A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nerello Mascalese - Sicily, Italy

If Nerello Mascalese was a person, it would have a serious little-brother complex.    It's never been considered the greatest grape in Sicily and has been greatly overshadowed for many many years by the Nero d'Avola grape.  Nero d'Avola was itself little known outside of Sicily until not that long ago, but now it is hands down the most well-known and well-regarded Sicilian grape, especially among the red  varieties.

It's difficult to talk about Nerello's recent presence in our lives and on our shelves without talking a little about the Nero d'Avola effect.  For a long, long time, Sicily was not regarded as a place for fine wine production by most of the world.  They grow a ton of grapes all over Sicily, but the overwhelming majority of the juice from those grapes ends up in bulk wine production or at the distillery.  Of course there were people on the island who were interested in making fine wines and who, for the most part, were succeeding in that task, but they were small voices in a loud crowd, so to speak, and the reputation of Siclian wines overall was still not that great in spite of their successes.  They could have tried to do what a number of different regions have done and decide to try their hand with the International grape varieties, which do grow well and flourish in the Sicilian climate, but if they had gone that route and tried to compete with the great wine regions of the world, I suspect they probably wouldn't have succeeded.  Cabernet from a region known for cheap wines is still just cheap Cabernet and that identification with mass-produced, cheap wines is a difficult barrier to pass.

What they really needed was something that would separate and differentiate them from the other wine regions of the world.  They found that something in the Nero d'Avola grape.  The story is similar to the phenomenon of Australian Shiraz or Argentine Malbec.  The Aussies didn't have an original product, but they had a different name for it that made it stand out from the other bottles on the shelf.  Argentina wasn't the only place making wines from the Malbec grape, but they were the only ones doing it in quantities that would make the wines easily accessible to nearly every consumer.  The trick was finding a little niche in the market that wasn't adequately filled by some other region and making the case that what you were filling that niche with was not only exciting and interesting, but was really only available from you, which is of course not true with Syrah or Malbec, but the marketing machines convinced a lot of people that it was.  The great thing about Nero d'Avola for the Sicilians was that they didn't even really have to spin it.  Nero d'Avola is only grown in Sicily and is only available from Sicilian winemakers.  They had a real, original wine to offer.

These wines were new and interesting, but they were also well made and tasty.  Consumers flocked to these wines because they were something different, but they stuck around because the wines were actually pretty good.  Even though the overwhelming majority of wine made in Sicily is still bulk (only 5% ultimately ends up in bottle and only 2% of that is DOC classified), those winemakers who were interested in reaching a different demographic had finally found their in-road with the Nero d'Avola grapes.  Consumers were now willing to buy and drink not only wines made from Nero d'Avola, but also wines from Sicily in general.  The tide rose and raised a lot of ships, which, finally, brings us to our featured grape, Nerello Mascalese.  Nerello and many of the other interesting Sicilian grapes are traveling the path blazed by the success of the Nero d'Avola grape.

There are actually two different Nerellos.  Mascalese is the more common of the two and is named for the plain of Mascali at the base of Mt. Etna, the Sicilian volcano that has really been the epicenter for quality wine production within Sicily.  The other Nerello is called Cappuccio, though I'm not sure why.  The two are almost always blended together since they tend to have complimentary characteristics.  One is lighter in color but higher in tannins while the other has deep color but low tannins.  I'm not sure which contributes which, and there is no real consensus about which of the two grapes is considered superior.  The important thing to remember is that they usually travel together and when they do, you're much more likely to see a higher proportion of Mascalese in the blend than Cappuccio.

The grape has been grown around Mt. Etna for at least 200 years.  It does well on the volcanic soils and can be especially nice when grown on higher altitude sites on the volcano.  Despite the fairly long established history and the lack of similar grapes in any other region, Nerello is probably not native to Sicily.  A study done in 2008 (source) found that Nerello Mascalese is almost certainly the offspring of the Sangiovese grape and some other unidentified parent, meaning that it probably came over from the Italian mainland at some point.  This puts Nerello in some interesting company, as the same study also found that Frappato and Gaglioppo, among others, had the same kind of relationship to Sangiovese, meaning that all of those grapes are at least half brothers with one another.

