"A Very Different Vintage": Etna 2017

10/9/20 -

When I tasted the 2017 vintage of Masseria del Pino's I Nove Fratelli Etna Rosso, I didn't overthink it. At least not at first. I popped the bottle open and I poured myself a glass. From the get-go, I knew I'd enjoy it. There was such defined fruit on the nose - fresh cherry, pomegranate, and candied raspberry so articulated that they seemed to waft up individually, in a sort of joyful, intentional pattern. First one, then the next, but so well knit. The palate was bright, with brilliant acidity and spot on tannins that honed in on the gums. The core of the wine, the blend of red fruits, had more than enough body and flavor to satisfy my craving at the end of a long day at the shop; a drink with substance.

When compared to the 2016, the I Nove Fratelli 2017 is leaner, brighter, less tannic and more refreshing in fruit. It is more forward. These qualities are what make it delicious, but are simultaneously what make it a distinct example of the vintage. We're offering both today, to give you the chance to taste them side-by-side. There is only one case of the Masseria del Pino 2016 I Nove Fratelli available. So, quick clicks everyone.

In general, the 2017 vintage was immensly trying for the whole of Italy. Extreme heat and drought plagued the country from top to bottom, reducing the nation's yeilds to a staggering low not seen for more than half a century. Difficult growing seasons, as terrible as they may be, are not unlike other challanges. When met with skill and smarts (and in some cases, a little luck), an unfortunate situation, fated to produce mostly bad results, can deliver exceptions of unparralled character and quality. In this instance, wines so true to time and place of origin that they are as provoking intellectually as they are on the palate.

"It was very, very hot and dry," explained Chiara Vigo, head of Frattorie Romeo del Castello, located 700 meters above sea level on Etna. "In general, we had a huge reduction of the grape production." Her 2017 Allegracore bottling has all the earthy, smokey minerality one wants from a Nerello Mascalese-based red. There are dark, wild red fruits, woodsy spice and savory orange peel. In structure, the wine is built with dusty tannin and medium acidity. We have less than a case available, and no more can be ordered.

Due to the warm, rainless conditions, most producers I spoke to, including Chiara, told me that they picked their grapes earlier than usual. This was to ensure balance. If one were to pick too late, the fear was a lack of acidity and sugars that were way too high. Chiara mentioned her family's reaction to picking some Nerello Mascalese at the end of September. "My mother never remembers to have harvested Nerello Mascalese in September! Our normal harvesting period is mid-October."

Concessions had to be made, but she was ultimately very happy with the wine that she released. "In 2017, we didn't produce VIGO," Chiara admitted, refering Romeo del Castello's old vine bottling. Where did all the prized fruit go, you ask? Into the Allegracore bottling, of course. The older vines on Etna helped save this vintage. Their root systems were deeper and more complex, able to draw moisture and nutrients from far below the surfuce. The younger vines didn't have the ability. "I was very surprised and also satisfied with the final result!" Chiaro wrote to me. This is a chance to taste old vine Enta Rosso, bottled in a wine that wouldn't typically have it.

Giovanni Ferlito, part owner of the Monterosso estate on Etna's southern side, also had to pick early, and lost a good deal of fruit to the 2017 heat. Even in light of this, he tended to keep negative words out of his reflections on the year. "A very different vintage," he wrote to me. "We did pick two weeks earlier than usual to keep the freshness in the grapes," he continued. And, like Chiara Vigo, he was happy with how Monterosso pulled through. "The fruit definition in the wines is incredible," he wrote.

Last winter, when I first tasted the Monterosso 2017 Volcano Rosso, it is was a little shy. It was a lean bottle of Nerello Mascalese, with simple fruit and structure. This would change. When I recently opened a bottle, it was dark, with with a fleshy core of dried red and black fruits. There were aromas of freshly ground espresso, herbs, cured meats and loamy earth. The palate had engaging tannin and lively acidity. A great chew around a refreshing drive. I expect this wine to develop even further, to become fuller and deeper. I believe it is on it's way to fulfilling Giovanni's description of a wine with a "riper and richer character."

The only white that we're featuring today is the I Custodi 2017 Ante Bianco. A few days ago, Mario Paoluzi, the founder of I Custodi, chatted with me via Whatsapp to explain how the hot weather was not such a bad thing for his Carricante vines. He explained that the eastern side of the volcano, where the Ante vineyard is planted, is a colder region, prone to cloudy days and rain. The warmer weather seemed to level the environment.

Mario was almost giddy when he told me that this vintage of the wine was incredibly accesible, drinking much better now than the 2016 is. Like other wines from 2017, it is more upfront, with a bit less density, but full of flavor, along with a finer mouthfeel. Although it is drinking well today, Mario insisted that it is years before its prime. Apples and lemon zest on the nose, with flavors of salted pear, citrus and fresh green herbs.

All bottles that we're offering today come from the hands and hearts of some of the Sicily's most admired producers. They're delicious culminations of a tough year, besides the 2016 (that was a great vintage). They aren't miracles - thinking that would be to ignore the huge amount of work that went into their creation. They are great wines made by talented people. Professionals ready for the unpredictable. I think the wines of Etna 2017 will continue to develop, and I, for one, will enjoy following their progress.

Grazie to Chiara Vigo, Giovanni Ferlito, and Mario Paoluzi for the remarkable conversations and for sending us vintage after vintage of phenomenal wine!

-David Hatzopoulos

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