Nerello Mascalese of Mt. Etna

“[Nerello Mascalese] is to Marcello Mastroianni as John Wayne is to Cabernet.” Alberto Graci, Graci Winery, Passopisciaro, Sicily

The beating of the windshield wipers fought to keep up with the pummeling rain, and I could hardly see through the glass as I slowly inched my rented car along the deserted road at dusk. I saw a small arrow-shaped sign on the right side of the road and came to a complete stop a foot in front of it, trying to read between wiper strokes. I was almost sure that it said “Firriato,” and so I followed the arrow’s direction and turned on a long narrow road, drove through an open gate, and eventually climbed a steep natural stone drive up to a small village.

Etna DOC

My mission here: To explore the Etna DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wine region and to find out what was percolating on Mt. Etna, other than the still-active volcano.

I could see a courtyard and a ground-lit path on the other side, leading through vineyards to an elevated structure, glass walls proudly displaying the inside of a stream-lined tasting room begging for my approach. Comfortable in the warmth of the tasting room, I ordered a flight of their wines: Firriato’s Etna Bianco DOC, Etna Rosato DOC and Etna Rosso DOC. It was my first tasting of the local wines, and I had waited to try them until I was actually on Mt. Etna.

I’ll skip right to my favorite part of the tasting: Etna Rosso DOC. The Etna DOC correlates to a region in the northeast of Sicily, a crescent-shaped area that wraps itself halfway around Mt. Etna. Etna Rosso consists of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes indigenous to the area and often grown on vines that are 100-plus years old, vines miraculously saved from the Italian phylloxera of the late 1800s to which so many Italian vineyards fell victim.

The small, round grapes with thick, almost black skins, make unmistakable Burgundian-style wines often compared to Pinot Noir. On Etna, they are grown at high altitudes and cultivated with the alberello (“small tree”) training system to keep each vine’s grape yield minimal for maximum flavor expression.

One might assume that the roots of these vines would be exceptionally hearty to grow in the hardened lava of Mt. Etna, but the opposite is the case. The porous lava rock and soil make it easy for vines to penetrate. And vines grown in this lava earth give their grapes a definitive mineral flavor unique to volcanic regions.

Minerals, climate, and the Nerello grapes culminate in wine that has wine critics cheering. Three of the winemakers best utilizing the ancient vines and indigenous grapes of Etna DOC are Graci, Cantina Benanti, and Tenuta Delle Terre Nere.

Nerello Mascalese

At the Graci Winery in Passopisciaro, Sicily, I spent some time with the owner, Alberto Graci, walking his Contrada Arcuria vineyards and touring the old wine-making apparatus still on display but unused, at his newly modernized winery.

Graci is so enthusiastic about the potential for Mt. Etna indigenous grapes that he became the vice president of the Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini Etna that covers 300 hectares of Etna DOC. He shares challenges and new ideas with his fellow Consorzio members so that they can — as a group — produce higher-quality wines. He tends and nourishes this local association of Etna wine makers with the same sort of care that he heaps upon his grapes. And that care should bear fruit; Graci’s wines have won acclaim from the world’s top wine connoisseurs (93 points, The Wine Enthusiast, 2014).

The Nerellos growing together in the Graci vineyards
The Nerellos growing together in the Graci vineyards

During my visit, Graci described the Nerello Mascalese aptly when he laughingly quoted Piedmont winemaker Angelo Gaja, replacing Gaja’s “Nebbiolo” reference with “Nerello Mascalese”:

“Cabernet is to John Wayne as [Nerello Mascalese] is to Marcello Mastroianni. Cabernet has a strong personality, open, easily understood and dominating. If Cabernet were a man, he would do his duty every night in the bedroom, but always in the same way. [Nerello Mascalese], however, would be the brooding, quiet man in the corner, harder to understand but infinitely more complex.”

While the Etna DOC fan focuses on the Marcello Mastroianni grape, most winemakers combine it with its cousin, the Nerello Cappuccio. Nerello Mascalese is the wine’s dominant partner since it must be at least 80 percent of the blend to qualify as Etna DOC. Wines made with Nerello Mascalese have a dark red fruit character with herbal and mineral notes. Full-bodied and sweet, Nerello Cappuccio adds a bright ruby color to the blend. The combination produces wine with structure and elegance, the hallmark of Etna DOC wines.

