Monday, December 2, 2013

In Search of Nerbo

Giovanni La Fauci has another dream besides making great grappa at his distillery Giovi in Messina.  From grapes grown high on Mount Etna, he has started making red wine, endowed with, he says, “nerbo”. Nerbo, in English, means backbone. I learned from tasting wines with him that red wines with nerbo are high in acidity and have a fine, but firm and lingering, astringency. In early October 2010, Giovanni took Fran and me to a vineyard named Prezzemolo in contrada Pirao above the town of Randazzo. At 870 meters in elevation, Prezzemolo faces north, in a tiny amphitheater, ribbed by rings of black lava terraces. The vines, about 75 years old, in alberello, all Nerello Mascalese, stood in stone balconies poised to watch the drama of the harvest soon to come.

Giovanni spoke. “See how few grape bunches each vine carries.  Some carry two. Some carry three; some, four.  I have already cut away and discarded some 500 kilos of grapes.  This is about 30% of the final harvest.”  This green harvest will allow the grapes to ripen more fully. Giovanni pointed to stone stairways which made the terraces accessible. “The terraces, and particularly those stairs, show the hard work, attention, and care of generations of vine growers.  I hunted for this vineyard a long time, girando (turning, spinning), cercando (looking), and cercando (looking some more).  I had a good feeling when I saw it. Prezzemolo (meaning parsley in English) grows all over the vineyard. An old farmer told me that it grows only where chemical treatments have not entered the soil. The soil here is pristine. The owner will let me buy this vineyard when I want.” 

Turning aside, Fran, Giovanni and I strode up a dirt road.  Gigantic cows paraded ahead of us.  We walked to another vineyard, higher up at 900 meters in elevation. It was now almost evening. Fog had started to roll in.  This vineyard was on flat land surrounded by lava-stone walls.  

The vines here, mostly Nerello, were attached to wires. There was also enough Carricante planted here for Giovanni to make one barrique of white wine.  “I came here a week ago with Uncle Francesco and a worker.  We cleaned up the foliage. In this vineyard, the vines are stronger than in Prezzemolo. They want to carry more. So we cut away less, some 600 kilos of the 2,400 kilos on the vine. I buy the harvest here too. Wine producers usually pay for grapes in stages, 30% at the harvest and the balance within a year.  In order to get what I want, I give the owner a better deal. I reserve the grapes by paying 50% of the price upfront and pay the other 50% when I harvest them.   I have an agreement to rent that house over there. (He pointed to a low-lying stone building.) I will begin to vinify my own grapes there.  Until now, I have rented space at Valcerasa.”

I tasted the 2010 Giovi Pirao at Vinitaly 2013. It smelled too ripe and was very astringent. In search of nerbo, had Giovanni waited too long to make the harvest? I look forward to tasting future vintages of Pirao. He makes a second Etna Rosso, “Akraton”, from a blend of unidentified vineyards. Akraton is the ancient Greek term for pure (undiluted and unadulterated) wine. The 2010 Giovi “Akraton” Etna Rosso, now tastes that way: pure, delicious, fresh and lively. 

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