Beautiful landscape of Etna Volcano and the various soil influences

Nerello Cappuccio is known mainly for it's role in Etna Rosso DOC wines and is mainly grown on steep terrain surrounding the Etna Volcano. Nerello Cappuccio derives it's name from the canopy or cap: cappuccio, from the unusual hooded appearance of the bush-trained vines that hide the grapes from view.

Soil Composition

As the first Italian wine DOC, ages of this volcanic and seismic activity have created a soil with amazing diversity. The andesitic magma from these volcanoes enriches the soil composition with beneficial levels of iron, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium.  Among these components is a high percentage of extremely fine sand, which has allowed many Etna Rosso vineyards to fight off Phylloxera, a louse that was ravaging vineyards throughout Europe at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  As a result, there are now some very old vines that are on their original and un-grafted rootstock, a rarity in Italy, and climbing to over 2,000 feet in elevation.

Nerello Cappuccio Vineyard

The graduated topography creates a smooth spread of micro-terroirs, as the land climbs up from near-sea-level to more than 3,940 feet. The highest of Etna’s vineyards now rank among the highest in Italy (and even the world).  Because of these micro-terroirs, the soil composition of Etna vineyards depends on which side of the volcano it is produced.  To the north, volcanic soils mixed with white sand are found; while in the east there is mainly steep, precipitous soil (40%).  The resulting low yields there bring exceptionally high-quality wines.

Nerello Cappuccio Grape

Quality

Surprisingly, little is known about this variety even though it’s always been an important part of the viticulture surrounding the Etna volcano. It is a much rarer variety than it's Etna soulmate Nerello Mascalese, with which it is usually blended. Although, Nerello Cappuccio can be used to make an interesting wine on its own, it is generally viewed as lacking the tannins necessary to stand alone. In the Etna Rosso DOC blend, where it can account for up to 20% with Nerello Mascalese, it provides color and softens acidity. Nerello Cappuccio is usually blended with varieties that are weakly hued and high in acidity. High concentrations of malvin and acylated anthocyanins (which are less subject to oxidation) means the deep hue of Nerello Cappuccio wines will last longer (1).
There is some controversy surrounding Nerello Cappuccio in that it is very similar to Nerello Mantellato (or Mantiddatu Niur in local dialect), which the majority of experts believe to be identical to Nerello Cappuccio.
Marc de Grazia, the famous American importer of Italian wines and now owner of the high quality Tenuta delle Terre Nere Estate on Etna believes they are completely different varieties, saying the grapes look and taste different. To prove his point, in 2011 he separately vinified lots of Nerello Cappuccio, Nerello Mascalese, and what he thought to be Nerello Mantellato (1). Of the 156 accessions (115 Nerello Mascalese and 41 Nerello Cappuccio) from eastern Sicily that were evaluated for both phenotypic and genotypic variability, concluded to have false synonymies.

The study showed that 70 percent of the accessions initially reported to be Nerello Cappuccio were in fact Carignano, and another 10 percent were a mix of Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo. Therefore, only the remaining 20 percent were truly Nerello Cappuccio and among these grapevines many phenotypes were found, in five distinct varieties. So not only is Nerello Cappuccio less common than previously thought, there are plenty of biotypes as the grape is interplanted with others.

Regional Variations

North

Most prominent area for Etna Rosso. The strong Northern sun exposure would usually be a disadvantage, but the presence of the Alcantara River and the Nebrodi Mountains a valley favorable for vineyard cultivation and the growth of high quality grapes. The northern border, is represented by the right bank of the Alcantara River to the town of Randazzo.

The terrain is volcanic and terraced. The ancient cultivation methods are what sustain the balance of the environment. The volcanic, sandy terrain is characterized by the stones generated by the disintegration of the lava from old volcano explosions. The ground changes continually, shallow and fertile at some points or deep with volcanic rock emerging in others.

Climate change is fast and unexpected in this area and is impacted by dramatic changes in temperature between day and night. Vines can only be cultivated by hand, with small non-invasive agricultural vehicles or by mule.

Etna Rosso Grape

Etna Bianco Grape

East & South-East

Renowned area for the production of Etna Bianco. The proximity to the sea, remarkable rainfall, and altitude allows for Eastern vineyards to develop mountainous wines with strong Nordic profiles. Due to these exceptionally high altitudes, some red berries have difficulty getting to full ripeness, allowing for powerful flavors not common in white varietals.

