It happens every year. The holidays come and our wine purchases are reduced to buttery Chardonnay, the fruit-forward Pinot Noir, or a strong Zinfandel.
I’m with you, these wines have found their way to our table on countless occasions for good reason. They play well with the food. It just so happens that there are far more exciting wines from the volcano Mount Etna, which share the classic profiles of these popular favorites.
Granted, indigenous Etna varieties have unfamiliar names, but these volcanic wines are the perfect pairings for holiday meals and a great gift for an overworked host.
Carricante (car-ee-con-tay) and Catarratto (cot-ah-rot-toe) are used for Etna Bianco. Other Sicilian and relic varieties can be used in small quantities.
While Nerello Mascalese (nair-ello ma-ska-lay-zay) and Nerello Cappuccio (nair-ello ca-poo-chee-oh) are the stalwarts of Etna Rosato, Etna Rosso, Etna Spumante.
Etna Bianco is a pale yellow white wine that has great acidity, savory citrus fruit, and a clean finish. When Carricante is blended with Catarratto, the wines have a medium body and accents of ripe tropical fruit sewn throughout. While the east slope of the mountain is home for Etna Bianco, other areas around the mountain show how well it grows on other slopes. We love Etna Bianco for fish, starters, vegetables, and tofu but it can also stand up to fowl, soups, and trimmings. #ProTip: Look for wines that list Catarratto as a part of the blend.
I love Etna Rosato for any occasion. It’s one of Etna’s most versatile wine categories. The Nerello-based pink wine comes in a range of colors from onion skin to salmon and pale ruby. The darker the color, the longer the juice spends in contact with the skins before fermentation. Because of this short extraction of color, Etna Rosato can play with almost any plate you are serving. The fresh acidity, kiss of red fruit, and supple structure that arrives from the extraction of tannins complement charcuterie, cheeses, fowl, seitan, and pork dishes by cleaning and preparing your palate for another bite of food. #ProTip: Pull the rosato out of the fridge for starters and let it warm up on the table, to pair it with other dishes.
Mount Etna’s biggest category is Etna Rosso. It includes all shades of red wine from pale ruby to opaque, but the aromas, flavors, and textures of the wines are entirely volcanic. They feature brackish red fruit, ripe tannins, a nuance of veg, and a briny finish. Most often compared with Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, Etna’s Nerello Mascalese benefits from an accent of Nerello Cappuccio and is an incredible mimic of the volcanic terrain. Wines that have seen a few months in wood benefit from aging. For me, lighter styles and cooler vintages serve a broader range of foods, including starters, stuffing, winter squash, fowl, ham, seitan, and roasts. Hotter vintages and wines with a higher alcohol by volume pair well with meat. #ProTip: Open the bottle a few hours before serving. Etna reds like to breathe.
One wine that finds itself on some wine lists and retailers shelves is Nerello Cappuccio. While there are only a few producers making a pure Nerello Cappuccio with regularity, this traditional blender for Nerello Mascalese is a stunner when allowed to sing on its own. The near opaque red wine features black cherry, blueberry, savory herbs and supple tannins that pair well with everything from sushi to vegetables, starters, entrees, and dessert. It’s the one wine I promote regularly for its undeniable versatility. #ProTip: Decant Nerello Cappuccio a few hours before serving. They are most often aged in stainless steel, a little air adds to their appeal.
Mount Etna also makes wonderful sparkling wines using the metodo classico (classic method), in which the second fermentation that creates the bubbles is done in the bottle you buy. Etna Spumante is based on Nerello Mascalese, at a minumum of 60% of the blend. The fine perlage and mousse comes from about two years or more of bottle aging on the fine lees. While most producers are focusing on a white wine from this black grape, some wineries are making a rosé version as well. These are often age worthy wines or solely for special occasions, but we open them for just about any meal. Not only are they versatile for cheeses and soups, the wines can often serve as a palate cleanser between courses, or as an accompaniment for fruit at the end of a long dinner.
These days, it’s not hard to find a good wine for the holidays. But around this time of year, I like to celebrate a little and share the things I’ve discovered with those I know and love. For me, that thing is Etna.
What will you discover this holiday season?