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Nerello Mascalese

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Overnight successes are rarely that. In the world of wine there are occasions when regions that have been producing for years seem suddenly to gain traction in the market. In the noughties the rise of off-dry Prosecco, crisp Albarino from Rias Baixas, black cherry scented Pinot Noir from Central Otago and the Languedoc’s oyster friendly Picpoul de Pinet (to name but a few), became vital additions to any wine-list with pretensions of modernity. In the 2010’s the re-discovery of white wines fermented on their skins, aka ‘orange’ wines, the proliferation of minimal intervention ‘natural’ wines with their restrained use of sulphur dioxide (SO2), and the global thirst for the seductive Pinots of Burgundy, demonstrates the ever shifting sands of public and journalistic opinion.

Like most fashion, much is a barely changed interpretation, or reboot, of a previous expression. As a teenager I had to endure my mother’s commentary on the similarity of certain contemporary styles with those she had worn in the sixties. Like any self-obsessed adolescent who believes that they know more than the generation that went before, I pulled a face and ignored my mother’s obvious truths. Now I am tempted on occasion to say the same thing to my sixteen year old, but resist where possible. Why would she believe or be interested in the ruminations of her Dad?

Having recently returned from Sicily (where I had been fortunate enough to be a guest of Sicilia En Primeur 2017, Sicily’s most significant wine fair), another wine region, Etna, is perhaps the most obvious ‘new’ darling of those in the know. In some ways Etna really is new. It is true that there were vineyards producing wine on this uncommonly active volcano’s slopes in the 19th century, yet as recently as twenty years ago there was but a handful of serious estates that were crafting wines worthy of discussion beyond Sicily’s cerulean border. Now there are more than 130 and with the ever-ebullient Angelo Gaja, deeming this the right time to join the Etna party, the focus on these volcanic slopes will only increase.

So what is it that makes Etna special and does it really have the necessary quality to join southern Italy’s other great vinous gift to the world, the Aglianico based wines of Taurasi in Campania? Two weeks ago I would have been non-committal, simply because I had tasted too little to have an opinion that was worthy of sharing. The wines I had tasted were mainly red, the product of the principal black grape of the region, Nerello Mascalese. From the very first time that I pulled the cork on my first bottle of Nerello (approximately four years ago), I recognised the potential. They are aromatic, firm and fresh and taste like they have the ability to age gracefully, the problem was that I had never tried an example older than that produced in 2009. That particular bottle also seemed a little tired, with the ample structure still in place but with a fruit profile that had begun the slow slide to obscurity. What I wanted was to see if Nerello Mascalese could be transformed, i.e. could it move with time from being invitingly nubile to something altogether more flavoursome and complete.

The two bottles that proved that this was indeed possible both originated from one of the great names of Etna: Benanti. Tasting their Rovitello and Serra della Contessa from the 2004 vintage demonstrated that high quality Nerello in the hands of the experienced can result in greatness. Both remained perfumed and pretty but beneath those remnants of youth was a glut of more savoury smells and flavours. I was reminded (and I’m sure that I am not the first) of a rather delicious marriage of the noble Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir from their respective homes of the Langhe and Burgundy.

So will the wines of Etna prove to be more than a modish nod to the esoteric? Undoubtedly. Make no mistake, the best reds (and the same can be said for the saline whites) are not just very good wines they are fine wines. They deserve both a place in your affections as well as your wine rack and will justifiably be considered a true modern classic before this decade is out.

Names to look out for include:
Barone di Villagrande
Tenuta di Fessina
Alta Mora