Merry Almost Christmas to everyone! I hope this email finds you all well and eager for another month’s rendition on a new vinous treat! I’m certain you have all been waiting with bated breath since last month. Either that or most of you have still not made it through last month’s discourse… regardless of which side you are on, we will plow forward with more learning! I will really try to keep this one shorter as I know the holidays are busy between family, shopping, Christmas cards, etc. Since all of that stuff generally drives me to want to drink, at least this will give you some interesting options to pursue.
I do have one positive update since last month… I have some elk in the freezer!! Now, before you congratulate me for my stellar marksmanship and stealth I will have to admit that I didn’t actually shoot said elk. Nor did my infamous hunting partner Chris “Elk Scent” Brown. Despite another week of early rising (4am), long hiking (12-15 miles a day) up and down steep valleys, and suffering in the cold we returned sans meat… I felt good about our effort and we did actually see several elk and came close to getting to unload a few rounds, but couldn’t quite get a clean shot. I figured we must be working pretty hard when even the Amish guys who were hunting the same area were complimenting our effort as they cruised past us on horseback, beating us to the spot, and subsequently shot a nice bull… such is life. However, in an ironic turn a local hunting guru who happens to be related to old Elk Scent Brown decided to help us out. Since he had already filled his own freezer, he went out and shot a second elk (yes, 2 for the guru, 0 for us…) and shared the meat with the elkless team of Newman and Brown. So for that I am excited and thankful! I can’t wait to have some elk steaks with a lovely 2001 Comte Senard Corton Les Paulands recently purchased on our French foray. It will certainly be incredible. Next year I am confident that we will get one (if not two) of our own, but for now I’ll be grateful for the generosity and skill of other hunters as I enjoy the fruits of their labor.
I do hope that you were all able to get out and find some nice Oregon pinot noir to sample and that it paired beautifully at your Thanksgiving tables. If you found something that you enjoyed and it was not on my list please feel free to send me the info as I am always looking for exciting new things to try. I for one have enjoyed multiple lovely bottles from the Dundee Hills recently including a Bergstrom 2008 that was delightful. I don’t believe I had Bergstrom on my list last month, but they are definitely a quality producer to keep your eye out for.
This month as Christmas approaches sdalong with the myriad of dinners, parties, etc that come along with it, we are going to go a little off the beaten path, but into something that is “hot” in the wine world. Since all of your friends/colleagues likely consider you to be wine experts based on info you have passed on from our discussions, I want to keep you all right on the cutting edge and give you a new option to impress people when you give out recommendations or bring a bottle to a communal dinner. So with this in mind we are going to visit Sicily today and look at a couple of fairly obscure, but very enjoyable wines that will definitely make you look like a wine nerd when you start dropping these names!
Sicily is an island off the southern coast (right off the toe of the boot, see above) of Italy (not to be confused with Sardinia or Corsica which are further north). In the past it was most well known for Marsala, a type of fortified dessert wine that you are all familiar with at least in name, but is no longer really en vogue (I’ve never actually had a Marsala that wasn’t in a sauce on chicken) and the mafia.
However, today the island is probably the hottest region for wine development in Italy! Geographically the island is dominated by Mount Etna, which is one of the most active volcanoes in the world! This has created several areas with nice volcanic soil that is proving quite nice for vine growth. See below for a nice shot of the “activity” of Etna…
Most of the wines produced in Sicily are with fairly obscure grapes. We are going to focus on 3 today.
The first two form the basis for the wine called Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Vittoria is a town on the island (see map below) and this wine is arguably the finest produced in Sicily. These wines are blends of nero d’avola and frappato. Nero d’Avola is the most widely planted grape on the island and you will see it bottled by itself. Cerasuolo di Vittoria are generally at least 50% nero d’avola and the blend is usually anywhere from 50-50 to 70-30. Nero d’Avola is the darker of the two grapes with more tannin and darker fruits and hints of spice/herbs. This provides the body and structure to the wine. Frappato is lighter, higher in acidity, and filled with fresh, high-toned red berry fruits. The combination of the two together creates lovely wines that are lighter in structure/color (more in the pinot noir spectrum than the cabernet spectrum) with lovely cherry, raspberry, red currant notes followed by hints of anise and violet, with fresh acidity and just enough underlying structure to allow them to be very versatile with food. I love them with roasted fowl, risottos, or with lots of different pasta dishes. Since the general feedback has been negative on my geological explanations of places, I will skip the soil discussion this month as your holiday present… but next month it may be back with a vengeance!
