Back in 2018, I wrote about my interest in a grape variety called Nerello Mascalese, which is principally grown in Sicily on the slopes of Mount Etna. I suggested at the time that you would most likely hear more about it in the coming years as several high profile wine producers across Italy, including Angelo Gaja, had recognised the quality, and how reasonable vineyard prices were, and had bought vineyard land on Etna.
Certainly, the profile of many Etna-based estates has risen – these wines are reaching a far broader audience than before, buoyed by some very good vintages. Nerello Mascalese, pronounced ‘nair-rello mask-ah-lay-zay’, is said to have a close genetic relationship with Tuscany’s Sangiovese and possibly originates from a crossing of Sangiovese and another variety. Irrespective of its origins, it produces compelling wines that range from comparatively light ruby to deeper hues. The wines offer vibrant red berry fruit aromas, with complex floral notes and tell-tale earthy mineral notes that seem so typical of Etna. What I personally like is there is a juicy quality to the fruit, a brightness in general, fine supporting tannins allied to a bright acidity make for a finish that often reminds me of Sangiovese. In general, these are remarkably elegant wines...some suggest stylistic similarities with lighter Nebbiolo, and others see a reference to Pinot Noir. Some say that is has the elegance of Burgundy but some of the tannins of Barolo, but by no means as assertive. The wine I am offering here, the new Contrada Cavaliere from Benanti at £145 per 6 bottle case in bond, is a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio – Capuccio often plays a supporting role and is seldom seen as a 100% varietal; though Benanti are producing one - it lends a deeper colour, a certain softness and dark cherry fruit to the more assertive Mascalese.
I was seriously impressed by this example; it punches well above its weight given its remarkably reasonable price. It is actually a new wine in the range of wines from Benanti. Since they took the reins in 2012, brothers Salvino and Antonio Benanti have followed the direction that their family estate laid out in the 1990s, namely to focus on producing wines from single vineyards and individual parcels. They aim to have six different ‘contrada’ or Cru wines in their range and the latest addition is the Contrada Cavaliere, which hails from the southwestern side of Mount Etna and at altitude of 900 metres.
It is interesting to look at the two reviews below – one clearly favours the lighter, more fragrant, pure Nerello Mascalese styles, but both comment on the more fruit driven style of this wine. I don’t profess to know the ins and outs of Etna vineyards (yet!), but approaching this wine without any reference to this ‘contrada’, I was really struck by the deep fruit is showed; yes it is more layered and textural, there is a bolder ripeness, but as mentioned, Nerello at this altitude doesn’t lose its freshness and acidity. That touch of bitter cherry, the notes of lush brambly fruit, the savoury, earthy touch by no means too pronounced and the redcurrant/cranberry-like lift that ensures the wine seems vibrant and long, all make for an incredibly compelling wine. The harmony and purity of this wine are remarkably fine and at under £145 per 6 bottle case in bond, it is something of a snip (and very little of it is produced – just 440 cases). It will drink well from shipment early next year and in my opinion has a touch longer than the five year drinking window to run. It suffices to say that I was more impressed than both the critics below…then again both of them tasted over a year ago, and I enjoyed it last week!
2017 Etna Rosso, Contrada Cavaliere, Benanti
£145 per 6 bottle case in bond
92 points, Monica Larner, vinous.com
Here's an exciting new wine from the Benati family that showcases their latest vineyard acquisitions in the Contrada Cavaliere in Santa Maria di Licodia (with vines at 900 meters above sea level on the southwest side of Etna). The 2017 Etna Rosso Contrada Cavaliere reveals a darker appearance and a more intense aromatic profile, which are characteristics of this flank of the Etna volcano. This is a very expressive Etna red, meant for rich meat sauces on pasta, but it does show marked differences from the wines made in the area between Castiglione di Sicilia and Passopisciaro. For one, the aromas here are slightly more fruit-driven, with bright cherry and red apple skin. The tannins are a bit sweeter and glossier as well. They don't show that volcanic dryness you sometimes get. In all, this new wine has deftly navigated this hot and dry vintage. Production is 5,300 bottles strong.
91 points, Ian d’Agata, vinous.com
Bright red. Savory herbs, flowers, and red fruit aromas and flavors. Rich, round and ripe but with good acid lift, this is more vibrant and floral than the 2017 Etna Rosso Monte Serra from Benanti, though it is also a touch less refined. Finishes long, with youthfully chewy tannins and with lots of size and flesh. Will appeal more to those who like their wines bigger rather than perfumed, but it’s hard to argue with this wine’s charm and fun in-your-face personality. Made from grapes of the two Nerello varieties grown at roughly 900 meters above sea level on the southwest slope of Etna. 2021-2025.
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All the best,