Giuseppe Russo visited Wine Decoded HQ to talk all things Lava Juice AKA Wines from Mount Etna, Sicily.
Giuseppe shared his knowledge of the history of viticulture on Mount Etna and his history from training in classical music and literature to returning to his family vineyards to transition them to the delicious Enta reds wines, white wine, and rosato that he makes today.
We tasted through all of his wines including the Contrade (single vineyard) wines Feudo di Mezzo, Calderara Sottana, and San Lorenzo.
He’s a humble guy, who managed to hold his own in English! Fortunate given the standard of my Italian.
🎥Watch or 🎧listen, the choice is yours! Enjoy!
About Girolamo Russo
The Girolamo Russo estate was founded in 2005 by Giuseppe Russo, in memory of his late father. The family are native of Passopisciaro, one of the key villages at the heart of the rebirth of Etna’s most important grape variety, Nerello Mascalese.
This is the north face of Europe’s largest active volcano, Mount Etna, in the north-eastern corner of Sicily.
The Russos have 26 hectares of land in and around Passopisciaro, with 15 hectares of vineyards surrounded by olive and hazelnut groves. The vineyards are high up, between 650 and 780 metres above sea level, inland from the beautiful town of Taormina. Many of the free-standing bush vines are over 80 years old, surviving in harmony with Etna’s black, mineral-rich volcanic soil.
Giuseppe works the vineyards organically and makes the wines himself. He vinifies each parcel separately, seeking out their individual identities in a series of wines that reflect the diverse character of their terroirs.
The Vineyards and Lava Flows
Some lava flows are very recent, too recent even to plant on.
The area is broken up into sectors known as ‘contradas’. Each contrada has a name and is linked to one of Etna’s townships.
So San Lorenzo – which is the largest and highest contrada the Russos own vineyards in – is close to the town of Randazzo.
Feudo is nearby, also near Randazzo, whereas Feudo di Mezzo is closer to Castiglione di Sicilia.
Due to its positioning on the layers of lava, ash and other volcanic soils, each contrada has its own character.
In the same way, the wines that are made from each contrada vary as they reflect these differences in terroir.
The other aspect that makes these vineyards so special is way that the local farmers – or contadini – have worked the vines through time. These are difficult vineyards to cultivate. Often comprised of narrow terraces held in place by dry-stone walls, the plants have to be able to live in mineral rich but sometimes very dry conditions. It often does not rain in summer here.
Traditionally the best system for keeping the vines alive here was to grown them as bush vines, ad alberello: as free-standing ‘little trees’ that could find their own balance in these soils and that are cared for by hand.
Each plant is pruned, hoed and tied individually.
More modern systems have seen these alberelli adapted to be trained onto wires, but the principle remains the same. Giuseppe Russo and his small team of co-workers cultivate the vines by hand, using natural fertilizers sporadically and spraying against disease and pests following organic principles.
That’s how he’s always done it, from the time he used to follow his father into the vineyards as a young boy.
Giuseppe left for a time, trained as a pianist and music teacher, and studied literature, but after his father’s death he came back to what he now recognizes is the central theme of his life: making the best wines he can in this exceptional, often challenging but uniquely beautiful area, an area that is now attracting winemakers from the all over the world but that to Giuseppe and his family has always just been home.
About Nerello Mascelese and Nerello Cappuccio
Typically wines made from the Nerello’s exude an entrancing perfume with a delicacy, elegance, and, sophistication that carries through to the palate. With vineyards from 400-1000m in elevation, the lower lying vineyards tend to yield bolder styles, while the higher sites offer greater restraint often being quite ethereal. Texturally the tannins often remind of a more supple Barolo.
Wines of Nerello Mascelese and Nerello Cappuccio have been called the Barolo of the South by some, Italy’s Burgundy by others. I prefer to call them, simply, great wines from Etna.
Whilst Nerello Mascelese’s enormous bunches, with their big berries, result in wines of a relatively pale appearance, there is nothing insignificant about their aromas, flavours, and, textures.
