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Nerello Mascalese

Nerello mascalese is seen as a very promising grape for Australian vineyards, with it often said to provide some of the excitement and style of nebbiolo, while the vine is both drought and heat tolerant. The great grape of Sicily’s Etna DOC, on the slopes of the volcano, it produces savoury and fragrantly mineral-tinged wines, but also makes approachably red-fruited expressions from less-vaunted territory.

Also known as

Although it’s also known by the synonyms niureddu, niureddu mascalese and mascalese nera, amongst others, nerello mascalese is by far the most common name and is what appears on wine labels.

What nerello mascalese tastes like

Nerello mascalese is characterised by red berry fruits, wild strawberries and cherries, often in a wild/sour spectrum, along with woodsy herbs, dried florals and minerals, all of which often see it compared to nebbiolo. The grape is often blended with a little nerello cappuccio, which tends to add a little colour, alcohol and some riper fruit notes. Wines made from nerello mascalese are usually quite structured, with high acid and fairly grippy tannins a feature.

Vineyard & winemaking

A late-ripening grape, nerello mascalese retains its acidity well in hot conditions, is vigorous and very drought tolerant, making it a good candidate for Australian vineyards, especially in a warming climate. The grape performs well in Sicily in varied conditions, from very high elevations with cool conditions to lower lying sites with warm seasons. In the winery, the grape is either blended or made solo into rosato or dry red. For reds, the winemaking can vary from traditional with longer macerations and large old oak, to quicker more vigorous extractions and the use of new oak. It is a matter of opinion which is most successful, though the instances of small new oak use seems to be declining. It’s important to also consider that the wines, depending on site and season, can vary from light and fragrant to deeply intense and savoury, so there’s no winemaking recipe for the best result.

Where is nerello mascalese grown?

Nerello mascalese is grown a little in Calabria, but over 90 per cent of its nearly 3,000 hectares is in Sicily, where it is most famously known as the driving force behind the red wines that come off the slopes of Mount Etna. Often grown at significant elevation, even over 1,000 metres, nerello mascalese is typically blended with nerello cappuccio – along with some other minor local grapes – with the two seemingly indivisible. However, mascalese is definitely the senior partner, with 80 per cent minimum in the red and rosato Etna DOC. Cappuccio also occupies a bit more than sixth of mascalese’s area under vine, with just over 500 hectares planted (both in Sicily and Calabria). While nerello mascalese crops up in 24 DOCs and IGPs in Italy, it is certainly on Etna – a still very active volcano – in the often-black soils that it reaches its peak expression, making wines that are often compared in stature to the great wines of Piedmont: Barolo and Barbaresco. Truth is, the wines of Etna are very much individual expressions, but the combination of fragrance and savoury power are certainly analogous, as are some of the dried florals and red fruits, but the wines would be hard to mistake as each other. Nerello mascalese is also the key grape in the tiny but important DOC of Faro in Sicily’s extreme north-west, surrounding the city of Messina.

Nerello mascalese around the world

Although nerello mascalese is a traditional Italian grape – with it related genetically to sangiovese – appreciation for its charms is a relatively modern thing. Viticulture on Mount Etna is a rugged affair, with the zone falling into a significant state of disrepair during the mid-20th century while more industrial wines hogged the commercial space. That started to change towards the end of the century, when interest started to build, and vineyards were resurrected and/or replanted. In many ways, the wine scene on Etna is both ancient and very youthful, with makers still finding their voice and sites still being rediscovered. This has also meant that international appreciation for the grape is still in its infancy

Nerello mascalese in Australia

Nerello mascalese is in the country, but at the time of writing the vines were still in quarantine. It’s a variety that many growers have shown interest in, and it is a variety that the Chalmers family have been trying to import for over a decade. Endemic issues with vine viruses have made this challenging, but now that virus-free stock has been located and imported, a new and very exciting chapter is soon to be written. With a waiting list for material to propagate that stretches back many years, Chalmers will have their hands full meeting the significant demand.

Some of the best Australian nerello mascalese

There are vines currently in quarantine, but none as yet planted. Stay tuned.