With Marc De Grazia and Terre Nere
If you hadn’t already heard, terroir has transcended from the level of catch phrases used to sell wine or describe vineyards by the producers of Burgundy, to becoming a worldwide concept that is used and believed in by nearly every artisanal winemaker on Earth. I for one am a true believer in terroir, the theory that it is the combination of earth, exposition, altitude, climate and even the growers themselves, that determines the end result of any wine. The Greeks and the Romans certainly understood it, as they looked for ideal locations to plant vines, and the Benedictine monks did as well, as they built walls around the best locations to prevent spoilage from the surrounding landscapes. They may not have called it terroir, but going back thousands of years, that is what they were working to locate, plant and protect.
Of the many different terroir that are spoken about with great esteem, recently it has been the diverse locations of Sicily’s Mount Etna that have been in the spotlight. A current trend of seeking out and understanding wines produced in volcanic regions has been gaining popularity, and much of this is the result of the recent success of Mount Etna and the man who put it firmly onto the Wine World’s map: Marc de Grazia of Tenuta Delle Terre Nere.
The Burgundy of the Mediterranean
What makes the Etna so different from the rest of the world is a combination of climate, location, altitude, soil, and multiple natural influences, both moderate and severely affecting–in other words, Terroir. Sicily itself has a Mediterranean climate, yet the entire Island is heavily affected by the warm, dry Sirocco winds that blow up from the northern tip of Africa. The most difficult part about making wine here is in maintaining balance in the face of ripeness. What’s more, the rich and fertile soils promote fruitful vegetation, which is not what a winemaker of anything but bulk wine is looking for. However, things change drastically as you move east and up onto the foothills of Mount Etna.
This is an active volcano, which to this day continues to billow smoke and the occasional lava flow from within. As you move up the slopes of Etna, things change drastically at around 400 meters, where the higher altitudes moderate the heat of Sicily’s Mediterranean climate. When you go even further up, such as up to 1000 meters, you’re suddenly transported to another world, a world that in some cases looks alien in origin, with its black ash (some the consistency of talcum powder), pumice and old vines from a time that winemaking seems to have forgotten. Here the climate is even cooler, or shall we say colder. Following the crescent-shaped DOC of Etna, we find vineyards that wrap from around south of the volcano, up to the east, and circle around the north. Here things get even more interesting, as the vineyards are further influenced and protected by the cooling winds that blow off the mountain ranges further north. What this all means is that Etna is a terroir that is ideal for long-ripened grapes of elegance, grace and otherworldly depths. There’s no question why Marc de Grazia coined it the “Burgundy of the Mediterranean.”
The unique micro-climates in the region brought Marc to these vineyards, having proven himself time and again in Barolo and Barbaresco, long before the world really understood how important single-vineyard expressions were. Marc came to Mount Etna, and he saw vineyards that contained vines of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio that were from 60 to up to 140 years old, tended to by a small number of dedicated vine growers who were keeping tradition alive out of a sense of passion and respect. Each of these vineyards contained its own unique soil, a result of multiple lava flows over thousands of years, pushing minerals and rock from below the earth’s surface and covering the native soils that were once present.
He immediately set to work building relationships and identifying what he believed to be the Premier and Grand Cru locations of Etna. His strict guidelines were based on the uniqueness of each cru, a location on the northern slopes (which was known to be the best location for red wines in the region) and that the previous owner had tended to the vines organically.
Tenuta della Terre Nere was born, with its first bottling in 2002 from vineyards between the village of Solicchiata and the town of Randazzo. Today, Marc oversees five vineyards, Calderara Sottana, Santo Spirito, Guardiola, San Lorenzo and Feudo di Mezzo, from which he produces a selection of single-vineyard and unique expressions that speak to the soul just as well as they satiate the senses.
Tasting the 2016s with Marc de Grazia
For longtime readers, my love for Terre Nere is no secret, as I’ve been writing about these wines since the release of the 2007 vintage. Looking back on that time, I was enthralled by the wines and their ability to communicate place while finding a perfect balance between Nebbiolo’s depths, layers and acidity and Pinot Noir’s grace, purity and refinement. To this day, I am just as excited to taste a new vintage, and this time it was 2016, a vintage that Marc de Grazia believes is his best to date. He’s not alone either; already we’ve heard from Ian D’Agata of Vinous, who has called 2016 a more balanced vintage than 2015 and 2014. This was very exciting for me, considering that 2014 was one of the finest vintages I’ve ever tasted.
