Tag Archives: Sicily

The pruning guys

Sustainable pruning made cool

You’ve all heard of flying winemakers, who dash off around the world imparting their wisdom to young wineries, but how many of you have considered the fact that expert pruners might also be doing something similar? I certainly hadn’t until I met Marco Simonit, when I was lucky enough to attend a whole-day masterclass on pruning organised for Vinitaly Academy alumni and other guests by the Sicilian wine magazine Cronache di Gusto as an educational prelude to their Taormina Gourmet festival.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. Sitting in the tasting room at the Pietradolce winery on Etna, I was anticipating a highly technical, and probably somewhat boring, lecture on pruning techniques, followed no doubt by some practical exercises in the vineyard, that would be highly useful for my studies but would not necessary enthuse me about pruning. Then, this denim-clad guy with a cool white quiff appeared and proceeded to introduce himself. This was Marco Simonit, one of the founders of Simonit&Sirch. They call themselves the pruning guys, or to be more formal, Vine Master Pruners. Their team of 20 pruning guys fly all around the world helping wineries develop more sustainable ways of pruning. Yet, typically their clients are not young wineries, nor are they small fry; they include big names such as Chateau Latour and Chateau Yquem in Bordeaux, Leroy in Burgundy, Roederer in Champagne, Ornellaia in Tuscany, and the list just goes on. They work with similarly prestigious clients throughout France and Italy as well as in Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and California.

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Pruning for health and longevity

So, why do established estates such as these need the services of these master pruners? Well, many vineyards around the world are ridden with Esca, a fungal disease that can enter through the cuts made by pruning. It’s a serious problem in Bordeaux, where on average 30% of Sauvignon Blanc vines show symptoms as does 7% of Cabernet Sauvignon. Under the desiccation cones – think of them like scars – caused by the pruning, the Esca rots the live wood, which slowly dies. The greater the number and size of the cuts, the greater the damage caused. The yield of the vine is compromised, it doesn’t grow properly and eventually it has to be grubbed up and replaced. One cross-section of a ’live’ vine that Marco shows us is really pretty shocking – about 70% of the vine is actually dead and the sap cannot flow properly and nourish the grapes as this dead wood is effectively strangling the vine. With so little live wood, it’s no wonder that the vine is eventually only able to produce feeble canes and a limited quantity of grapes.

Left to their own devices in the wild, vines will grow to enormous dimensions, creeping up trees and spreading themselves out; they are centenary and can live for hundreds of years. Marco shows us some amazing photos of huge old vines, including some on the Amalfi Coast that are more than two hundred years old with huge trunks and branches and some huge bush vines in Napa. However, domesticated vines need to be pruned so that they fit in the limited space – their first enemy – available to them in the vineyard. A great variety of different training methods have been devised depending on the region, for example guyot in Burgundy, pergola in Trentino, albarello on Etna and einzelfahl in the Mosel. These vines all need to be pruned to maintain the form of these training systems and prevent them from encroaching on their neighbour. This limits their growth in space and in time, since it, unfortunately, slowly kills them in many cases, as they fall prey to fungi and diseases like Esca and lack the energy to fight them.

Respect

Marco has been pruning vines for over 30 years and has been trying to find a more respectful approach; over the last 15 years, Simonit&Sirch have developed their own method to ensure vines lead longer, healthier lives. It works on the basis of four main concepts. Firstly, shaping the vine by pruning so that it is able to develop a natural, healthy system of branches. Secondly, ensuring that the sap is able to flow throughout the vine’s structure, without being hindered by desiccated areas caused by pruning wounds. This means always making cuts on the same side – the top – so that the sap can continue to flow along the vine’s branches. Thirdly, only making small cuts and only on wood that is one or two years’ old. This means that the size of the wound is reduced and hence also the chance of a wood disease entering. Finally, always giving the plant further defence by allowing a certain amount of protective wood if you do have to cut older wood. And actually, when you think about this, it’s pretty logical really. Compare the vine with a person and what effect large and frequent wounds would have on them. Moreover, encouraging the vine’s ramification and construction of live wood helps it to store nutrients and better resist drought, meaning that it needs less assistance with irrigation and fertilisation, so it’s easier to be not only organic or biodynamic, which is not enough anyway, but also to be sustainable.

