Son Of A Lesser God: Sparkling Wines From Almost Unknown Grapes: Nerello Mascalese

30th May 2024

Son Of A Lesser God Sparkling Wines From Almost Unknown Grapes Nerello Mascalese

Our journey to discover sparkling wines made from lesser-known grapes takes us to Sicily, and more precisely to Mount Etna, where the indigenous Nerello Mascalese grape grows. This grape is undoubtedly the undisputed protagonist of Etna Rosso DOC and also contributes 40-50% to the DOC Faro blend. It is well-suited for sparkling wine production.

Nerello Mascalese is so called after the farmers of the Mascali Plain, who cultivated it on the volcanic sands since the XVI century. Today, it is found at altitudes ranging from 350 to 1000 meters above sea level. On the northern slopes of Mount Etna, around Randazzo city, you can still find ancient, ungrafted bush-trained vines, untouched by phylloxera due to the soil’s inhospitable nature for the pest.

The grape bunches are compact, medium-sized, and have a cylindrical-conical shape. The berries are medium-sized, with a pruinose blue-black skin. The ripening is late, with harvests typically occurring between the second and third weeks of October. The grape has good acidity and tannins, making the red wines particularly suitable for aging.

Nerello Mascalese is also used to produce sparkling wine, a tradition with ancient roots on Mount Etna. Baron Spitaleri produced Etna’s ‘Champagne’ using a grape considered more precious and noble, Pinot Noir. The introduction of phylloxera to Sicily at the end of the 19th century was due to vines of pinot noir brought from France for this aim.

Sparkling wine production resumed about thirty years ago using the native grape. Several wineries now offer both rosé and blanc de noir versions. Murgo winery, in particular, began production in 1989 thanks to the vision of Michele Scamacca and the enologist Luigi Loguzzo. Their Terre Siciliane IGT Brut is a vintage wine appreciated for its fine perlage and notes of bread crust and white-fleshed fruit.

VSQ Bollenere Blanc de Noir by Antichi Vinai 1877 from Passopisciaro is made from Nerello Mascalese and is available in brut or demi-sec versions, remaining on the lees for at least 6 months. Etna DOC Brut Sosta Tre Santi Millesimato from Tenuta Nicosia originates from grapes grown at an altitude of 1000 meters, requiring at least 36 months of aging and, after disgorging, another 6 months of rest in the bottle before being released. It presents a bright straw yellow color, with aromas reminiscent of flowers, small red fruits, and bakery scents. On the palate, it is creamy and persistent. Tenuta Nicosia was founded in 1898 by Francesco Nicosia, who opened the first shop in Trecastagni on the eastern slope of Etna. Now, the fifth generation, together with enologist Maria Carella, conveys the essence of the volcano in the production of typical and high-quality wines.

Etna DOC Brut Metodo Classico Cottanera is made from 30-year-old Nerello Mascalese vines cultivated on lava-alluvial terraces at about 750 meters of altitude, producing fewer than 4000 bottles. The base wine fermentation occurs, for 25% of the mass, in small French oak barrels. The wine is aged for about 40 months on the lees, followed by 12 months in the bottle. It displays a lively and bright straw yellow color, with aromas of acacia, citrus, and bakery notes. On the palate, the bubbles are silky, with a long finish and persistent taste sensations.

Etna DOC Spumante Metodo Classico Saxanigra Tenuta Destro stays on the lees for a full 36 months and features a bouquet reminiscent of citrus, pastry, butter, almonds, and flint. It exhibits great elegance on the palate, thanks to a fine and pleasant bubble.

Where can you enjoy these fantastic Etnean sparkling wines? If you have chosen Etna for an unforgettable wine tour, don’t forget to visit Sandro, the owner of Cave Ox in Solicchiata, who offers a well-stocked cellar of local and foreign wines paired with authentic Etna cuisine. In Randazzo, a stop at Buongustaio dell’Etna by Pippo Calà is a must for an aperitif or a rich sandwich.

Olga Sofia Schiaffino

Winelover, Sommelier, wine blogger WSET Level 3 passed with distinction. Sparkling wine addict.