Forty five minutes north of Catania airport, with clear views of Sicily’s Ionian coast to the east and of Mount Etna to the west, is Zash, a converted 1930s manor house surrounded by lemon groves, and a highly recommended starting point for any oenological exploration of the Mediterranean’s largest island.
Wine connoisseurs are particularly drawn to this region of Sicily because the vines reach deep into volcanic soils and produce reds and whites that project the geological intensity of their origins immediately onto the palate. Observing and understanding the concept of terroir is much easier when sampling wines such as these, and Etna’s sloping, high-altitude vineyards, ungrafted vines, extended ripening season and small, artisanal production are rapidly gathering a cult following as a result.
Zash, which won the Ischia International Architecture Award, is chic but not pretentious, uncluttered but not stark. Restored by owner Carla Maugeri and architect Antonio Iraci, it has as its director Federica Eccel, who is also consigliera of Strada del Vino dell’Etna (The Etna Wine Route), making her a very useful person to talk to when planning a vineyard tour of the region, and its atmospheric restaurant is situated in a former palmento (wine press room) where many of the original features have been left intact.
Chef Giuseppe Raciti – who worked under Massimo Mantarro at double-Michelin-starred Principe Cerami in Taormina and is one of the final four chefs in the Italian section of the Bocuse d’Or competition – puts together an inventive seasonal menu (starters from €16, pasta and rice dishes from €18, mains from €22, chef’s tasting menu from €55 per person), which I at first try alongside Benanti’s Pietramarina 2013 Etna Bianco Superiore (£44 for 750ml), still a benchmark for the region’s lean, high-acid and penetrating Carricante variety – the Grand Cru Chablis of Etna.
This is followed by a red from one of the early leaders of the modern Etna wine movement, Frank Cornelissen, an uncompromising pioneer of minimal interventionist wine making on the mountain. His MunJebel (£51.30 for 750ml) from Nerello Mascalese, harvested in 2012 and aged in amphorae, has a tangy, sappy, crunchy character that balances red fruits and brick dust, purity and funk, Sturm und Drang, that nearly pulls off its 15 per cent alcohol content.
The next morning we drive to Tascante, the Etna property and most recent winery development from Sicily’s most important wine family – Tasca. Tasca d’Almerita has vineyards all over the island, but production is centred on the Regaleali estate in Vallelunga Pratameno, an hour from Agrigento and bought in 1830 by Lucio and Carmelo Mastrogiovanni Tasca. Indeed, the family is replete with history – Wagner completed Parsifal in Villa Tasca, the family home in Palermo, in 1882 – and its oldest still-producing vineyard was planted in 1954. Lucio Tasca’s secret planting of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1979 changed the landscape of Sicily’s viticulture, spearheading the island’s acceptance of non-indigenous grapes, and Tasca d’Almerita’s flagship Rosso del Conte (£44.75 for 750ml), first produced in 1970, remains a benchmark wine for the region.
In 2007, the family bought its first vineyards on the northern slopes of Mount Etna and now has plantings at the Piano Dario, Marchesa and Sciaranova in Randazzo. The addition of a new complex at Contrada Marchesa in Passopisciaro, where we are met by head of agricultural production Domenico D’Antoni, will allow Tascante wines to be labelled Etna DOC for the first time (they are currently Sicilia DOC because they are made at Regaleali). Marchesa also has six hectares of vineyards, a mix between Nerello Mascalese and promising Chardonnay, one of which is directly in front of the winery.
Our tasting begins with Tasca d’Almerita’s Buonora Carricante (£20 for 750ml). Quite a neutral white grape, unlike the blowsy, perfumed Moscato or fleshy, white stone-fruited Grillo we would enjoy days later, it has a green, herbal quality, bracing acidity and a real sense of the distinct geology of the vineyards. We then try barrel samples of different Nerello Mascalese vineyards from 2016, a vintage that D’Antoni suggests could rival 2014 for quality, given the near-perfect ripening of the grapes and balance of the resultant wines. Sinewy and with dark, spicy red and black forest fruits, there is plenty of ripeness and flesh, sulphurous and savoury notes, all supported by a herbaceous, structured acidity and lithe tannins. These wines all possess a coiled power and intensity.
Nerello Mascalese makes intellectual rather than immediately hedonic wines, but there is a charm to those from Tascante that makes them a fine introduction to the grape. D’Antoni says the 2015s are very good, dependable wines (as are the 2011s), while the wetter and colder 2013 produced a fresher, cooler style (2012 was extremely hot, as was 2010, whereas 2009 was cold). Wine tourists to the region should put aside any notions that Sicily’s southerly disposition gives rise to homogenous hot vintages, and super-ripe, jammy reds – at least around Etna, where altitude not latitude is the defining factor in determining wine style. While it is true that spring frosts are not a problem here (unlike to the north, where they have had a devastating impact this year), hail in August is uncommon and harvesting on the higher sites can finish as late as November 5, following up to four passes through the vines to ensure only fully ripe fruit is collected.
Come back on Monday October 2 for part two of Tom’s Sicilian wine tour.
Tom Harrow is a fine-wine commentator, consultant and presenter. His Grand Crew Classé is the ultimate invitation-only club for fine-wine enthusiasts, with exclusive access to rare bottles and events around the world. Follow him on Twitter.