Nerello Cappuccio

But if Nerello Mascalese is the Marcello Mastroianni, the Nerello Cappuccio is his oft-overlooked understudy. Cantina Benanti owns most of the roughly 20 hectares of Nerello Capuccio in Sicily and is one of the wineries producing straight up Nerello Cappuccio as well as straight-up Nerello Mascalese. Because Etna Rosso DOC requires a minimum of 80 percent Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio is not Etna Rosso DOC, but Sicilia Rosso IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).

Benanti Tasting in the Vineyard
Benanti Vineyard Tasting

If you visit the Benanti vineyards in Viagrande, Sicily,  the first part of the wine tasting takes place at a wooden table set in the middle of the vineyards. The final tasting was presented inside the main house at a dining table filled with cheese, olives, honey, and charcuterie as a fantastic backdrop to the highly acclaimed wines.

And, let’s not forget about the vineyards. Throughout the Etna region, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes grow interspersed together in non-linear vineyards. This growing structure makes for breathtakingly beautiful terrain, like Benanti’s vineyard on an old Roman cemetery and Tenuta Delle Terre Nere’s untamed hillsides. Now when I think of Etna vineyards, what comes to mind is the Nerellos, with their little black grapes hanging like jewels from ancient, gnarled vines, growing in the shadow of a percolating volcano.


Tenuta Delle Terre Nere’s Etna Rosso DOC 2014 “Santo Spirito” $58 available at Backroom Wines, 1000 Main St., Napa, (707) 226-1378.

Benanti Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio Sicilia IGT 2013, $33.99, available at Flatiron San Francisco, 2 New Montgomery St., San Francisco, (415) 780-1405.

Layne Randolph,  Napa Valley Register, February 2017 

You Say Rosato, I Say Rosé

Technically, it’s the French who say rosé; the rest of us have adopted their usage of the word. It’s right that we use the French version; France is the indisputable land of rosé wine. From Côtes du Rhône to Provence, rosé has been a French favorite since long before its recent boom in popularity.

Scoffed at for decades, rosé hasn’t gotten a lot of respect from the typical wine drinker since it went out of fashion in the 1990s. That’s why, when I lived in the Salento region of Puglia, Italy almost ten years ago, I was surprised to see people drinking the pink stuff. “They’re drinking pink wine?” I thought, “How gauche.”

They called it “rosato,” but I knew what it was—cheap, sweet swill.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

Leone de CastrisRosato from Puglia, and especially Salento, is often raspberry pink, which suggests a “sugar bomb.” But much of the rosato comes from the Negro Amaro grape, which translates as “dark and bitter.” Instead of a sweet flavor profile, these rosés are surprisingly savory, dry and full-bodied. My favorite thing about the Salento Rosato is the minerality contributed by the saline air, water, and soil of the peninsula.

Although the color connotes a lesser quality rosé to many, the bright or darker rosés can be more interesting than the pale rosé of Provence, although the pale versions are the current It-Girls of the wine world. There is room for every type of pink wine–the preference largely depends on the cuisine, climate, and taste of the drinker.

Some producers make rosé by blending red and white wines to create a pink wine, but this is not common, and it’s illegal in some places. It’s also common practice to use the saignée method to bleed-off juices during red wine production.
However, purpose-made rosé is the creme de la creme. The process involves the direct pressing of dark-skinned grapes, leaving the skins in contact with the juice for a few hours to a few days. The longer they are in contact, the more intense the color of the wine.

My opinion on rosato has evolved in the years since I’ve left Salento. Now when I see someone drinking rosato/rosé, my reaction is, “They’re drinking pink wine? Where’s mine?”

Rosato from Puglia, Italy

Leone de Castris in Salice Salentino makes “Five Roses” – the first Rosè produced and bottled in Italy, and according to the estate, the first sold in the U.S. Bright cherry-red with notes of strawberry and rose, Five Roses is primarily Negro Amaro, with 10 percent Malvasia Nera di Lecce. Its name comes from the odd fact that several generations of the de Castris family had five children.

Cantele Wine’s Rosato Rohesia, made from the winery’s flagship Salice Salentino Riserva of Negro Amaro, is a robust, fresh and flavorful wine with hints of pomegranate and flint.

Tomaresca in northern Puglia makes Calafuria, a crisp and elegant Rosato of Negroamaro grown on their vineyards along the Adriatic Coast. The Tuscan wine dynasty Antinori owns Tormaresca and other wineries around the world, including two in Napa Valley (Stag’s Leap and Antica).

Layne Randolph, Napa Valley Register, August 2017


“The Tormaresca project began with the dream, now a reality, to discover and enhance the precious native varietals of Puglia, leading the wine renaissance of the region.”  Tormaresca Website

We actually cheered when we finally saw a building in the distance.  We had been driving for hours across Italy from Rome and in the last half hour, we had seen very few signs and only one indicator of our goal: Tormaresca Winery, in the Castel del Monte DOC in the southeastern tip of Italy known as Puglia.

