There have been but a handful of truly new discoveries in old world wine growing over the past 100 years or so but none so exciting or as important to me as Sicily’s Etna region. In comparison to other “discoveries”, new wine zones like Priorat or Bolgheri where non-native, international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are part and parcel of the character of the most famous wines, Etna’s magic is all about embracing the local terroir and indigenous varieties planted here thousands of years ago by the islands Greek conquerors. Terre Nere’s founders and present owners, Marco De Grazia and his brother Iano, first came to Etna 30 years ago and are credited as being the first to discover the potential of these vineyards and producing the first commercial release of Terre Nere (Italian for black earth) in 2002. Farming is organic and yields are kept at around 35 hectolitres per hectare.
The Etna d.o.c. is situated on the north, east and south slopes of Mt Etna, Europe’s biggest active volcano, and the vines at Terre Nere are planted at elevations of between 2,000 and 3,000 feet making these Europe’s highest altitude red wine vineyards. Between the elevation and the unique soil here, black volcanic pumice, ash and sand, the terroir is nothing like anything found on the rest of the island or southern Italy. There are old vines at Terre Nere including a couple parcels of 130-150 year old pre-phylloxera plantings, of mainly Nerello Mascalese and some Nerello Cappuccio, which produce beautifully fragrant wines of great complexity, often compared to the wines of Burgundy. I was blind tasted on one of these a couple of months ago and swore up and down that I was drinking Chambolle-Musigny. In fact, these wines have their own, unique character but do share the aromatics, weight and subtlety of those great wines. They just don’t share their skyrocketing prices