Characterized by the presence of mountainous reliefs that result from extinguished volcanic cones. These volcanic cones cause the soil to vary dramatically from other areas of Etna affected by different eruptions. The southern sun exposure also provides vines with ample sun for development.

South

The southern slope of Mount Etna houses the highest vineyards of the volcano, and perhaps of Europe, which in certain districts exceed altitudes of 1,000 meters. Towns of this side such as Adrano, Biancavilla, and Belpasso are areas where Nerello Mascalese is the most widespread vine.

More sheltered by the influences of the sea, this area is less influenced by the southern sun exposure than the south east. With soil that is a compilation of multiple eruptions from different time periods, the varietal characteristics vary dramatically. In most parts of the South zones, the soils were formed by the crumbling of one or more types of lava in different ages and by different eruptive materials such as lapilli, ash, and sands. The crumbling state and composition of the lava and eruptive materials have given the southern Etna very fine soil.

This is the least known wine-growing area of Etna, but is recently providing great viticultural surprises and may become an up-and-coming area.

Etna Rosso Vineyard

Flavor Profile

Adored by wine bars and restaurants all over, Nerello Cappuccio is considered one of the most exciting to have emerged on the global stage this century.

Primary - Grape Influences

The Nerello Cappuccio variety has medium-sized, pyramidal bunches that are compact and short with medium-large, round and dark blue berries.

It has an early bud break and flowering which expose it to the vagaries of weather, and spring frosts and coulure can be problems. Other than that, the variety is easy to grow and not particularly demanding, with good vigor and production levels, usually ripening a couple of weeks before Nerello Mascalese.

Secondary - Fermentation Influences

Nerello Cappuccio and it’s blending partners’ secondary influences are subjective based on the producer. Commonly, wineries use stainless steel tanks as their fermentation containers for Etna Rosso (Nerello Mascalese & Nerello Cappuccio). Because oak barrels are not often used, Etna Rosso usually contains little to no oak flavor influences in the secondary flavors.

The use of stainless steel tanks allows for the flavors to exclusively be derived from the fruit through fermentation. The length of Nerello Cappuccio’s alcoholic fermentation is usually 8 to 10 days at a temperature of 81-86°F.

A common maceration technique used for Etna Rosso is the pump-over method, also know as remontage. This is the process of pumping red wine up from the bottom of the tank and splashing it over the top of the fermenting must. This allows the skins to submerge so that the carbon dioxide is pushed to the surface of the must and released. The length of the maceration process is most often 2 to 3 days.

Malolactic fermentation is also commonly allowed in the production of Etna Rosso wines. Malolactic fermentation allows the tart-tasting malic acid, naturally present in grape must to be converted into a softer-tasting lactic acid. Shortly after the primary fermentation process is complete, malolactic fermentation is most often performed secondarily, allowing a more buttery flavor to be emitted.

Common secondary aromas and flavors brought from these fermentation methods are herbaceous and floral.

Wine Style

A monovarietal Nerello Cappuccio is medium-dark red in hue and offers aromas and soft flavors reminiscent of ripe red cherry, vanilla, minerals and light coffee; it’s not particularly floral, just like wines made with Nerello Mascalese, but is certainly more floral than its stablemate. Nerello Cappuccio wines usually have tougher tannins too and a slightly coarser quality to them, which has people thinking, saying, and writing that it is the lesser of the two Sicilian Nerellos (1).

Vintages

  • 2014: Dark ruby-red; this is the correct color of a Nerello Cappuccio wine, which should always be dark than one made with Nerello Mascalese. Pungent red rose, violet, and lavender nuances complicate fresh red cherry and berries on the nose and palate. Tactile and saline, with a juicy mouthfeel and floral nuance on the sneakily concentrated, multilayered back end. A lovely wine.
  • 2013: Youthful red with varietal notes of juicy berries, sweet spices, and carob with long lasting dense tannins. The Etna character of the Nerello Cappuccio is brought to perfection. Enjoy with a variety of dishes such as pasta with meat sauce, grilled meats and sausages, or aged cheeses.
  • 2012: Aromas of woodland berry, baking spice, orange zest, crushed rose, and a whiff of balsam come together in the glass. It’s savory and elegant, with tightly wound, fine-grained tannins that support ripe wild cherry, raspberry, cinnamon, mineral, and menthol.
  • 2009: Medium pale, juicy red fruit nose, sweet attack, fresh, and straight lined. Young and youthful.

Etna vineyard dormant season

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