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Sustaining local tradition

Unlike the impression we have of flying winemakers, with their one-style-fits-all winemaking, the pruning guys not only respect the vine with their method, but also local traditions and savoir faire. They don’t import one model or formula, they take the local training and pruning methods and ’tweak’ them; they seek out local solutions. For example, the branches of cordon- trained vines are encouraged to grow up, but they could also be trained obliquely, so that they develop a step of new live wood each year, but don’t grow upwards too quickly. They believe it’s important to get to know the history, variety and brand style when developing solutions. Eighty-three-year-old Madame Leroy of Burgundian Domaine Leroy was deemed crazy by the locals when she decided to raise the main wire in her vineyards and increase the height of the stakes, giving the vines more space, rather than cutting them back. Nobody has else has stakes that high in Burgundy. However, as Marco says, that’s bravery, not craziness. Tradition is the vines, not the stakes. Or you could make a loop in the cane to come back to the canopy and main wire, rather than cutting it. In albarello vines, they have encouraged branching with spiral development of the arms, helping to maximise the space the vine has to grow in and avoid overly fast upward growth. In fact, the albarello, or bush vine, enables you to respect the vine’s growth better as they can grow up and out and generally have more space, which is probably why many old vines are in fact bush vines. However, the key thing is to find personal solutions which both respect heritage and reduce the impact on the vines.

As you can imagine, there is also resistance to this from local pruners, who the guys mentor and train. Yet, using such methods has led to a reduction in the symptoms of Esca, although it may be the case that vines are infected but are better able to coexist with the disease as they are stronger and healthier. For example, in Franciacorta, 4.8% of Chardonnay vines are affected by Esca, yet in vineyards which practice these sustainable pruning methods, ten years on, only 0.8% of them are showing symptoms.

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Dealing with existing Esca

Diseases like Esca are easily spread when pruning as a pruner moves through the vineyard from plant to plant. Vines known to have Esca – unfortunately, it can take 10-15 years for them to show symptoms – should be marked so that they can be pruned separately with the secateurs being disinfected between, thus avoiding unnecessary manmade spread of the disease.

They also perform surgery on affected vines, just like you would deal with a cavity in a tooth or remove a cancerous growth. They have developed new tools to remove the desiccation cones like a cork and go inside the vine and clean it, removing the part infected by fungi and reducing the toxins, while respecting the sap flow and thus not creating further wounds. It takes two to five minutes to operate on each vine, and regrowth and recovery are also surprisingly fast. They began experimenting in Bordeaux and have now performed surgery on 12,000 vines in seven regions, including Champagne and Bolgheri. Over 90% of these now exhibit no symptoms and needed no further treatment. Yet, this is not something new, as at the end of the 19th century, Poussard also performed vine surgery very successfully, healing 90-95% of vines operated on.

Healing the vines means that they don’t need to be grubbed up and replaced. This is not only more cost-effective as vines generally recover from surgery within a couple of years, while the cost of replacing a vineyard is significantly more than surgery and also results in the loss of production for five years or so. Moreover, replacing individual vines within established, premium vineyards will lead to a loss of quality, as the vineyard will be populated by vines of varying ages which will not ripen at the same time. They will then not be harvested at optimal ripeness as it would not be feasible to pick the grapes selectively. Thus, these heterogenous vineyards will also affect the house style, which is ultimately not desirable, particularly at prestigious estates. Furthermore, the evolution of a style connected to a single vineyard is something truly valuable, which can only be achieved with the character originating from old vines.

Hands-on learning

After lunch, Marco also took us into the vineyards for a bit of practical experience. Although, as it was the wrong time of year for pruning, nobody was allowed any secateurs in their hands, but Marco took us around vines that had not yet been pruned and we investigated the possibilities in each case for continued natural branching. Following his morning presentation, it was surprisingly easy to select the right canes in most cases. Of course, it was also wonderful to see those old Etna vines that had clearly been respected and in the past and had managed to achieve longevity and still produce high-quality grapes.

Clearly pruning with respect is one of the factors that ensures healthy vines, healthy grapes and hence quality wine – only 5% of grapes from infected vines already lead to a noticeable quality reduction. It also means that we have something to leave to the next generation – a true patrimony of magnificent, healthy vines that can live to a ripe old age and still produce quality healthy fruit, instead of sickly vines that need to be replaced every twenty years or so.

