I know, I know, when I geek out on a wine oftentimes it's so obscure nobody has heard of it and certainly can't find it. But sometimes I come across a wine or category of wines that are so unique and speak so loudly of their terroir, or sense of place that I just can't help singing its praises. That wine right now for me is Etna Rosso.
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Etna Rosso, as the name implies comes from the slopes of Mount Etna on the east coast of Sicily. The people who farm there, some of whom have for generations, others are newcomers, all of them have a helluva lot of nerve to live and farm on the high slopes of an active volcano. "No thanks" as far as I'm concerned. However, when you taste the results of their efforts you begin to understand the motivation behind these fearless farmers and winemakers.
Farming on the side of a volcano does have some advantages. The soils are rich in minerals from thousands of years of lava flow on top of lava flow, and they are loose enough to be well drained allowing the vines to struggle for water which results in more complex wines. Most of the vineyards are dry farmed, which means with no irrigation, further challenging the vines to find and hold on to water.
The area for Etna Rosso occupies what they call the "belt," which is a semicircular area from about 1000 feet above sea level and stretching up to 3500 feet, some of the highest elevated vineyards in Europe. The belt starts on the southeast of the mountain and goes around to the east and ends with north facing vineyard sights, some of the only north facing vineyards in the world. The soils are literally black, some of it sandy, some of it with little pumice pebbles and other spots have larger pumice stones, definitely not a place to walk in bare feet!
Because of the elevation the temperature swings from day to night are gigantic, another grapegrowing plus. All of these marginal, and extreme qualities are what ends up imparting these wines with a complexity of character that exists in very few other places.
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Etna Rosso is made up of primarily narello mascalese grape, a thin skinned late ripener, and it's more robust stable mate narello cappuccio. The best ones are mostly narello mascalese with only a few percent narello cappuccio. They can vary based on what part of the mountain they're coming from. The southern areas tend to produce richer fruit and higher tannin, where the north puts out perfumed, subtle and ethereal wines. All of them show a vibrant almost anxious amount of acid, as if it's going to leap out of your glass any minute. Marked by fresh red fruit character the wines are refreshing and very easy to pair with food.
But what makes the wines special is the minerality. Pronounced aromas of crushed rock, talc, even wrought iron in some of them. This is the quality that made my palate sit up and pay attention. These wines are not super easy to find but they are around, the best part is that they are not that expensive, yet. Go out and search for one, and I bet your palate will sit up and pay attention too.
When I'm not writing this column, or reading vintage charts to my daughter, you can find me pouring wine at FnB.