Fantastic Wines and Where To Find Them (Part 1)

I'm going to write a series of posts about the outliers of the world of wine. I'll start with a few island wines, a white from Etna in Sicily and a trio from the Azores Islands, a Portuguese territory in the mid-Atlantic that somehow captures the same magic of the best of the homeland's table wines.

I can hardly express enough how magical these wines are to me. The Terre Nere whites are every bit as good as their reds and have the advantage of being even more unique. As for the Azores wines, it's been a while since a new region shook me up this much. These exciting wines have enriched me in unexpected ways. 

Terre Nere, Etna Bianco Superiore, 2020
Many winemakers talk about their search for new terroirs and vineyards, but few can rationalize their thought processes as well as Tere Nere's Marco de Grazia. For example, here is what I learned from the winery's site about this wine. While the volcano's northern slopes, where the winery and its red grape vineyards are located, were always recognized for the quality of their red wines, the eastern slopes' white grapes were so renowned that the smallest contrada in the area, Milo, is the only one in the Etna DOC allowed to carry the “Superiore” denomination. De Grazia goes into the details of what makes Milo special for white wines - a combination of humidity, eastern exposure, high altitude and the shadow of the volcano forcing an early sunset. The temporary pinnacle of this story is that in 2019, de Grazia was finally able to purchase "a small but beautiful property [with] the perfect altitude: not too high, to avoid a really too extreme climate; nor too low, where excessive heat would defeat the austere and acute character of the Milo wines that I had learned to admire." While we and de Grazia await for wine from the fruit of this special vineyard, Terre Nere has been making a wine out of purchased Caricante grapes from Milo - namely, the subject of this tasting note.

As is usually the case with Terre Nere whites, the nose shows vaguely sulfurous minerals and a mélange of yellow apples and ripe peaches, a complex, restless musk. The palate is ripe and broad, yet taut at the same time, with a long, smoky, salty finish. It possesses the grace of a Cote de Beaune Premier Cru, coupled with a more fiery character. Not a trace of over-oaking. It's beautiful. If the finish doesn't get you, have someone call a mortician: you're probably dead.

Azores Wine Company, Vinho Regional Açores,
 Tinto Vulcânico, 2019
The Azores Islands are a Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The story becomes even more interesting, wine terroir-wise, as the topography of the Azores limits vine growing to a coastal strip before a steep mountain terrain creates a perpetual fog that won't allow the grapes to ripen. Especially in the island of Pico, where this wine comes from, whose mountain range contains the highest point on Portugal soil. The growers plant the vines in pits and rock cracks, which serve as protection from the sea breezes. The Azores Wine Company is a joint venture of two locals, Filipe Rocha and Paulo Machado, and mainlander António Maçanita who made the wine. 

The indigenous vines have adopted to the rocky soil, even extra-territorial varieties, such as Tourgia Nacional, Syrah and even Merlot, which make up a small portion of the blend. The wine itself is utterly unique. Usually, when the aromas and flavors of a wine recall meats, there is also a suggestion of blood and iron. Not here. Think rather of the spicy, smoky flavors of grilled skins and cheese rind. The acidity is brilliant, highlighting subtle cherry flavors, the tannins flare slightly on the finish - the effect is super moreish, because the wine grabs your attention from attack to the aftertaste without forcing itself. 

Now, onwards to two white wines. 

Azores Wine Company, Vinho Regional Açores, Verdelho o Original, 2019
A thrilling combination of sweet, sour, salty and smoky aromas and flavors. The full-bodied, rustic (yet in no way chunky) palate has a taut structure that doesn't block any flavors. Rather, the firmness of the fruit combines with bold acidity to highlight the sweet fruit and salty finish. It feels like there might be potential development in the next two-three years, though how these wines might develop is probably as much of a mystery to me as the islands they come from. A great grower/winemaker wouldn't come up with something this unique without great terroir; great terroir likewise requires a great maker. I'm grateful the two combined here for such excellent results. 

Azores Wine Company, Vinho Regional Açores, Arinto dos Açores, 2019
The local importer says the Arinto is the leaner of the two wines and I agree. For that reason, it not only highlights the same salty flavors as the Verdelho, it's a little more easy to figure out. Look, they both combine fullness of fruit with racy acidity, but here it's more obvious how the two coexist. I prefer the Verdelho because the aromas create a broader canvas, whereas the Arinto really stresses the smoky, mineral aspects (think of someone making a bonfire of lavender and oyster shells) and has a more frayed balance of fruit and acidity. In the long run, the Arinto is an excellent wine, while the Verdelho is a semi-wonder.