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The Grapes Behind Sicily's Etna Rosso Wine: Nerello Mascalese
Nerello Mascalese Grape

Planted amidst the Etna slopes for nearly four centuries, the best estates of Nerello Mascalese have vineyards dating back to the beginning of the 20th century and at least to World War I.  Among the remaining historical vineyards are a few that were planted prior to the Phylloxera invasion.  These historical plots were planted with “small trees” or Alberello vines that reach only a couple feet off of the ground.  This method is also called bush-trained.  When vines are bush-trained each vine have only three or four spurs which extend from their central trunk.  The central trunk is tied to a wooden stake to keep it from toppling over.  The vine density of bush-trained vines is fairly limited.  Bush-trained vines average roughly 3,000-3,300 vines per acre whereas modern trellis vineyard systems average 5,000-8,000 vines per acre.  

Nerello Mascalese Vineyard

Additionally to low vine density, Albarello vines are always harvested late leaving them susceptible to challenging weather conditions.  Especially in the historical vineyards, these Albarello vines are harvested late with a final picking in mid to late November.  

Nerello Mascalese ripens late and most vines are trained in the traditional Albarello or bush-vine method as mentioned previously.  This method has stayed popular throughout history due to this impressive ability to work well in the Etna terroir.  Nerello Mascalese vines are not only grown in Etna, but also dominate the nearby Faro DOC.  Nerello Mascalese surround the port of Messina of the Faro DOC in the hills above the city.  Nerello Mascalese vineyards reach exceptional altitudes in not only the Etna DOC, but also the Faro DOC.  Outside of the two DOCs, Nerello Mascalese is used in a multitude of red wine blends within the Sicily IGT banner.  Most often paired with Sicily’s Nero d’Avola grape which dominates the island.  The IGT blends can be made as rosés, but are most often red blends.  The use of this variety is also permitted in the DOCs of Sant’Anna di Isola Capo Rizzuto, Lamezia, and Savuto as well as across the Strait of Messina in Calabria.  

Nerello Mascalese wines tend to be most herbaceous than its blending mate, Nerello Cappuccio.  To some, a Pinot Noir-like quality is found within Nerello Mascalese wines.  Both Pinot Noir and Nerello Mascalese berries have exceptional abilities to translate even the smallest variation of terroir.  This could contribute to Etna being noted as Italy’s version of Burgundy as the volcanic influences bring on very different wines.  

The name Nerello Mascalese derives from the Mascali plain between the coast and Mount Etna.  The Mascali plain is where it is thought Nerello Mascalese originated.  The prefix “Nerello” refers to the color of the berries; black.  Nerello Cappuccio shares this prefix as well.  Both Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio are found in Etna DOC wines, but Nerello Mascalese makes up the bulk of most Etna Rosso blends as well as vineyard acreage.  

DNA testing has proposed that Nerello Mascalese is likely the offspring of Sangiovese, Italy’s famous grape variety.  Another connection that has been suggested is to Carricante.

“Nerello Mascalese hits your mouth with an explosion of red fruit flavors that leads
into spice notes of cinnamon and floral dried desert herbs.”


Nerello Mascalese Grape

Flavor Profile

Nerello Mascalese wines have tingly acidity with a long finish when finer.  Notes of volcanic earthiness and rustic black, completing with medium tannins.  Most tend to be quite tannic, with flavors of black currant and dried cherry, and medium body.  Spice and tobacco are prominent flavors, but the strongest notes are of silkiness matched with earthiness.

Wine Style

Bringing Etna Rosso blends’ their vibrant acidity and grainy tannins, Nerello Mascalese brings the grip giving Etna Rosso wines definition.  Having much in common with Pinot Noir, Nerello Mascalese’s crimson color and kind tannins are much louder than its Etna Rosso counterpart.  Nerello Cappuccio provides the simple cherry fruit flavor with fresh tannins and a darker hue.  Although DOC regulations require a maximum of 20% Nerello Cappuccio and a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese, some producers have abandoned including Nerello Cappuccio at all.  

In the past decade wine blends made with Mascalese have increased in popularity.  These wines tend to reflect the surroundings in which the grapes were grown, like most Nerello Mascalese wines.  This reflection brings snug, crisp red wines with exceptional minerality, an earthy nuance, and herbaceous, fruity flavors.  The perfume of Nerello Mascalese wines often compare to the wines of Burgundy and Barolo.

Nerello Mascalese Grape

Nerello Mascalese Grape


2016: Mediterranean herb, red berry, and rose aromas harmoniously blend in the deeply hued rosato.  A medium body doles out notes of white pepper, compressed raspberry, and red cherry on the palate framed in bright acidity.
2015: Ruby red wine bright in the glass.  Strong aromas of red flowers, fruits, and spices are present.  Vibrant and intense, full-bodied with powerful red fruit dominating the character.  Silky, with a warm texture, this wine is well-balanced with a consistent finish. 
2014: Powerful aromas hover just above the surface of this full-bodied wine.  Soft, yet dense with the front-running aroma of sandalwood.  The sandalwood aroma lightens the expected aromas of Etna lavas, typically camphor and citrus.  
2013: Loaded with red apple, pink grapefruit, and cherry flavors is this noble rosato.   While fresh acidity keeps it crisp, a touch of cloves adds to the interest of Sicily’s linear red wine.  
2012: Capturing the attention immediately are the dark mineral refinements thanks to their fierceness and purity.  Compressed rose, scorched earth, and dried cherries are presented completely on the nose. Despite these aromas, the wine also shows a richness or elegance prettier than you’d expect in a Nerello Mascalese. 
2011: Ruby red, this wine exudes notes of red fruits and minerally smokiness.  These notes complement the violet, cherry, and spice undertones.  The palate is textural and elegant with well accumulated tannins.  The finish is long and evolutionary.   
2010: Bright ruby red, the palate is robust, compact, and comforting.  Harmonious mouthfeel between sweetness and integrity in the tannins.  This wine has exceptional balance of flavor and crispness. Considerably one of the most graceful portraits of Etna wines.   
2009: Strong and aggressive aromas of iron, damp earth, seed, and dried raspberry emit from the glass.  Somewhat slow to evolve in the glass, it will benefit well from aging.  Its masculine personality will be enjoyed best 2018-2035.

Etna Vineyard

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