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A Barolo Star Arrives on Etna

Davide Rosso buys a piece of Sicily’s prized terroir. What’s next?
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Davide Rosso calls Etna’s indigenous Nerello Mascalese “Mediterranean Nebbiolo.”

Posted: Sep 12, 2016 11:40am ET

Davide Rosso drags on a cigarette in his newly acquired vineyards on Sicily’s Mount Etna and gushes, “It’s magic here. … The first time I came, I discovered this energy here.”

It is a near-cloudless day on Etna’s northern slopes, and that energy is palpable: White plumes of smoke rise from the volcano’s peak more than a mile-and-a-half above us; a crystalline morning light shines on vineyard plateaus that have been carved into a rugged landscape sculpted by eruptions.

“In Italy, now, this is the most exciting place for the future,” says Rosso, who in July finalized the purchase of a small estate with more than 13 acres of decades-old vines. He will bring in his first Etna harvest next month. “The frontier is here.”

In the past 15 years, the vineyards on the flanks of Europe’s largest active volcano have risen from obscurity to among Italy’s most prized, attracting dozens of winemakers from across Sicily to Tuscany, Europe and Australia.

Rosso, 43, who built Barolo’s respected Giovanni Rosso estate, won’t be the first Piemontese to make wine on Etna; Piedmont enologists have been consulting there for years. But he is being heralded—and largely welcomed—as the first high-profile Barolista to expand here.

What will he add to the scene?

“In Barolo, we are rigorous in the small details, and it’s our intention to improve quality with attention to the small details,” says Rosso, who farms organically. Immediately after purchasing his trellised vines, he began hand-trimming them with a team of local workers, meticulously removing lower leaves and dangling shoots to improve airflow. If nothing else, they look more manicured than most in the area.

Courtesy of Rosso
An aerial view of Rosso’s Etna estate on a northern flank of volcanic Mount Etna

“We will work in a Piemontese way—everything will be perfect,” he adds. Standing tall in a pair of brown country brogues, crisp jeans, a button-down shirt and Wayfarer sunglasses, he exudes the cockiness of a young achiever.

To discover the potential of every corner of his property, he has hired a local geologist to study his soils and has divided the vineyards into 12 small parcels. From those, he will conduct separate small-batch vinifications of Etna’s main red cultivar, Nerello Mascalese, which he describes as “like a Mediterranean Nebbiolo,” with its thicker skin to withstand the Sicilian sun. While many Etna producers now emphasize vineyard crus, Rosso aims to go further to explore “crus within crus.”

Though his family grew grapes in the Barolo DOCG commune of Serralunga d’Alba for more than a century, Rosso and his father, Giovanni, began bottling their own wines in the 1990s. After he finished enology school and worked a year in Burgundy, Davide took charge of the Giovanni Rosso winery in 2001—and went on a winning streak.

Using long macerations, indigenous yeasts and a light hand in the winery, Rosso has produced more than 20 wines scoring 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator tastings.

Still, he yearned for more. “For a long time, I had a dream to bring Giovanni Rosso outside Barolo,” Rosso says.

He came to Etna in 2014 with other Barolo winemakers hosted by young Etna winemaker Alberto Aiello Graci of Graci winery. Rosso became smitten with the patchwork of varied soils shaped by lava flows and volcanic ash. He wanted to be part of a new generation of winemakers investing to increase wine quality: “Here it’s a challenge—like Montalcino in 1985!”

Graci helped him find his estate, at about 2,200 feet in altitude in the contrada (district) of Monte Dolce around a spent volcanic crater. His vineyards include 10 acres of Nerello Mascalese and three of Carricante, which he will use to make his first white.

Rosso plans to build a modern winery and convert an abandoned volcanic-stone winery into a tasting room and inn. For now, he is renting space for his cement vats and large French oak casks at Patria, a large, modern négociant winery down the road.

This summer, he has spent weeks talking with other producers, tasting all the wines he can, and training local vineyard workers, whom he praises as “having [vine knowledge] in their blood.”

Mostly he has been trying to learn about his new winemaking home-away-from-home as he divides his time between Piedmont and Sicily.

“I have to study my terroir,” he says. “I have a lot of work to do.”

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