Indigenous to the Etna region, Nerrello meaning Black and Mascelese derived from Mascali, a comune to the east of Etna. Research indicates it is possibly a cross between Sangiovese and Mantonico Bianco. That parentage would make it a sibling of Gaglioppo from Calabria. The full parentage is and number of different varieties have yet to be determined with commercial Nerello Mascelese plantings including several unidentified varieties. Some genetic work suggests Nerello Mascelese could be related to the white grape Carricante.*
What’s the Etna style?
Such a naff question in so many ways! Although many of the vines of Etna have been planted for decades if not centuries, Etna’s renaissance really only started 20 years ago. SRC first vintage less than a generation ago!
In 30 years we may have a better picture of the regions true capability. One thing is certain, Etna is producing some of the most exciting, personality-filled wines I’ve come across in a long time.
Like any variety, there is an array of styles being made with variation to maceration time, new vs old oak, small vs large oak, élévage (maturation before bottling), being the most significant factors.
One of the biggest factors yet to show itself fully is the difference between vine that are ‘Pei Franco’ (French Foot) planted on their own roots and those that are grafted onto rootstock ‘Pei Rupestris. Direct comparison from the same producer has typically shown own-rooted vines tend to make more elegant styles, vines on rootstock bolder styles. The jury is still out and until a proper scientific comparison can be made my opinion is simply from empirical evidence.
We are also seeing the introduction of other varieties to the hill. SRC’s Rivaggi is blended with Grenache, their Etna Rosso with Sangiovese, the Alberello (which translates to bush vine) being the only 100% Nerello wine.
If you take a short trip from Etna to Faro, with only 35 acres of vines for the entire appellation, located on the North East tip of the island, Casematte are making excellent blends. Their top wine the ‘Faro’ blends Nerello Mascelese wines blended with Nerello Cappuccio, Nocciola, and Nero d’Avola. The level of intrigue is off-tap, such complexity and harmony. I was fortunate enough to devour one a week ago. Accidently leaving a half glass in the bottle proved I should have been more patient. The wine went to the next level with 24 hours of air! The Nocciola adds a degree of richness and generosity without overwhelming the Nerello. Somewhat like the Grenache in SRC’s Rivaggi. Casematte’s second wine the Peloro blends Nerello Mascelese with Nocciola and is a triumph.
In a nutshell, with varieties suited to the climate, old vines, and, good vineyard management there’s plenty of good material to work with. As lovers of delicious beverages, we got to watch, play, and, drink as the those who labour on the slopes of Etna and Faro strive to make even more exceptional wines.
Where in the world are they made?
I thought I’d share these three maps to help you get your head around Etna and it’s place in Sicily. The first map gives you the big picture. The second highlights the general area planted on Etna, mostly South to South-East facing. The third shows most, but, not all of the Contrada (single vineyards) and their relative elevations.
Tips for Drinking these Wines
🌡Temp: 16°C. We tend to drink reds an edge warm. There’s nothing wrong with chucking the bottles in the fridge for 15minutes to drop a few degrees off them. If they end up too cold they’ll warm up quickly in the glass.
🍷Decanting: The élévage is excellent the wines are well and truly through puberty and into adulthood. Decanting is not essential, looking at the wines in glass over many hours will be rewarding.
⏳Time: I love trying good wines stand alone, with food, and, often the next day. It gives them the chance to shine and ensures you don’t miss a good wine through impatience or fail to bring out it’s best by not marrying them to food. Make sure you leave a splash in the bottle to try it 24 hours later, you’ll be rewarded for the experience, particularly when these wines are young.
🕯Cellaring: The wine is drinking so beautifully now it will be hard to hold off, we’re all going to be experimenting a bit to work out the drinking windows, so if you get some, please share with the community how they’re looking when you crack a bottle!
The Best 2 Options for Preserving your Wine:
- Grab a Coravin wine preserver.
- Watch this video, “Stop the Wine-ocide” Kaani 2012 – My Deep Dark Secret, one of my first, about saving open bottles of wine from the drain, sorry about the quality, but, the message is still there.