The long history of Nerello Mascalese
This growing system requires heavy manual working, since it is not mechanizable and involves very high expenses. Therefore, it was almost completely abandoned during the years, since people preferred more “evolved” systems. This did not happen in the Etna area, which gave birth to Nerello Mascalese. In many other Sicilian areas, man employs a vertical trellis system, mostly in the zones around Palermo and Agrigento, where in the last thirty years Nerello Mascalese became so widespread, that it can be considered the most cultivated vine variety with black berries after Nero d’Avola.
Thanks to its high vigour, Nerello Mascalese can produce under intensive cultivation methods up to 350-450 quintals of grapes per hectare, but this is not the case of a winemaker looking for quality, this is not the case of Mount Etna. The perfect formula to produce a great wine from a vine variety such as Nerello Mascalese is, therefore, a delicate balance between nature, man, who is an integral part of nature and the observer of its qualitative phenomena, and the evolution of the vinification techniques, finally free from the obsession about quantity.
Mount Etna and Nerello Mascalese
Niuriddu Mascalisi, as Nerello Mascalese is affectionately called by Etnean winegrowers, does not have a clear and definite history. Its origin is lost in the midst of time. Some recent studies have however proved that this local red vine variety made its first appearance during the Greek colonization in the VII century B.C. on the coasts of Calabria, moving then to Naxos and later to Catania in 728 B.C., when Greeks introduced, on the eastern part of Sicily, the cutting cultivation technique and the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine. At that time, many Greeks were growing vines in the eastern part of Sicily and on the slopes of Mount Etna. They say that also the poetess Saffo, banished from her homeland, the Island of Lesbos, moved to this area of Sicily and started cultivating vines.
It was only during the Roman age that Nerello Mascalese started spreading on the slopes of Mount Etna, becoming an interesting alternative to the famous Falerno. Here it put down roots in the area of the Mascali plain, a small agricultural zone between the sea and Mount Etna in the province of Catania, hence its name “Mascalese”, and in the territories of Randazzo and Castiglione di Sicilia. Mount Etna would host Nerello Mascalese for centuries, with its extreme volcanic land at an altitude between 350 and 1100 meters above sea level, which offers the best climatic conditions for its cultivation.
Despite the fall of the Roman Empire and the successive Arabic domination of Sicily (which didn’t erase the local wine culture, contrary to common belief, but simply reduced it), and which was followed by the Norman and Bourbon ones, Nerello Mascalese has never been completed abandoned, rather it has been handed down to us in all its pride and nobility.
In 1968, Nerello Mascalese became the main ingredient of the DOC denomination of Etna Rosso (Etnean red wine) of which it represents a good 80%, whereas the remaining 20% is composed of the Nerello Cappuccio vine variety. It is used, to a lesser extent, also in the DOC of Alcamo, Contea di Sclafani, Faro, Marsala and Sambuca di Sicilia, besides those of Calabresi di Lamezia and Sant’Anna di Isola di Capo Rizzuto. Nerello Mascalese is thus recognized on the international wine scene as a local and sometimes extreme Etnean vineyard. Other characterizing elements are its late ripening, generally during the second and the third week of October; the fact that its grapes are vinified in red, after a long skin maceration; and finally that it allows producing some important red wines, suited to ageing.
In the Etnean area between Mascali and Randazzo, it is common to find ancient bush-trained vines of Nerello Mascalese, clinging to the mountain and its black terrace of lava stone with strength and vigor. Man can notice the absence of a geometrical planting pattern: in the past, the cultivation practice of offshoot growing, the so-called “purpania”, was diffused on Mount Etna. Man used to bury the vine-shoots in order to restore the closest gaps. Nowadays this technique allows us to admire, in these heroic vineyards, a prominence of ungrafted vines. In our vineyard of SantaMariaLaNave, thanks to the healthy environment and to an altitude of 1100 meters above sea level, we restore the few gaps using an offshoot-method.