I so thoroughly enjoyed Marco’s energetic, clearly delivered training and learnt so much that I even momentarily considered joining Simonit&Sirch’s pruning school at Plumpton College in January, but my enthusiasm waned when I thought about spending two days outside in wintry English vineyards. However, following this one day of training, I can seriously say that I now understand far more about pruning than I did before and especially what it means for the vines.

*First published in Hungarian in the Sustainability special edition of Vince magazine.

Volcanic viticulture and Baroque palaces

Exploring eastern Sicily

Sicily, the ball waiting to be kicked by Italy’s boot, is currently one of the creative hotspots for Italian wine. Long maligned for producing oceans of deeply coloured, overly alcoholic wine that was shipped north by the tankerload to boost the paler wines of the north and France, it then dabbled with international varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and finally fell victim to the EU’s vine-pull scheme to halt overproduction and excessive agricultural subsidies. However, Sicily’s winemakers have reawakened and producers around the island are now creating increasingly high-quality wines mostly from indigenous varieties.

Ancient traditions

The Mediterranean’s largest island and historically a crossroads for many cultures and trading routes, Sicily benefitted from the winemaking techniques the Ancient Greeks brought with them, although wine had already been made on the island for centuries. Its warm climate, breezes from the surrounding azure seas and diverse landscape of hills, mountains and, of course, the infamous volcano Etna all create the perfect conditions for viticulture to thrive. Its arid climate also means than organic viticulture is increasingly practised.

Wine grapes are cultivated across much of the island and it boasts an astounding 23 DOCs (PDOs) and 1 DOCG (a more prestigious PDO with stricter regulations) as well as the catch-all Sicilia DOC (created in 2001 by a group of producers to help promote Sicily’s indigenous varieties) and a PGI – Terre Siciliane IGT.

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Historically, Sicily was famed for its Marsala, a fortified wine made in a similar way to Sherry which was, just like Sherry and Port, primarily destined for the glasses of the British. The British Navy had expanded its fleet in the region and was seeking something to replace Port for those stationed in there. A wine merchant from Liverpool dosed the local wine with alcohol and, voilà, Marsala was born and became an instant success. The wine, like most fortified wines, is no longer in favour, but if you find yourself in the west of the island, the town of Marsala, flanked by glistening salt pans and windmills, is definitely worth a visit, as are the Cantine Florio, which provides an excellent insight into the making of Marsala wine.

Head east

However, it’s the east of the island where much of the new winemaking action is taking place nowadays. As most people fly into Catania, the city shimmering in the shadow of ever-threatening Mount Etna, this makes life very convenient. Wizzair also fly there three times a week from Budapest. What’s more there’s plenty to enrich your Sicilian experience than just wine. You can scale Mother Etna, go hiking, stroll around magnificent Baroque cities, discover ancient Greek remains and gaze over the sparkling Ionian Sea from chic Taormina.

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Alpine viticulture in the mezzogiorno

The trendiest wine region in Italy at the moment has to be Etna. The region was in the doldrums like the rest of Sicily until its fortunes were revived around the turn of the century by outsiders like Andrea Franchetti, founder of Passopisciaro, and Belgian Frank Cornelisson, who were were drawn to the mountain’s terroir. However, Giuseppe Benanti is credited as being one of the first to revive winemaking on Etna. The Benanti ’Pietramarina’ is one of Etna, and Italy’s iconic, ageworthy whites. Produced from 80-year-old, albarello (bush-trained) Carricante, the main white variety on Etna, it’s dense and mineral-driven with plenty of zesty, citrus acidity. Carricante is mainly grown on Etna’s eastern slopes around the town of Milo, where it is entitled to be labelled as Etna Bianco Superiore. If you visit the Benantis, you can also view a palmento, the traditional Sicilian winery.

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Although Carricante, often with a dash of Catarratto or even obscure local variety Minella, makes fabulous zesty whites, Etna is all about red wine. The main protagonist here is Nerello Mascalese along with its understudy Nerello Cappuccio. Nerello Mascalese is often compared to Barolo and red Burgundy for its ability to reflect the terroir on which it is grown. It combines the elegance of Pinot Noir with the tannins and structure of Nebbiolo, producing taut ethereal wine when grown at higher altitude (up to 1100m above sea level) and more concentration and texture lower down, but always with subtle aromas of sour cherry, tobacco, herbs and mineral notes. Etna Rosso is often made from Mascalese alone, but it can be blended with up to 20% of the more burly Cappuccio, which adds colour and softens the former’s acidity. Some single-varietal Cappuccio is also bottled and demonstrates a lovely spicy, floral character.