The 2016 Vintage Conditions on Mount Etna
The 2016 vintage was a rollercoaster for growers and winemakers on Etna, starting with a mild winter that decreased water reserves. In March came violent hail, wounding some vines and ultimately decreasing their production. April brought a heat wave, which sped up growth, followed by an unseasonably cool May (slowing growth) and thunderstorms and humidity in June. Marc explained that by the time the vines began to bear fruit, things were not looking good. However, with July came temperate and dry weather, devoid of heat spikes with cool, regulating nighttime temperatures. Things seemed to be back on track until September, when the region saw more rain, and with it came a fear of rot. The saving grace was in the second half of October, and through harvest, as temperatures regulated with warm days, cool nights and dry weather. Even so, Marc wasn’t sure about the vintage at the time of harvest, worried about the lack of color and ripeness of the fruit, so he insisted on strict selection.
Yet through it all, as the wines made their way from crush, to fermentation, and into tank, the vintage began to show the early signs of a great year in the making. Now, with the wines in bottle, Marc couldn’t be happier with the results. He described the vintage as having the “Grace of ‘15 with the richness of ‘14 without the sheer power.” Which to me sounds like a wonderful combination. The wines are also higher in acidity than the ‘15s, and lower alcohol levels than both vintages.
After tasting through the lineup, what interested me most was the beauty of each wine on the nose, the persistence of fruit on the palate, and the overall structure of all but the Rosso and Feudo di Mezzo. These wines are built for the long haul. I believe that with five to ten years in the cellar, the 2016s will be utterly stunning.
On to the tasting notes
(I’ve left them in the order they were tasted, with notes on each vineyard beginning with the selection of Rossos).
The Reds (Rosso):
Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2016 (a blend of vineyards) – The bouquet displayed wild berry and cherry with hints of, spiced orange, and savory herbs. On the palate, I found soft, silky textures, with sweet spiced cherry offset by brisk acidity in a ripe and energetic expression. The finish was long with saturating red fruits and inner herbal tones. This opened beautifully after a hint of reduction blew off and represents amazing value for the price. (91 points)
Feudo di Mezzo consists of old vines (at least fifty years if not older) planted in volcanic ash at about 600 meters above sea level, which are almost always the first to be harvested.
Terre Nere Rosso Feudo di Mezzo 2016 – The nose showed sweet ripe cherry and wild herbs with zesty spices and dusty minerals. On the palate, I found soft, caressing textures with fleshy red fruits which were quickly firmed up by young tannin, followed by a wave of balancing acidity. The finish was long with a coating of red fruit and tannin clinging to the senses. This was so textural yet also fresh and incredibly youthful. (92 points)
The Santo Spirito vineyard is at a higher altitude, with more stones and sand mixed throughout its soils, at about 700 meters above sea level and in a cooler microclimate than Feudo di Mezzo. Marc believes that Santo Spirito is a joyous, luminous and sensual wine–I tend to agree.
Terre Nere Etna Rosso Santo Spirito 2016 – The nose was youthfully restrained with tart black cherry giving way to dark earth, hints of ash, minerals and dusty dried flowers. On the palate, I found cool-toned silky textures, as a mix of acid and young tannin firmed up on the senses. Pure, densely-packed red fruits maintained relevance encased in minerals and spice, as Santo Spirito finished long, structured and full of potential. There’s so much tension in the glass, as the 2016 is one of the best examples I’ve ever tasted from this Cru. I’m truly excited to see where this wine is going. (93 points)
The Guardiola vineyard is adjacent to Santo Spirito, yet the soils are quite different and poor, with volcanic sands and basalt pebbles at a higher elevation up the slope, which is an even cooler location. It’s a more structured wine, tense, complex and cooler-toned.