The next topic of discussion is a little more esoteric (hard to believe you say?) and it may actually be difficult for you to find one of these, but if you do see one, try it. Also, if you mention this at a restaurant or wine shop you will get automatic street cred. Just be prepared because they may take you for a wine nerd and delve deep with you afterwards… This grape is called nerello mascalese. Yes, it is hard to remember and pronounce. I told you we were getting into the esoteric range here. But I promise that the wines are actually pretty good. Nerello mascalese is grown primarily on the slopes of Mount Etna as it seems to thrive in the rocky volcanic soil there. It is often blended with a partner grape (nerello cappuccio if you must know) to make the red wines of the Etna region. You will often see it labeled as Etna Rosso and only rarely as the varietal itself. The wines from this area have gotten some attention the last few years and this has led to a fair amount of new investment in the region. I am not sure that I personally would want to invest a lot of money into planting vines on the side of an active volcano… but I’ll certainly toast those who do! So why has this grape made a splash? Partly because its fun to say, partly because wine people are snobs and they like to say obscure things to prove they know more than you (yes I include myself in this behavior… sorry, I’m trying to be less snobby), but mostly because there is potential for great wine! The nerello mascalese grape is felt to be somewhat similar to pinot noir in that it translates its terroir very well. So the wines from the Etna slopes have a mineral, rocky, dusty note to them. There are also lots of ripe red berry fruits and I have often gotten hints of orange peel or blood orange. In addition you generally get some floral notes mixed in with the red fruits. On the nose, it could be mistaken for red Burgundy (hence why I like it). The palate however is a different story, as they tend to have fairly rustic and noticeable tannins. There is definitely great acidity as well and this combination seems like it will provide the perfect stuff for good cellaring. Unfortunately I’ve yet to try an older one, as they are rare to find and I tend to drink them not too long after I make the purchase… I’ll work on it though. I have heard these wines described as a cross between pinot noir and nebbiolo, which is probably not too far off. So the bottom line is that they are interesting both mentally (volcanic soil, obscure grape, maybe associated with the mafia?) and physically, as they taste delicious!
Since we are approaching the length of no return for most of you, I will move on to the producers that I recommend.
For the Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the best producer that I have had is COS. The wines are stellar, consistent, and not too pricey as you can generally find them for around $28-35. As a brief, but interesting aside, they age a lot of their wines in terracotta amphorae just like the Romans. I also love the wines from Arianna Occhipinti (who is the niece of one of the original founders of COS). Her wines across the board that I have tried are fabulous. She makes a Cerasuolo blend along with a 100% Frappato that is killer and a 100% Nero d’Avola wine that I have yet to find, but would love to try. Those two are my favorite, but if you can’t find them other good options include Planeta, Gulfi, Valle dell’Acate, and Santa Tresa. Again, these aren’t the easiest wines to find… so if you see one just try whatever it is and let me know!
For the nerello mascalese based Etna Rosso wines my two favorites are Pietradolce and Frank Cornelissen. The Cornelissen wines are super “natural” (read funky) and have attained somewhat of a cult status so are very hard to find and can be pricey… the Pietradolce wines I have found a couple of times and they have several different cuvees ranging from around $25 to $90. Biondi, Passopisciaro, Tenuta dell Terre Nere, Benanti, and Calabretta are other producers that I am familiar with and are generally well regarded, but I have not actually been able to try the wines. Bottom line, if you find one, just try it because these tend to be harder to find even than the Cerasuolo wines!
Hopefully this will help you put some spice and pizzazz into your holiday festivities while also making you look quite intelligent on the wine front! With that I will bring to a close this edition (is this the shortest one in the last year?) and wish you all safe and happy holidays however you may be celebrating. I certainly hope that you all find some delicious wines on your tables for pairing lovely holiday feasts and I look forward to ringing in a new year with all of you soon!
Yours in vine,
J. “Nerello” Newman, CSW