The ultimate terroir wines

Terroir plays a key role on Etna with the volcano being divided into contrade (or cru) based on lava flows from different eruptions over millenia, thus soil composition may vary widely within just few metres, with elevation further emphasising these differences. The contrade were officially deliminated in 2011. Before then, you were not allowed to state the contrada on the label, so Franchetti cunningly got around that by labelling his contrada wines with the first letter of their name, so R for Rampante for instance. Tasting some of these wines gives you a real feel for the differences between the individual contrade.

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Narrow roads wind through the scrub, vineyards and pistachio groves covering Etna’s slopes, but you can also take the Circumetnea railway which begins in Catania. Although you can’t reach everywhere with it, it runs right past Tenuta di Fessina’s lovingly restored lava-stone winery, which also boasts an atmospheric guesthouse. They served up some pretty good food and wine pairings too. If you don’t want to stay on Etna itself, nearby Taormina with its ancient Greek theatre affording magnicent views of the smoking volcano, perched above the sea, makes a convenient base. Taormina Gourmet, a two-day wine and food festival is held here annually in October.

The Baroque triangle

Lovers of Nero d’Avola and Baroque architecture should head further south to Noto, Modica and Ragusa, stopping off at Syracuse’s ancient port of Ortigia on the way. This is Nero d’Avola country and the variety’s name is said to come from the nearby seaside town of Avola. The area around Pachino, also home to the extra sweet Pachino DOP tomato, is considered its grand cru. Like elsewhere in Sicily, bulk wine was the name of the game here and you can still see derelict wineries with rusty pipes where dark, high-alcohol wine would have been pumped onto containers at the port. However, those days are long gone and producers like Zisola, Feudo Maccai and Gulfi are turning out some elegant, yet powerful Nero d’Avola under the Noto DOC. Grown on the area’s white calcareous soils, they boast delicious berry fruit and soft tannins. Gulfi are going one step further and producing vineyard-selected Nero d’Avola. Matteo Cantania shows me how the location (altitude and proximity to the sea) of each individual vineyard affects the wines’ character.

This is one of the hottest areas of the island, lying even further south than the tip of Tunisia, so it’s worth seeking cooler air in stunning Baroque hilltop city Noto, resplendently rebuilt within 50 years following 1693’s devastating earthquake, which killed around 50,000 people and flattened 50 towns. The beautiful balconied palazzi with carved rosettes and nymphs built from soft tufa take on a beautiful honey colour in the bright sunshine. Visiting the historic Caffè Sicilia is a must and you could balance this with trying inventive Sicilian cuisine at Ristorante Crocifisso.

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Elegant Nero d’Avola blends

Driving west, past other Baroque pearls, Ragusa and Modica, which incidentally hides a delightful chocolaterie, Bonajuto, still making thickly grained chocolate using ancient methods, you come to another Nero d’Avola stronghold and the island’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Here the Nero d’Avola is blended with another local variety, Frappato, which produces a delicately coloured, fresh juicy, fragrant wine with aromas of strawberry, violet and wild herbs. The Nero d’Avola gives the blend structure while the Frappato provides freshness and elegance. One of Italy’s rising stars, charismatic Arianna Occhipinti is based here and produces elegant wines fom the sandy red topsoil underlaid with white calcareous soils found in Vittoria. She was the first to bottle Frappato as a single varietal. Her spacious cellars and wonderful atmospheric tasting room were perfect for escaping the downpour outside and enjoying her organically farmed, terroir-driven wines. Arianna is the niece of Giusto Occhipinti of the COS Winery, source of the region’s winemaking renaissance and another advocate of low-intervention winemaking. He vinifies and ages his most famous wine, ‘Pithos’, Greek for a large storage container, in terra cotta amphorae.

So, if your perception of Sicilian wine is limited to overripe, sweet Nero d’Avola and unbalanced, alcoholic Chardonnay, it’s time to take a trip to its East and discover its elegant balanced wines and energetic winemakers reinventing historic regions and rediscovering and refining wines made from Sicilian varieties. It won’t do any harm either to erase the memory of the Mafia and its legacy, by exploring Sicily’s Baroque cities, ancient sites and natural beauty.