Terre Nere Etna Rosso Guardiola 2016 – The bouquet was gorgeous, with a display of floral and herbal infused black cherry, hints of spiced orange peel, and minerals. On the palate, I found velvety textures with wonderful lift, as tart cherry and savory herbs washed across the senses, becoming almost weightless, giving way to zesty acids and the onset of fine tannin. The finish was long, showing fresh red fruits, minerals, inner floral tones and a complex web of tannin, which was nearly enveloped by the Guardiola’s beautifully pure and very feminine fruit. (94 points)
The San Lorenzo vineyard was first bottled by Terre Nere in 2015, yet the vineyard had been used and bottled by Marc at a different estate since 2009. San Lorenzo is very different from the other Terre Nere vineyards, attached to the town of Randazzo in the coolest part of the appellation. The Lava flow of 1981 almost hit the town and covered much of the vineyard, with the exception of a small parcel, which Marc farms. A combination of cool climate and soils of almost pure volcanic sand creates what Marc believes to be a Grand Cru of the region. These are the oldest native soils you can plant on Mount Etna, along with Calderara Sottana.
Terre Nere Rosso San Lorenzo 2016 – The nose showed crushed stone up front, followed by lifted red florals, dried citrus, notes of fresh strawberry and dusty soil. On the palate, I found silky textures, as a rush of spicy, ripe black cherry flooded the senses, remaining fresh and invigorating with zesty acidity and a twang of bitter herbs. The finish was long and spicy with lingering sweet red fruits, saturating tannin and a twang of bitter herbs. (93 points)
The stoniest soils of all of Terre Nere’s crus are found in Calderara Sottana, which contains the oldest soils as well, with fist-sized, lightweight, black volcanic pumice stones. This vineyard also managed to survive the many lava flows of Mount Etna. It faces north, looking toward the Peloritani Mountain range with vines that are between 70-80 years old.
Terre Nere Etna Rosso Calderara Sottana 2016 – The nose was restrained at first, and quite backward, showing hints of black cherry, earth, savory herbs and marine-influenced minerality. On the palate, I found silky textures with gorgeous lift giving way to fresh red fruits, with layers of exotic spice, minerals and sweet inner florals. Its structure came on late, saturating the senses throughout the long finish with lingering tart cherry and spice. There was amazing balance to the ‘16 Calderara Sottana, along with structure to age. (95 points)
The Prephylloxera comes from two small parcels within Calderara Sottana that survived phylloxera, with vines that are between 140-150 years old, which were tended to by an old vigneron named Don Peppino for over 70 years. Marc sees these vines as bearing the most important fruit that he works with, and he credits Don Peppino for letting them thrive to this day. As such, he named the wine in honor of the man.
Terre Nere Etna Rosso La Vigna di Don Peppino Prephylloxera 2016 – The nose was dark and mineral-infused, with black cherry giving way to hints of black tea, hazelnut, dried roses and savory spice. On the palate, I found silky textures in a refined and polished expression, as the wine seemed to glide across the senses, depositing minerals and sweet inner florals. The finish was long, with tannin settling in, firming up the experience with dried cherry and dried orange peel, which lingered on and on. This is a beautiful balanced vintage for Don Peppino to both enjoy now or place in the cellar. (96 points)
The Whites (Bianco):
Both are made from 100% Carricante grapes grown on the northern slopes of Etna, a location dominated by red grapes. Each wine has its signature, yet both are able to mature effortlessly in the cellar. The Calderara Sottana is a wine of verve, minerals and tension, while the Santo Spirito shows sensuality, balanced weight and elegance.
Terre Nere Etna Bianco Le Vigne Niche Calderara Sottana 2016 – The nose was pretty, with yellow florals giving way to young mango, hints of peach and smoky minerality, as the bouquet of the Caldera Sottana grew sweeter in the glass. On the palate, I found wonderfully soft, caressing textures with yellow stone fruits, hints of grapefruit and saline-minerals washing across the senses. The finish was medium-long with lingering notes of roasted hazelnut, dried peach and inner floral tones. (94 points)
Terre Nere Etna Bianco Le Vigne Niche Santo Spirito 2016 – The nose was floral yet rich, showing young peach, offset by raw almond, crushed stone and spice. On the palate, I found silky, almost oily textures, with young mango and peach giving way to hints of spice. The finish was long, as its textural complexity slowly faded from the senses leaving hints of dried peach and mango. The 2016 Santo Spirito is elegance personified. (92 points)