Friday, January 14, 2011

Terre Nere: Wines of Earth, Wind and Fire

I think back five years, when I was just starting to get into Italian wine. I was a new chef that had just finished paying my school bills and I was working at T.H.O.R on the lower east side of Manhattan. I had money in my pocket for what seemed like the first time in many years, and I was determined to understand Italian wine. At that time it was Italian Wine Merchant (the authority on Italian wine in NY on E. 16th Street) that was filling my cellar and I would spend hours there each week, talking wine and Italian culture. However, with time, I began to realize that there was something missing from their inventory. IWM had all the big wines of Italy and many obscure gems from cult producers, but what they didn't have were the wines of the south and especially Sicily. Their inventory literally seemed to stop short at Campania. I even posed the question to my trusted cellar consultant, "What about Southern wines?", and the response was dismissive–not of me but of the wines themselves.

The reason for this is that, up until recently, the wines of Sicily were still recovering from decades of being nothing more than a production of concentrated, sweet and uninteresting bulk wines that would be shipped north for blending or sold as table wine. There were only a handful of producers who were working to invigorate the Sicilian wine industry. However, something has been brewing in Sicily; a winemaking revolution of sorts. The problem is that it takes time to change a vineyard over from producing bulk to beauty.

Fast forward only a few years, and now we are reaping the benefits. If Sicily is not on your map, then you owe it to yourself to put it there. Tread carefully, though. While there are many quality producers making serious wine, there are still many who are pushing plunk. I've been exploring for over six months now, and have found a number of great wineries to recommend, (Frank Cornelissen and Occhipinti come to mind) but there's one that has truly stood out: Terre Nere.

The wines of Terre Nere hail from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna–that's right, on the side of an active volcano. It's here that many believe Sicily will show that it can make wines of elegance, depth and refinement. I can honestly say that I'm a believer.

What makes Terre Nere so special? A number of things, such as vineyards that sit at some of the highest elevations for red wine grapes in Europe, about 800 - 900 meters above sea level. Between the three Crus that Terre Nere sources from, there is a diverse mix of soils due to volcanic eruptions over thousands of years. The vines, primarily Nerello Mascalese, are between 40 - 50 years old–60 - 80 years old in the Feudo di Mezzo cru–and are in some cases pre-phylloxera (not grafted onto American root stock). Lastly, the production is all organic. What this all adds up to are characterful wines of amazing finesse, haunting aromatics, and complexities that have often been compared to Barolo and Burgundy. When I first read this, it immediately brought to mind the number of times this kind of hype was used to describe a new winery–but in this case it's for real.

Over the last month, I've been able to taste through three wines, from their $15 rosso to two of their vineyard classified bottles in the $30 -$35 range, and to say I'm impressed is putting it lightly. These are wines that can be enjoyed today with proper decanting or put away for a decade and, for the price, can't be beat. If you seek earth, air, minerals, smoke, spice and rich fruit with vibrant acidity and structure in your wines, Terre Nere must be on your short list.

On to the notes:

2007 Terre Nere Guardiola - The Guardiola opened on the nose with eucalyptus, olives, crushed wild berries and hint of raw beef. On the palate, this showed a lush mouth feel with a pop of zesty acidity, as cool mint swept across the tongue, followed by sour blackberry and herbs. The medium-long finish was fresh with bitter cherry pits. (92 points)

Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2008 Terre Nere Etna Rosso - After a half hour in decanter, this wine showed wild berries, top soil and rosemary on the nose. On the palate this showed juicy blueberry that turned to sour cherry, cinnamon and granite. It was elegant and dazzled the senses as it started sweet, turned dry and then left you with a finish of spicy, sour fruit. (89 Points)

Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2007 Terre Nere Feudo di Mezzo - The nose drew me in and evolved with time in the glass. At first it showed cherry with dusted sugar, cinnamon spice tea and hints of forest floor. Notes of menthol came forward as I swirled, and the fruit continued to gain volume and depth. The palate was very lean with a tannic bite at the end. The fruit that came to mind was fresh cranberries with a sour, dry finish and leather strap with a slight bitterness. There was a lot going on in the glass with the fruit gaining richness over time and verging on cherry, but the structure was massive and closed the wine down as tannin coated the palate. This bottle has many years ahead of it and has earned a place in my cellar. (92 Points)

Find it on Wine-Searcher!


  1. Great post, Eric. Welcome to Sicily! Have you read Palmento, yet ? I just purchased it to take on an upcoming trip to Europe. Anyhow. I love these wines. I also recommend the wines of Valle dell'Acate (close to my heart), Benanti (who produces Pietramarina, arguably the best white wine South of Rome), and Calabretta.

  2. Palmento is a great book. I was very lucky to meet the author at a dinner here in NYC and it was funny because he asked me to describe his book to a group of people that had asked what it was about. I think I did pretty good.. anyhow, I enjoyed it quite a bit and I think you will too.

    Valle dell'Acate I have had and enjoyed, I had the Frappato.

    The others, Benanti and Calabretta, I have to seek out.

    Have fun in Europe.


  3. Hi Eric,

    By web searching Terre Nere I entered your blog and I think I can add some words to yours. I visited the estate last October with nine Dutch friends of mine during a wine trip through Sicily. The whole trip was wonderful and we tasted many good wines, but our visit to Terre Nere was without any doubt the highlight. Marco de Grazia himself explained the way of working and filled our glasses. First with his carricante, which we all liked much better than the Benanti Pietramarina. It's like a very good Bourgogne. Pure and fatty, with the acids tamed. Then we tasted his normal rosso and two special cru's. For the first time in my life I became so emotional from wine that I had to cry. These wines are not just good, but simply excellent. Cheers, Vincent

  4. Thank you for your comments. I will continue to seek out more of these wines, especially the carricante and I hope to visit one day in the future.

  5. I'm a firm believer and a warm receiver.


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