Night of the living red: How Nerello Mascalese made a comeback

Darren Smith

Darren Smith

15 July 2019

Wine styles drift in and out of fashion, and some varieties that looked down and out 20 years ago are starting to come back to life. Darren Smith presents five grape varieties that came back from the dead


Nerello Mascalese - Sicily, Italy

When it was famous

‘No more than 30 years ago, no major producer, nor any renowned winemaker, had the slightest inclination to plant vineyards and make wines on an active volcano,’ explains Salvo Foti, founder of I Vignieri, the growers’ organisation set up to preserve Etna’s centuries-old tradition of winemaking from alberello bush vines.

‘We were often referred to as ‘the poor part’ of Sicilian and Italian oenology… The other side of the island produced the best wines.’

In his book, The Wines of Mt Etna, Foti explains that during Roman times, Etna wines were considered among the best in Italy. Nerello Mascalese has been grown here for at least four centuries, probably much longer, while Etna wines have been exported from the port of Riposto since at least the 1500s. Between 1880 and 1890, Etna’s vineyard area was 50,000ha.

It was around this time that individual Nerello Mascalese bottlings began to gain recognition – the Solicchiata of Carlo Tuccari in Castiglione di Sicilia won a gold medal at the Paris World Fair in 1900.

Why it declined

Around 1900, phylloxera devastated vineyards on Etna (though some pre-phylloxera vines do remain) and the historic level of production was never fully restored. High taxes, uneconomically low yields and high labour costs also contributed to the decline.

According to Foti, between 1960 and 2000, vineyard plantings in the province of Catania decreased from 30,000ha to just 3,500ha. Today, DOC Etna (minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese) covers no more than 1,000ha.

How it came back

Even into the new millennium, many old, high-lying vineyards continued to be abandoned. Gradually, however, new vineyards were replanted, old vines were recovered and new cellars were built.

Benanti is often credited with spearheading the revolution, but of the 50 or so producers on Etna these days, the narrative thread might also include I Vigneri, Passopisciaro, Tenuta delle Terre Nerre, Pietradolce, Frank Cornelissen, Vino di Anna and relative newcomers like Eduoardo Torres, Planeta and Etnella.

Why it’s good

Nerello Mascalese gives flavours of sweet red fruit, strawberry, tobacco, black pepper, herbs and flinty minerality.

Etna is often described as the ‘Burgundy of Italy’, and Nerello has even better acid than Pinot, while its excellent tannin profile also contributes to its ageability.

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