PostHeaderIcon Volcano

PostHeaderIcon Unearthing Nerello Mascalese


We are in Hell, here on Mount Etna, the soil is black, flying oenologists and archistars are not taken into consideration,  wineries are not imposing, nor “coquet”, they are not signalled and you have to ask the old men under the shade of the trees where the hell they are hidden. Any marketing geek would find all this unbusinesslike and in bad need of orderliness. For the same reasons I start to feel at ease and enjoy the wild of it.

view from Alessandros estate

I need a daimon to guide me, and this is Francesco, a sommelier and a tourist guide on the Etna. He’s just come back from two years abroad, mainly in Singapore, and the thing he missed most whilst there was “ a Muntagna”, “the Mountain”, so the locals call the volcano.






His sultry eyes become incadescent when he talks about her. Yes, Etna must be  a female, the great mother that can give life and fertility, and take it away when she’s enraged. Today its summit is cloud-shrouded.The 3300 metres of Etna stand like a barrier against the winds, clouds take shape, sometimes spectacular.



Often, when the near coast burns under a relentless sun, here it rains, and that is what’s happening now. Just ten minutes, the time for Francesco to tell me some important things. The average rainfall is much higher on the mountain than in the rest of Sicily, and this is the reason why I must not expect the usual, powerful Sicilian wine. The winds and breezes that swirl around the volcano dry the vines up quickly.

Temperature range in the summertime swings even of 20 degrees, sealing the perfumes inside the grapes. And above all, the  volcano erupts from different craters and cones  various times a year : each lava flow can be different in chemical composition, its colour may be more reddish, or yellow, or black. Each lava flow modifies the landscape. Hundreds of flows in so many centuries mean an incredible variety of soils, and this, paired to different microclimates, mean many different expressions of Nerello Mascalese, Etna’s indigenous wine variety.

For the lethal Phylloxera bug it is difficult or impossibile to sneak into the volcanic soil, and there are still many vineyards with centenary ungrafted vines that are propagated by “marcottage”. When Europe was hit by the plague, the unscathed Etna’s wine production reached 50.000 hectars and the wine was shipped everywhere from the port of Riposto, and known as “the wine from Riposto”. When the problem of Phylloxera was at last solved grafting the various varieties on the American rootstock, the golden era of Etna’s wine came to an end :  the yields were too low and  the labour too hard on the stone terraces to produce at cheap industrial prices. Fields were abandoned, the war wrenched peasants from their territory, then emigration towards the industrialized north seemed the only choice to escape poverty.

rainbow on the Etna

The renaissance began only from the ‘80s, thanks to Benanti winery who believed in the potential of this unique terroir, followed over time by many other winegrowers.

We get off the “Panda” car, I take some photos of the view towards the sea framed by  the wonder of a rainbow.

I pace up and down, smelling something strange. It doesn’t come from the flowers or the bushes. I pick up a stone and smell it : that’s it! I always read that stones don’t smell and that trendy “minerality” wine professionals constantly talk about is one of many wine’s myths. The minerals in the soil can’t be taken by the roots as they are, they must be broken down into ions, and only a minimum of them gets  in the grapes.

Of these most  is lost during fermentation, so the minerals actually present in the wine is 0,2% roughly, not enough for a human palate to taste. But what about this strong smell coming from the ground? Is it so impossibile for  it to influence the wine’s flavours ? I feel the impulse to lick the stone to know if I will perceive something similar in the finished wine. May be that flinty, smoky character they all babble about. But Francesco is watching me and I don’t dare. I’ll just file this smell in my sensory archive. 


PostHeaderIcon The Nerello "del Contadino"

Back on the road we climb up to Passopisciaro, at 650 mt above sea level, a little village whose “contrade” ( something like places or districts)  are renowned for their remarkable vineyards. One of these contrade is Santo Spirito, where we meet a local farmer, Paolo, who invites us in his "masseria".

His vineyards, partly ungrafted, are in the top part, close to those of  famous Terrenere and Cornelissen. He makes wine following tradition, the way people here used to make it, ready to be drunk in a few months.

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PostHeaderIcon The Nerello of the Engineer

We are going to visit the winery of Calabretta, one of the few who have been able to find success on markets and wine critics abroad.

I’m astonished as I see a real garage as his cellar : we can call his wines literally “ vins des garages”! (It is a French espression to indicate winegrowers which produce high quality wine in such small quantities they can all be stacked in a garage).

Actually the cellar is not so small, because it is vertical:  Massimiliano Calabretta, a professor engineer who lives 1300 km away, in Genoa, decided to dig the garage deep down to 6 metres to have the perfect temperature to age his wines. A steep narrow spiral staircase leads you to a hellish cellar where he keeps his big casks.

His Etna Rosso is made fermenting Nerello Mascalese and a bit of Nerello Cappuccio for five days.

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PostHeaderIcon The Central Intelligence Agency on Etna

We wave him goodbye and drive to the east to Solicchiata, where my daemon Francesco wants me to meet Sandro DiBella , the Agent. His bar-restaurant Cave d’Ox is on the main road and the meeting point of many on the Etna. Disguised as a normal restaurant, it is indeed the off the record Tourist and Wine lovers Information Center, providing helpful advice, a friendly atmosphere and superb dishes.

sandro pondering over the best NerelloWe eat a plate of pappardelle seasoned with shaved light green courgettes, grated lemon rind and olive oil, topped with toasted breadcrumbs and decorated with mint leaves. I do it in the same way at home, but I never thought to complete it with breadcrumbs and refresh it with mint. It’s perfect, better than mine : I must do the same from now on. I compliment Sandro and ask him who is speaking American at the table I cannot see from mine.  He says they are journalists from New York who came to interview Frank Cornelissen, who is dining with them. I’m stunned.

