Over lunch and more mature Tascante vintages in Randazzo at Parco Statella – a rustic restaurant with rooms (from €40 per night) – Tascante winemaker Domenico D’Antoni comments on the expansion of vineyards in the Mount Etna area, from around 40 hectares about 10 years ago, to more than 100 hectares today. He asks if I am aware that Nerello Cappuccio (the second grape of Etna – Barbera to Mascalese’s Nebbiolo) is very closely related to Carignan. I wasn’t, and remark on the important role of famed oenologist Carlo Ferrini as a consultant for Tascante. Ferrini has worked with some of Italy’s greatest wineries – Casanova di Neri in Montalcino, Terriccio in Castellina Marittima and San Leonardo in Trentino – and it’s a mark of the potential of Tascante’s wines (see part one for details) that he should choose to be involved here.
Statella’s manager Massimo, a renowned mushroom enthusiast, serves a feast of rustic, local specialities: pecorino with chilli and wild onion; ricotta fornato; couscous with basil and aubergine purée; acorn-fed prosciutto and veal carpaccio. The powerful, earthy flavours are well matched to the lean but intense characters of both Tascant Buonora Carricante (£19.95 for 750ml) and Nerello Mascalese (£25.50 for 750ml), a notable highlight being the 2010, which shows how impressively Etna’s reds can develop, amplify and soften as they unwind out of youth.
After lunch we part company with D’Antoni and drive 10 miles to Rovittello to visit Tenuta di Fessina, a producer whose progress I have followed with interest over the past five years. In 2007, owner Silvia Maestrelli, advised by Angelo Gaja’s former agronomist, purchased a vineyard of Nerello Mascalese vines that are more than 100 years old. An authentic wine farm that encourages biodiversity (apparently they grow the tastiest lettuces on Etna), Fessina offers tastings and food pairings (with most produce coming from within a 20km radius) and is currently finishing refurbishments to what will be a selection of characterful rooms (from €180).
While Fessina owns acreage elsewhere in the area for the production of other wines, its heart remains the original seven hectares of vineyards that produce one of the region’s very best – Musmeci (£38.30 for 750ml of the 2011). Our host Jacopo, a sommelier and assistant winemaker, leads us through a complete vertical of this magnificent and complex wine, starting with the maturing spicy, liquorice-toned 2007, then the more herbal 2008, with its sage and chamomile nose and palate of dried cranberries and sour cherries. After the more reticent 2009, the 2010 was powerfully foursquare, with the bruised strawberry fruit of a ripe Pommard and some secondary porcini notes that were even more distinct in the fresher and higher-toned 2011, alongside notes of pepper, dried flowers and ash. While youthful, this latest vintage shows exceptional development potential.
Tucked away in the side streets of the nearby town of Linguaglossa, midway between Etna and the coast, is boutique hotel Shalai, a restored baroque palazzo and recommended gastronomic stopover, run by the stylish but diffident Luciano Pennisi. Here, Michelin-starred Giovanni Santoro offers bold-flavoured, confidently assembled dishes, blending rusticity and sophistication – starters of pine-needle-smoked veal tartare and raw red prawns with stracciatella impress, as do pastas of pear and walnut pacchero with smoked duck breast, and spaghetti with mackerel and wild fennel breadcrumbs. Beer-battered ennese cheese with pistachio crumble was a richly filling compromise between formaggi and dolce, and a changing selection of interesting wines are available by the glass to match, including a particularly charming rosato Nerello from Terrazze dell’Etna.