Mount Etna is Europe's most furious active volcano. Growing grapes here on those calcined hills (still erupting fire, smoke and lava) is as extreme as viticulture can get. The reward for such a courageous enterprise is producing some of the world's finest and most exciting wines.
This is not a strange tale, as Etna put on its best show once again a couple of months ago. Etna wines are unpredictable, even fragile. This volcanic capriciousness of Mount Etna means that its shape, height and geology have shifted multiple times due to countless eruptions in the past millennia, resulting in the consequent richness and diversity of soils along its slopes.
When Etna erupts it brings down different layers of soil, it burns whatever it finds on its way and then settles that down on top of the land. The lava stones enrich the soil with very important nutrients for viticulture (iron, copper, phosphorus, magnesium and others). Generally speaking, Etna soils are formed by several types of lava of different age and different eruptive centers, with an addition of sand and ash.
Thanks to the half-moon (or belt) shape of the region, stating that these wines are just an Etna DOC is way too generic. This shape causes thousands of micro-climates for the vineyards planted all around, each of them having a different exposure to the sun, elevation, soil and level of Mediterranean influence with respect to the others.
The highest of Etna vineyards rank among the highest in the world, being the best vineyards located at around 800 m of elevation. This altitude ensures a long ripening season, with harvest taking place towards mid-October. High altitude also means diurnal temperature fluctuations. In summer, daytime heat gives way to cool nights. The black soils also help to keep the vines warm at night with re-radiated heat. There is also evidence that the intense sunlight reflected from the Mediterranean also aids grape ripening.
All of the above are crucial factors for the wines to develop their full aromatic potential, as well as preserving their acid backbone, which is what will turn Etna wines into aging bombs.
The finest Etna terroir lies on the north side of the half moon. It’s much drier and breezier there, reducing pests and fungal disease pressure. That makes organic cultivation easier too.
Right there, in that northern face, halfway between the sea and the sky in Sicily, you’ll find Marco de Grazia’s Mount Etna estate, Tenuta delle Terre Nere. His first commercial release was only in 2002, but the youth of his estate did not impede him from becoming one of the best in his class, and a reference point vigneron to all who care about Etna's indigenous varietals.
Marco de Grazia is one of the pioneers who turned Etna's winemaking world around upon his arrival to the area in the early 2000s after one guy from Etna asked him to incorporate his wines within his consultancy company's portfolio for distribution purposes. His company has been promoting fine Italian wines since 1980. Over ninety small estates from fourteen Italian wine regions are represented with an emphasis on significant terroir (Cru) and a preference for indigenous varietals.
Marco had to see the territory and taste the wines in first person before making a decision of such caliber. Thus, he went there and finally didn’t take that winery's wines into his portfolio because he didn't consider them up to his viticultural standards. However, he decided to hang around tasting many more wines from local growers. The wines were homemade but he saw infinite potential. Long story short, he set a house, bought some vineyards, had someone to cultivate them and he started to make spectacular wines.
His idea was very simple: talking to local vine growers in order to identify the Grand Cru sites and buy them, because if you start bottling Grand Crus, even if you don't understand that variety fully at the beginning, eventually you’ll make a great wine.
Crus, per se, were not classified at all in Etna, however locals knew where the good sites were. A Cru is a vineyard which gives you a superior quality wine in return. More sophisticated, more complex and more complete, which squeezes itself with discretion rather than being muscular and powerful.
Marco de Grazia works under biological principles since 2002. He does not apply unitary practices but treats each of the vineyards to their specific needs. Inside the winery his work is simple and complex at the same time as part of the work is instinctive (based on pure taste) and scientific. His work in the cellar is getting better and better because he is becoming less visible. He is getting out of the way as the main intention is to let the vineyard express itself, leaving his ego as winemaker aside.
2002 is the very first vintage he bottled, starting straight away sticking up to the Cru principle, being Guardiola the very first. Since then, 3 more Crus would follow:
Calderara Sottana in 2003, pre-phylloxera vines grow in here still in its original root. This Cru tends to be warmer and richer. More summery.
Feudo di Mezzo in 2004, is the biggest vineyard between the four Crus. It is perhaps for this reason why it is more difficult to squeeze all the expressiveness of its character.
Sto. Spirito in 2007, year in which the winery is also finalised.
When he released his 4th Cru, no importer wanted to stock the full range because he was not a Burgundian vigneron. However, he was obsessed on showing that each of Etna's Contradas (ancient estates, usually coinciding with specific lava flows) has variations in soil, aspect and nuance, not unlike Burgundy‘s climate.
In this way, Marco became the first to adopt the Burgundian concept of the Cru. After many tug of war with the Denomination of Origin, it has succeeded in gaining relevance to these magical enclaves. "The Burgundy of the Mediterranean" he estates proudly in each of his back labels as Etna is the place where terroir will change dramatically from a little place to another little place, resulting in wines that are delicate creatures that express themselves with discretion.
Something oneiric happens when you taste a Cru and we put at your disposition the two Crus Vera and I like the most within our Duo Set:
Nerello Mascalese is a high-quality variety which isn’t easy – low yields are vital to avoid a mean, astringent mess, and new oak does it few favours – something most producers now thankfully seem to have learned, demonstrating Nerello’s brilliance at transmitting terroir.
Calderara Sottana and Sto. Spirito are radically different:
Sto. Spirito is at higher altitude then it’s more floral as the terroir seems to deliver more spring like flavors and textures. High tone of freshness, dressed up with finesse and elegance.
The blend is 98% Nerello Mascalese, 2% Nerello Cappuccio from 40-100 year old vines grown in deep volcanic soils at an altitude ranging from 700 to 750 meters of altitude. Aged in French oak for 18 months.
Calderara Sottana is richer, ampler, with more body as well as resulting more horizontal and less vertical in its delivery. Warmer. Is more summer-like, a bit more approachable than Sto. Spirito yet keeping an incredible potential to lay down in your cellar.
This Cru is sourced from two vineyards, totalling roughly 15 hectares, at an altitude of 650-650 meters. A small portion of Calderara is made out of pre-phylloxera vines, the remainder from 50 to 100 years old. The soil is extremely rocky and volcanic black pumice. Also aged in French oak barriques and tonneaux for 18 months.
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