I was able to find a handful of different bottles of Nerello representing several different styles and philosophies. The first wine that I tried was a NV Casa Fondata Valdo that I picked up at Bauer Wine and Spirits for about $13.  This is actually made in the Prosecco region of Italy from Prosecco grapes (also known as Glera) and Nerello grapes or juice that they bring up from Sicily.  There's minimal skin contact with the Nerello grapes, so there's very little color, and the wine made in the Charmat method, as is most Prosecco, so it's much fruitier than your typical Champagne method sparkler.  In the glass the wine was a pale salmon pink color that was nice and fizzy.  The nose was fairly aromatic with bright, fruity strawberry and green apple aromas.  On the palate, the wine was on the lighter side of medium with medium acidity and nice bubbles. There were flavors of strawberry and raspberry candy with snappy green apple backing it up.  This is all fruit and is as simple as it can be, but it's nice and tasty and is something that's definitely a little bit different.  I'm sure Prosecco has some great food matches, but I always just like to drink it on its own and have a little fun with it.  For $13, it's really hard to go wrong.

The next wine that I picked up was the 2008 Nicosia Nerello Mascalese that I grabbed from my friends at Bin Ends for about $10.  It's more representative of the kind of everyday table wine you may find at your local wine shop.  In the glass, the wine was a fairly light ruby color.  The nose was nicely aromatic with red cherry and smoke aromas along with some stewed red berries.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acid and low tannins.  There were flavors of sour cherry and redcurrant fruit along with some dried herbs and chocolate on the finish.  As the wine opens up, the fruit flavors move away from the red end of the spectrum towards the black with more black cherry, black plum, smoke, chocolate and baking spice showing up.  It's a good, solid, Italian food wine that would be great with anything with a tomato sauce or with some braised red meats.  At $10 a bottle, it's a good, solid value wine that isn't going to blow you away, but is going to be well-made, well-structured and well-suited to a variety of different kinds of food.

The final wine that I'll be talking about is probably the most interesting and the most divisive.  A few weeks ago, my friends over at the Wine Bottega put on a tasting of the wines from Frank Cornelissan, the Madman of Etna.  The Cornelissan estate is really serious about the concept minimal intervention in the vineyard and in the winery and they take it about as far as it can go.  The wines made by Frank Cornelissan come as close as wine can come to that line that separates wine as a beverage from vinegar as a condiment.  They go into their philosophy in some detail on the website linked above and I encourage you to read what they have to say.

The estate makes three different red wines ranging in price from about $27 to about $150.  Each wine at each price point is made from grapes harvested at a certain altitude on the slopes of Mt. Etna with the most expensive wines made from grapes grown at the highest elevations.  The guys at the Bottega were nice enough to let us sample all of the different cuvees and even opened a few bottles from previous vintages that they had been squirelling away. I ended up buying a bottle of the Contadino 8, which is the bottom of the line cuvee, for about $27.  There is no vintage on the wine and the number is an indication of how many times he's made that particular cuvee before.  This is the 8th incarnation of the Contadino blend, which is mostly Nerello Mascalese, but it would be something of a fool's errand to try and figure out exactly which grapes are in this bottle.  The wine is unsulfured and unfiltered so I had to store it in the fridge upright until I was ready to drink it, at which point I took it out and let it come to room temperature over 24 hours.  I then very carefully decanted the wine twice to leave as much sediment behind as possible (when I did get some sediment, it was fairly bitter, so avoid it if you can).  In the glass, the wine is a light ruby red color that is more serious than a rosé but less dark than you'd expect from a red wine.  The nose was nicely aromatic with bright red cherry and candied cherry fruits and damp, forest floor kind of aroma.  In the glass, the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of red cherry, wild raspberry, wild strawberry, black tea and damp leaves.  The wine develops with incredible speed as it sits in the decanter in the glass and the bright red flavors get darker and duskier.  It reminded me a lot of some of the Trousseau from the Jura that I had or even of really funky Burgundy.  It's a wild, savage wine that is really unlike anything I've ever had before.  It's hard to recommend it unequivocally to people, as it is certainly not going to be everyone's kind of thing, but if you're looking for a weird, wild, different kind of wine adventure, give something in the Cornelissan line a shot.

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