younger vines and older. Giuseppe also divides the site depending on the soil composition and vinifies these lots separately. “This part is more rocks,” he says and shows me; “Totally different in style.” At the winery we’re tasting the 2014 parcels from Feudo and yes, the difference is remarkable. The younger vines, while delicious, doesn’t possess the depth as the older ones. But what strikes me the most when tasting the different parcels is again Giuseppe’s words on 2014 – é buono.

Giuseppe has a small part in the Calderara Sottana, just half a hectare with vines. While heading to it he suddenly honks in a road curve and waves with one hand at a meeting car. “de Grazia,” he says. “The Terre Nere guy.” Giuseppe hasn’t decided yet if he’s keeping the small parcel in Calderara Sottana. As it also has a house and garden the land is of course attractive. At the cantina I’m for the very first time tasting it on its own. The Sottana is blended in to the ‘a Rina and I prefer it significantly to the for example younger vines at Feudo (which also goes in the blend). I’m mentioning it to Giuseppe; that I’d love to see it standing on its own legs. However, the production is so small and he tells me the ‘a Rina gains a lot of class with this particular parcel in the final blend.

2012 San Lorenzo, Girolamo Russo

Next one up for bottling/labeling – 2012 San Lorenzo

The 2013 ‘a Rina has been bottled just two weeks before my visit so it’s a bit of upset at the moment. Still, we’re tasting it and it’s a subtle and delicate wine with just a faint hint of oak. It’s constantly improving, the ‘a Rina, and having the cask samples of ’14 in mind I guess this will be Giuseppe’s best when it is blended and bottled. More Feudo is tasted and also different lots of San Lorenzo, the best vineyard of his. At least that’s my impression. Again, the ’14 is huge. Amazing concentration and acidity. Behind it all there’s a bunch of tannins hiding. It reaches 15 percent but who cares when the balance is already there?

San Lorenzo, Etna

San Lorenzo, the old vines

The life of a boutique winery slowly moves forward. No huge steps is possible to take; something that becomes clear when Giuseppe shows me his future tasting room. A deserted house at one of his vineyards is slowly getting renovated and at this time of the year he has more time to continue the work on it. He has a tiny team of employees but time is limited for all projects. Money as well. But that tasting room will truly be something….the view from it is amazing.

It’s so easy to like this guy. His commitment, the wines, the passion. “Please Niklas, come visit me one harvest and help out. You’re invited,” he says before we say good bye. I actually think I will…..

Sunset at Etna

Sunset at Etna, seen from Taormina

Find the wines of Giuseppe? There are five wines from Girolamo Russo; ‘a Rina, Feudo, San Lorenzo, the white Nerina and the rosato. Use wine-searcher to locate them in your area.

30 more posts on Sicily here.

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