Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sicilian volcanic wine pairing: Pasta alla Norma with Giovi Nerello Mascalese

I'm thrilled that this month's Wine Pairing Weekend (#winepw) is featuring wines that are grown on volcanic soil. There are wines grown all over in Italy that grow grapes on volcanic soil including the regions of Campania, Basilicata and Lazio, but one of the best known regions for volcanic soil is Sicily. Home to Sicily's active volcano, Mt. Etna, it's one of the tallest in Europe standing at 10,890 feet. So when introduced to the topic this month I immediately had the perfect story and wine to share as I recently met Giovanni La Fauci from the Giovi winery in Sicily that is producing wines on Mt. Etna.
Giovanni La Fauci and Giovi winery in Mt. Etna
The La Fauci family.  Right to left: Mariella, myself, Giovanni and Giuseppe
Giovanni is the owner and winemaker and was accompanied by his lovely wife Mariella and son Giuseppe. This was their first visit to Boston and he shared one of his wines at a wine tasting, degustazione, at a local Italian wine shop, Vino Italiano, that I've written about for my wine column in the Bostoniano, “Italy Uncorked”. The one thing I can say from meeting Giovanni is #1 make sure you know Italian as I got to test out my skills from our conversation and #2 is if you have passion for something it will carry you through life with much pleasure and satisfaction. Giovanni's outgoing personality and strong enthusiasm when talking about his wines and the growing of grapes on Mt. Etna was very apparent. Even if you were on the other side of the room you could tell from his body language and flailing arms how passionate he is about what he does. After all, Italians do talk not only with words, but with their hands and I can highly attest to that myself.
Giovi Akraton Nerello Mascalese
Since 1987 Giovanni has been known for his production of grappa at his distillery in Messina, Sicily. Today, still involved in grappe production, he also now produces wine sourcing it from different vineyard sites and selecting the grapes for the production of his wines. Giovanni shared with me his Giovi Akatron Etna Rosso, which is 100% made of the nerello mascalese grape. Typically nerello mascalese is blended with nerello cappuccio, but I always enjoy tasting a grape 100% in its true form as it gives you a great sense of the specific characteristics to the grape itself. Giovanni's grapes grow on about 75 year old vines. I have to say that sadly I have yet to have many wines from Etna, but they have been at the top of my list of wines to seek out and I was very impressed with the Akatron. It was a powerful, robust wine that demonstrated elegance combined with a pure expression of fruit.
Giovi Akraton Etna Rosso
How exactly does volcanic soil influence wine?
One of the hottest regions in the Italian wine world today, literally. Who would've thought that one would grow grapes on the soil of a volcano, nevermind an active volcano. One of its challenges are hand harvesting, which is time consuming and expensive, but due to the altitude of where these vineyards are situated it's the only option. So why grow wine on volcanos? Volcanic nutrients within the soil are imparted through the vines to the grapes creating minerality. Growing grapes at these altitudes also provides a lot of fluctuations in temperatures from day to night which is favorable to winemaking. The soil here is also sandy, which has helped to prevent the disease of phylloxera from entering this wine region and wiping out the rootstock as it did with the rest of Europe so the vines here are very old producing more mature grapes. I spoke more about this recently on my podcast with Rick Zullo on an introduction to Italian wines when we discussed Sicily.

Food pairing with Nerello Mascalese
Sicily's cuisine is rich in seafood as well as lamb and an abundance of vegetables including one of my favorites, eggplant. Thinking of the flavors in the Akatron I gravitated to a very popular dish of Sicily, Pasta Alla Norma. Pasta Alla Norma is a perfect dish if you're hosting any evening with guests that include vegetarians, but is also pleasing for all guests, especially lovers of eggplant since this is the main ingredient in the dish. The name of the dish actually derives from a famous opera by Bellini called Norma. Story has it that the famous writer, Nino Martoglio, sampled this dish comparing it to Norma, and hence originated the name of the dish. It's a very simple and straightforward dish to prepare, but packed with flavor.

Pasta Alla Norma
A very authentic Italian cookbook that I have owned for years, Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook, I have never really used much until writing Vino Travels and got involved in wine and food pairings. It not only has very traditional foods of each particular region throughout Italy, but the photos are eye catching. The pasta alla norma dish that I prepared came from this recipe book stated below with some small changes.

Penne or pasta of your choice (I chose rigatoni)
Fresh Roma tomatoes
1 large eggplant diced
½ onion chopped
Ricotta cheese
2-3 cloves of minced garlic
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Fresh basil

  1. Heat extra virgin olive oil in saute pan. Once heated, add minced garlic, onions and fresh roma tomatoes or I actually used cherry tomatoes from my weekly farmshare.  Season with salt and pepper. Cook ingredients until translucent.
  2. Add diced eggplant to prior ingredients. You will probably need additional extra virgin olive oil. Cover and cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes or until eggplant is tender.
  3. Boil water and add pasta. Once completed to designated time on the package add to the saute pan and mix ingredients together.
  4. Serve and top with fresh basil and dollops of ricotta.
eggplant pasta alla normapasta alla norma
Wine and Food Pairing with Pasta alla Norma
It doesn't matter ultimately whether you check out the volcanic wines of Sicily , other regions within Italy or the world, but to never have experienced volcanic wines would be a shame. There is so much to learn when you sample wines from different soils and the wines of Mt. Etna is a perfect demonstration to what those characteristics are.

Here's what the #winePW crew posted about volcanic wines...
Come chat with us...
#winePW Twitter Chat September 12, 11 a.m. ET: Connect with us on twitter, using hashtag #winePW. We'll chat for an hour about volcanic wines, food pairings, and #scorchedterroir.

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