The Tormaresca estate is almost as remote as Tasca D’Almerita’s Regaleali in central Sicily, which sees purposely hidden, and both are well worth the trip.  We parked in what we later found out was the back of the winery, and searched on foot for five minutes to find the entrance.

Wines of Tormaresca
Wines of Tormaresca

Tormaresca is owned by the centuries-old Cantinetta Antinori in Tuscany, Italy which has been in business since 1385.  Antinori bought this property in 1998 to add to its stable of properties.  In 2009, Antinori added Masseria Maìme in Salento to the Tormaresca family.  We decided to visit the original Bocca di Lupo estate in Minervino Murge for a tasting.

There are certain wines from Tormaresca that are renowned throughout Italy.  Among these is Tormaresca’s Masseria Maìme 2012, a pure Negroamaro awarded Tre Bicchiere by Gambero Rosso; Fichimori, a flavorful Negroamaro meant to be served cold; and Tormaresca’s Aglianico 2010 which garnered a 93+ from The Wine Advocate.

Our degustation had some real standouts: the 2015 Calafuria Rosé made from 100% Negroamaro has the slight salinity which is so prevalent in Salento Rosé, a gorgeous peach-pink color, and peachy aromatics.  The Masseria Maìme was the star of the show with its rich, dark cherry and anise aromatics and smooth, elegant finish.

Tormaresca Degustazione

The Baths of Bormio

Bormio, just south of the Swiss border and smack in the middle of the Italian Alps just a few hours from Milan. The natural hot springs of the area have been in continuous use for thousands of years and are now contained in a lovely resort called the Bagni di Bormio, (the Baths of Bormio). Pliny the Elder was already going on about their beneficial properties back in the first century A.D. And throughout the ages, Leonardo Da Vinci, European royalty and the like, regularly flocked here to “take the waters”.
The Hotel Bagni Vecchi (Older Bath Hotel) is a smaller, cozier, and more traditional Valtellina mountain style hotel, while the Grand Hotel Bagni Nuovi (Grand New Baths Hotel) on the other hand is a sumptuous mid-19th-century Victorian extravaganza, replete with grand dining and dancing halls and Murano glass chandeliers throughout.
Both were built around the terme (natural hot springs), meticulously preserving the original Roman baths but also enhancing them by adding a subterranean spa that boasts modern cedar saunas and mineral water Jacuzzis. The trump card of the terme is an outdoor Roman thermal pool perched up against the mountain that looks out over the ski slopes and picturesque Alpine valley. Add to this the charming town of Bormio itself and it comes as no surprise at all that the Bagni di Bormio has been popular for a very long time.
Layne Randolph, The Italian Notebook

Salento: Italy’s Best Kept Secret


Years ago, I lived in the seaside village of Otranto, Italy, and studied Italian at Porta d’Oriente, a school that advertised a half-day sea/half-day school approach to learning. Since then, I have dreamt of this region of Italy known as Salento.

It seems God has blessed this part of Italy with glorious treasures: turquoise water, rock cliffs, long stretches of natural beaches, and bleached-white buildings that make up the tiny villages that hang over the sea. This is all topped off with extraordinary southern hospitality, which its natives lavish on visitors.

I fell in love with the seemingly untouched beauty, the seafood, and the spice that I was missing in Tuscany. In Salento, I always have the sense that I’d traveled back in time to a 1950s Italian movie in which the streets are actually filled with Italians, and life is lived in a way that modern Americans believe is impossible.

The region

Salento is located at the tip of the heel of the boot that is Italy in the most southern part of Puglia. But not many people know about Salento, save typical southern Italian tourists whose families have been traveling to Salento’s shores every August for centuries. Many people associate south Italy, in general, with dirty streets and high crime, and think that there’s nothing worthwhile to see below Naples. But once you spend time in Salento, you begin to believe it’s actually the best part of Italy, even though it is isolated and indietro.

The difficulties of living there are apparent only to the nutcase strani­eri who decide to call Salento home. After dreaming of living there for years, I (aka American Nutcase), agreed to transfer to this backward paradise to set up my home base.

Confronting reality  

On vacation in Salento, it’s easy to let the practicalities of life, like work, drop by the wayside. But living there is different.     

