We were photographing the brass plate at the entrance to the Tenuta delle Terre Nere cellar, when across the courtyard strolled Marco de Grazia. Now we’d never met Marco before.
But we knew it must be him…his confident proprietorial gait suggested it and so it turned out.
A chance meeting with one of the standout protagonists in Italian wine-making circles over the last 35 years, this was indeed an unexpected bonus. Having already met with Marco Ciancio, Terre Nere’s PR & Media Manager, at the Contrade dell’Etna event we had only primed ourselves for the vineyard tour. Mutually intrigued, Marco led us towards the offices.
The backdrop of Marco De Grazia’s history in the wine business is well known on both side of the Atlantic ocean. Born in the USA to a Florentine Mum and an American Dad, this wine importer/agent also turned winemaker, became one of the erstwhile Barolo Boy’s during the mid ’80’s and ’90s. In so doing, Marco became no stranger to headlines. The revolution sparked by himself and the small group of young like-minded Piemontese winemakers will forever provide conversational gold for lovers of those great reds. Fast-forward to ETNA, when his first meaningful steps onto volcanic soils were towards the end of the 1990’s. His initial small vineyard purchases soon led to the founding of Tenute delle Terre Nere and when their first vintage was officially released in 2002, it was perhaps the real coming of age for this forward-thinking visionary.
Yet Etna at that time was to prove a totally different challenge for De Grazia. Almost completely abandoned since the end of the 2nd World War, the region was certainly not being considered in Quality circles. Historically well known for wine production, yes. But its wines were generally exported in bulk to be blended in the cellars of Northern Italy and even France. While local bottling had started at the beginning of the 1900’s, it had all but died out after the War when other commercial ventures took over from viticulture. The presence of Etna Rosso & Bianco on wine store shelves today is an entirely recent phenomenon.
As one of the first ‘modern’ movers, Marco De Grazia has played a pivotal role in Etna’s rebirth. More than that, he remains centrifugal to what this regions wines mean today. Currently regarded as one of Italy’s Top 100 producers, he has put together a small dynamic team including Calogero Statella (Oenological/Technical Director). Born and bred in Catania, Calogero is surely one of Sicily’s great young oenologists. When it comes to knowing and understanding the potential of Nerello Mascalese there are few better positioned than he. Indeed his December 2015 article for ‘L’Enologo’ magazine remains one the most in-depth and enlightening studies of this variety to have ever been published.
Yet it helped to put in context so much of what we’ve already read about ETNA and the importance of the CONTRADE. Indeed it was De Grazia himself who was instrumental in breathing life into this concept of identifying the local ‘CRU’, now universally known as ‘CONTRADE’.
Anyone who ever has the chance to take this tour, will find the Terre Nere vineyards a spectacular blend of heritage, culture, extreme farming and off-roading. All the focus is on defining the Quality of their principal Contrade – Calderara Sottana (including Don Peppino), Santo Spirito, Guardiola, Feudo di Mezzo and San Lorenzo.
From Calderara (600m a.s.l), which is where the cellar is located, up to the stunning amphitheatre of Santo Spirito (700m a.s.l) and further upwards to the heavenly Gods’ of Guardiola (800-900m a.s.l) and back down to Feudo di Mezzo / San Lorenzo, Terre Nere is truly blessed.
Naturally we’re talking native grapes – Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio for their Etna Rosso wines and Carricante, Catarratto and Inzolia for the Etna Bianco’s.
Etna Bianco Le Vigne Niche 2016 – 2 Contrade – Calderara & Santo Spirito (Primeur)
Both wines were sampled directly from the VAT’s. As their names suggest they are single vineyard wines produced from 100% Carricante, fermented in oak, including malolactic fermentation, and then aged in large barrels for 10 months with a further 8 months after bottling. These #V16’s have naturally still to see glass. Both exhibit fresh tension with an appealing, cleansing palate of citrus fruits. These are currently amongst a rare breed of 100% pure Carricante ‘Etna Biancos’. They merit much love.
Etna Rosso 2016 (Primeur)
A blend of Nerello Mascalese 95% and Nerello Cappuccio 5%, we found fresh fruit, earth and spice, a little nervy tannin but already showing balanced bodywork. Yeah there’s bite and grip in this vintage. Tasty promises in store.
Calderara Sottana 2015 – 600mts asl (VAT sample)
To be bottled in June 2017, this pale ruby, initially offered us delicate red berries, then tripped to a more intensely floral beat, lovely structured palate, elegant tannins, think harmonious balanced finesse.
Guardiola 2015 – 800/900mts asl (VAT sample)
To be bottled in June 2017, this pale ruby is a much more potent, up-standing wine, fresh for sure, with a pronounced tannic infrastructure, it offers both balance and persistence.
Santo Spirito 2015 – 700mts asl (VAT sample)
To be bottled in June 2017, this light ruby is all about luscious juicy fruit & silky smooth tannins. Curiously we were struck how its expressive palate appears to reflect perfectly this vineyards location and altitude, as it sits between both the Calderara and Guardiola contrade. Direct comparisons and differences noted amongst these 3 samples.
Pre Fillosera Vigne di Don Peppino 2015 – 600mts asl (VAT sample)
To be bottled in June 2017, light ruby tones whose fruit first impression, unlike the previous samples, gives way to an unexpected complexity. Truly super structure and balance, this is simply fantastic. To be honest we’d need to sit down and pow-wow with this one for longer. Meditative, celebratory stuff. Mark your cards folks.
In the comfort of the lounge, surrounded by an eclectic collection of books, artworks and globe-trekking memorabilia, what ensued was a 2 hour conversational ‘JAMM SESSION’ on matters ranging from the logical to the biological, grapes, wine, history & life.
Marco De Grazia is a philosophical kinda guy yet equally pragmatic. To make fine wines in extreme locations, in ‘biologic terms’, requires key decision making and serious dedication in the vineyard. With both transmitters & receivers switched ON, Marco and his teams’ interaction with Mother Nature is an active daily discourse. The Totality of which is absolutely reflected in the Quality of Tenute delle Terre Nere’s wines.
Marco’s faith in Etna has been intrinsic to the rebirth of this quite magical place. “What am I doing planting vineyards at the age of 65? he asks us in a moment of self disbelief. To which we replied, ‘you’re doin’ it for love, right?’. That’s it!
High on the wall in the hallway, our eye caught sight of an intriguing Tapestry entitled ‘In Love We Can’.
It brought to mind that once was written “the fruit of faith is love” and “the fruit of love is service”. For his faith in Etna and for the love honestly conveyed through the fruits of his labour, Marco de Grazia has and still is doing Etna a great service. No mistaking why a’ Muntagna loves Terre Nere!
And one day hopefully, somewhere, somehow… we will !
In the meantime, we recommend you ‘MOOD-MATCH’ any of Terre Nere’s exceptional wines, ROSSO or BIANCO, with a youthful slice of New York cool from the super talented Jake Sherman ….
And check out Sofar Sounds for the best secret gig’s on the Planet !