A Volatile

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Nerello Mascalese: Great wines often come from memorable landscapes.
“When I got out of the car, I looked up and noted a single cloud in an otherwise perfectly blue sky,” remembers wine importer Oliver McCrum, recalling his first visit to Mount Etna. “Later, I returned to the car, and, as I was getting in, I observed that the cloud was oddly in the exact same place as before. Then it dawned on me: it wasn’t a rain cloud. That was smoke coming from the volcano.”
Great wines often come from memorable landscapes, yet few vineyards in the world are as extraordinary as those that surround Mount Etna on the Italian island of Sicily. And today, there are no wines more exciting or drawing more interest from wine cognoscenti than the reds from Etna. Europe’s largest active volcano is truly active—continuously spewing streams of lava and puffs of smoke. This crusty, smoky environment, with its hardened banks of black magma, stunted trees, and precipitous slopes, seems an unlikely place for anything to live, let alone so pastoral a crop as the wine grape. Vineyards, farms—indeed, whole villages—exist in utter peril of being engulfed by an unpredictable, inexorable stream of molten rock (it’s happened many times in the past). If you’re looking for excitement in a wine, this is the one you should have on your radar.
It typically exudes an irresistibly heady perfume...
that speaks to its incendiary origins.
Then it dawned on me: 
it wasn’t a rain cloud.
That was smoke coming
from the volcano.
Called Etna Rosso (a modest name, meaning, simply, “red from Etna”), this wine is not only delicious, it’s freakishly different from anything produced nearby. Unlike the typical reds of Sicily and southern Europe, which tend to be dark, heavy, baked, muscular and rich, the red wine of Mount Etna—made from a grape called Nerello—is often translucently light in color. It typically exudes an irresistibly heady perfume of fresh raspberry or wild strawberry, and a distinctive aroma of smoky earth that speaks to its incendiary origins. Its body is medium in heaviness with a tannic grip that’s surprising for a purportedly delicate wine. What’s more, it appears to have something elusive to most red grapes: an extreme sensitivity to, and tendency to express, that ephemeral quality known as terroir—the ability of a wine to transmit signifiers of the particular place it was grown. In this sense, Etna Rosso “is much like a cross between a Burgundy and Barolo/Barbaresco,” says wine importer and winemaker Marco de Grazia, citing two iconic wines known for their distinctive terroir. “That doesn’t mean that they really taste alike, but that there is an affinity, an identity that is inescapable. It’s unique in its freshness and fragrance when young.”
With a history of producing low-priced bulk wine, many of the vineyards of Etna were abandoned, after the wars and the hardships of the twentieth century, as the cost of making wine there was too high for the proceeds it fetched. Thus, prime plantings of old vines have been reclaimed at surprisingly reasonable costs. The task now is to refine the wines—learning how to tame their sometimes-fierce acidity and hard tannins without giving up their heavenly aromas and flavors—and get the word out.
Although they have a cult appeal based on their complexity and uniqueness, they’re also obviously delicious, versatile and generally affordable. They’re delightful, even if they happen to come from a brooding, smoking, magma-belching, dangerously unpredictable place.
Photos courtesy of Tenuta delle Terre Nere
...it appears to have something elusive to most red grapes:
an extreme sensitivity to...that ephemeral quality known as terroir…