I heard this name for years and never had the chance to taste a drop of his “natural” wine. His small production of Magma is  sold mainly in northern Europe at a  high price.  

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PostHeaderIcon The Nerello of the Aesthete

I had seen then very young Alberto Graci a few years back, at the presentation of a wine guide in Florence, and a friend oenologist pointed him out to me as a showing promise winemaker in Sicily. I hadn’t tasted his wine, though, and I am happy to be going to do it now. So we head to the big palmento he restored, and find a group of Dutch people there, ready for the wine tasting. The ground floor is vast, the high ceiling upheld by massive stone arches, the conical oak vats look small in all this space. There is a long table with plenty of appropriate glasses to taste wine.

old palmento at Gracis            the press

Behind it,  very large glass panels allow you to gaze at the slightly upper floor, where the old palmento and huge chestnut casks are kept like archaelogical remains to visit. 

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PostHeaderIcon Pippo the Gourmand

I stop in front of a place that even under the pouring rain looks inviting : “Il buongustaio” ( the gourmet ). I run inside, and linger, bewildered at the display of gourmandises everywhere. Just by chance, I have come across the right person, Pippo Calà, the enthusiastic owner and gourmet of this little paradise.

I stare at the counter with all the cheeses : Provola dei Nebrodi, Ricotta infornata, Ragusano dop, Provola with lemon rind or with the green of pistachio nuts,  salame of wild pig of the Nebrodi Mountains, salami with pistachios, vacuum sealed olives, green black and stuffed, all from Etna, capers, sun-dried tomatoes. On the shelves  all sorts of sauces, all sorts of citrus fruit and even prickled pears jams, which I have never tasted before. And, of course, only the best selection of Sicilian wines. Pippo is tempting as The Gourmethe explains with passion the origin and the make of each product I point at. I surrender. I must try some of these delicatessen, I’d rather give up my dinner than leave all this untasted.

I never eat meat that comes from industrial farming for ethical reasons : the way animals are kept, in very narrow spaces, without the liberty of moving, under artificial lights, doped with antibiotics and growth hormones, I think it’s shameful. It’s unfair to the animals, it’s bad for human health. In a correct nutrition there is no need to eat meat every day, on the contrary.

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PostHeaderIcon The Baron

In the morning I meet Barone Fisauli at a bar in a village close to his estate, the Carranco. After an espresso and a fresh croissant, his car  leads me somewhere between Passopisciaro and Solicchiata through the green and earthy countryside lit to the tinest detail by a powerful sun.

Behind the gate lie two nicely restored palmentos , a garden with a swimming pool in the middle of a plain covered with vineyards and olive trees, with the background of the Peloritani Mountains.  In front of you, the outline of Etna stands out in the clear sky, puffing a peaceful white smoke into the blue. 

view from Alessandros estate  the Carranco estate

I guess you could stay here cooling off by the swimming pool in the shadow of the palm trees just letting yourself be hypnotized by that calm ring of smoke that could turn black and sinister in a matter of seconds. Ideal for those, like me, who likes to relax but loves the unexpected and the thrill! Inside, the house is a perfect balance of antique original furniture and modern comfort. Lava stone and terracotta floors, wooden fittings and lovely blue and white bowls of china everywhere, but Duravit bathrooms just like mine at home.

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PostHeaderIcon The Nerello of the Pianist

In Passopisciaro I walk up and down looking for a sign of Girolamo Russo winery, but I can’t see anything and this public road flanked by low buildings doesn’t seem suitable to host a winery.

I better go back to the “center”, where some old men are sitting on the benches under the trees. They certainly know. I go there and ask them about Russo. It’s just there where I was nosing  around before. I go in the bar close to the little square and order a coffee and a croissant, and I ask again to make sure the information is right.

I get in the car  and drive back a kilometer or more to where I was before, and notice from this end that the last building has the top part that looks like a villa, totally covered with ivy that hangs down to the pavement. Yes, the ivy might hide the winery. I ring the bell at a tall glass door reinforced with metal bars. A lady opens, I mutter that I couldn’t find the place because there are no signs but she simply smiles and leads me upstairs through a shining granite staircase without banisters.

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PostHeaderIcon The Nerello of the Anarchist


But what about Frank Cornelissen, who left  modern, logical, disciplined Northern Europe for unpredictable and enigmatic Sicily? Mr Cornelissen will answer that he is not in Sicily, but on the Etna, an Island in itself. On the Mountain he can even ski, sport which he would miss otherwise; the seaside is on sight and can be reached in 20 minutes. But most of all, here is what he had been looking for : the right “terroir”, one where he could reduce to the minimum the intrusion of man.

Actually, here there are many terroirs, depending on the layers of lava deposited in the different eruptions and the peculiar microclimates of Etna. This is one of the few places in Europe where the bug of phylloxera didn’t win and one can find ungrafted old vines with the same dna of those who used to be grown by the ancient Greeks, and a soil so rich of minerals, unexploited and unpolluted that is “organic” in itself. For a man like Cornelissen, thirsty to understand the complexity of Nature and its Truth, always challenging himself in a new mission, this was the ideal place to test his theories. He can experience the production of different wines with specific characteristics and aromas because coming from different plots, situated from 300 mt to 1000 mt above sea level.

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