I found a former cantina that had arched ceilings of stone and a marble staircase leading down to it from the street. I was attracted to its inherent charm, so I didn’t realize until I moved in that not only did my cell phone not receive a signal inside, but my computer’s new Italian wireless card didn’t work either.

I was told that a phone/internet line would take months to install and activate if it could even be done, so I was left to my own devices when it came to using my computer to access the Web. I immediately began to panic, experiencing withdrawals from my plugged-in life in the States and fearing the worst: complete isolation.

Attempting to be undaunted, I set out on my Metropolitan Lady bicycle every day, my computer in tow. I rode to coffee bars, restaurants, and friends’ homes and places of business to use my laptop and wireless card, much to the amusement and chagrin of the Salentini, who would say to me, “You are fixated. Stop the computer. Go to the sea!”

Rediscovering paradise

At the end of my rope with the constant comments and the nomadic computer life, I had the fortune to meet Francesco, a Salentino by birth who worked in Milan and was back in the area on vacation. He helped solve my Internet dilemma with a series of extension cords and wires leading to the one ground-level window in the cantina. He then felt it was his personal responsibility to restore my previous sense of wonder in Salento.

Finally, ready for a break, I agreed to accompany him, and we hit the road to the port of Otranto, where we bought tuna-and-pepperoncino sandwiches on olive rolls at the corner café, then took off on Francesco’s boat to Imperial Beach.

Almost hidden by the massive limestone rocks that surround it, Imperial Beach is accessible only by boat. Locals had parked their boat 30+meters from shore before they half-swam, half-waded to the beach, as we did, with our lunch and towels on top of our heads. The water was completely transparent, and the sun shone so brightly that the entire scene seemed as if it were a dream.

Francesco knew everyone on the beach, and they all greeted him with kisses and hugs and handshakes as if it had been a decade since the last time they had met. No, he assured me it had been only yesterday. But these people, like Francesco, had been coming to this beach for all of their lives.

Francesco ex­plained the history of Salento as we sat on the sand like 5-year-old children, half in and half out of the water as gentle waves lapped our legs. We ate our panini and drank cold coffee from plastic bottles that his beach family smilingly offered us.

Then Francesco led me back into the shallow sea to one of the giant rocks jutting out into the water. He put his hand inside a crack in one of the rocks and came out with what looked like slimy gray mud. He slapped it on his forehead and laughed when I jumped in shock.

He told me that the ancient mud purifies the skin and that people had come to these rocks and slathering on the argilla for centuries. I looked around and saw two children rubbing argilla on each other, and a group of teenage girls very seriously applying the mud to their thighs and stomachs.

When in Salento, I thought, do as the Salentini do, so I started to cake it on too. Then we strolled back and forth along the white sand in the ankle-deep water until the mud had caked, and we could finally dive into the sea, ascending slowly to the sunny surface thoroughly purified.

Every day for the rest of the summer, Francesco and I would head out to another part of Salento-to a beach, a museum, or a tiny hillside town. We ate pesce crudo every day, and although there was never a dull moment, we never came close to seeing or doing all the things that were possible in Salento.

A cultural mix

Salento is like no other place in Italy. The little towns on the coast seem like old-fashioned seaside paradises, each with its unique culture and history. Yes, it’s Italy, but it’s also a bit of Greece, Turkey, and what the Salentini call “Porta d’Oriente.”

Salento’s geographical location was perfect for invaders attacking from the sea, so there are remnants and ruins of lighthouses, bastions surrounding sea towns, castle walls, moats and towers dotting the coastline — reminders of the mostly unsuccessful attempts to protect its inhabitants. There are still parts of Salento where they speak Greek, and the bleached-white buildings stacked on hillsides certainly bring to mind that part of the world.

Each invasion and occupation left a mark on the region, creating a melting pot of cultures instead of one homogenous genetic stamp. And because the area is so lightly traveled by outsiders, you really feel that you are the first one to discover it all.

Lesson learned

There was so much to learn about and see here, yet I had squandered time stupidly toting a computer around for months. I had wasted so much time crying about the lack of efficiency that I had forgotten that I had chosen to live in a place that thrives on closing down for five hours in the middle of every day so everyone can go to the sea. I should have joined them.

I went to Salento with all of my American-ness and tried to make it fit me. But Salento doesn’t need to change; it needs to hang on to that which makes it unique. It was I who needed to adapt and embrace the rhythm of the place, to sort out what drew me there in the first place: I wanted to understand the way of life in a place like Salento, where the original Italian vita bella still exists. Miraculously, once I was purified, I realized it all.

By Layne Randolph, International Travel News © 2016 International Travel News. All Rights Reserved.