*First published in Hungarian in the August 2019 edition of Vince magazine.

Visiting the garden of Diodoros

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Italy is a magnet for lovers of food and wine, attracting around 17 million visitors annually in search of the boot’s gastronomic delights, 90% of whom also arrive with wine tasting on their mind. Yet how many of these visitors end up in the south of the country? A paltry 7%, with Lazio, home to the capital Rome, creaming off a good proportion of that. Most of the Italian food and wine lovers end up in Tuscany, Piedmont and Trentino-Alto Adige. So where does that leave Sicily, once known as ‘God’s kitchen’, with its abundance of fresh produce and increasingly high-quality wines. Well, with a fraction of that 7%, I guess.

Sicily and its vinous and gastronomic bounty have a special place in my heart. So, when I received a call from Salvo Giusino of Cronache di Gusto and a subsequent invitation from Luigi Bonsignore, president of the Strada del Vino e dei Sapori della Valle dei Templi (Wine and Flavours Route of the Valley of Temples), to attend their inaugural conference and tasting in Agrigento at the beginning of June, I was delighted to accept.

The area of Agrigento is known primarily for the Valley of the Temples – an archaeological park with wonderfully preserved Greek temples that is the world’s largest archaeological site and one of Sicily’s main attractions. Yet of the 950,000 visitors visiting the park last year (up from 550,000 in 2012, according to director of the park, Giuseppe Parello), how many of these actually take the time to discover the wider region and its produce? Probably a fraction of that, before they jump back onto their tour buses and head back to resorts such as Taormina or Cefalù, having not spent a penny outside the park.

A group of local companies, including olive oil and wine producers, restaurants and hotels have clubbed together to establish a wine and food route, branded with the name ‘Valley of the Temples’ with the aim of improving the quality of tourism in the region and attracting visitors to remain longer and sample its wine, olive oil and abundant hospitality. It’s no coincidence that the Valley of the Temples is at the heart of the route, as the site also boasts a wonderful garden, and wine and olive oil are produced from the plantations within its boundaries.  The  produce from the park is branded with the name Diodoros; Val Paradiso (who also took us on a tour of their facilities) tend the olive and almond groves and produce the olive oil whereas the Canicattì cooperative produce the wine from a blend of 90% Nero d’Avola and 10% Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio – the latter two varieties being more closely associated with Mount Etna.

1 June saw the official start of the wine route with a conference involving discussions and presentations by key members of the route, such as Luigi Bonsignore, its president and owner of Baglio Bonsignore and Fabio Gulotta, its director and owner of the Terracotta restaurant in Agrigento as well as representatives from the Sicilian Regional Institute for Wine and Oil and the Federation of Sicilian Wine Routes.

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Luigi Bonsignore believes that the region has something unique to offer in terms of its olive oils and wines. It’s one of the best places to grow Nero d’Avola , he thinks, and the wines produced here represent the best expression of the variety. The initiative aims to bring this to the eyes of the public and attach it to the already known brand of the ‘Valley of the Temples’, which already draws crowds to Agrigento. The hope is that some of these visitors will then also remain a little longer and discover the beauty of the 250-kilometre route stretching from Casteltermini and Caltanissetta in the north to Licata and its heart, Agrigento, in the south.

The region also boasts attractive, off-the-beaten-track Baroque hill towns such as Nardo and the Farm Cultural Park of Favara where an abandoned town was brought back to life by community efforts and is now one of the area’s most important attractions – as its name suggests, an open-air cultural park. Florinda Saieva from the Farm Cultural Park emphasises the need for cooperation here in order to really achieve something.

One of the participants jokes that they now have a wine road, but no roads! A slight exaggeration perhaps, but one of the hurdles that the region, and Sicily as a whole, faces – is a lack of infrastructure. Many of the roads are in a poor state of repair and often lined with rubbish, an eyesore for tourists not used to this. They realise they need to work together to improve this situation as this also represents a factor for success. They are also proposing the introduction of mobility solutions for sustainable tourism, such as electric carsharing.

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The following day, journalists and visitors to the archaeological park had the chance to taste the producers’ wines and olive oils in an idyllic, if rather hot, setting in the heart of the site. As well as the region’s stated flagship variety, Nero d’Avola, juicy Grillo, elegant Perricone, attractive sparkling wine, zesty Cattaratto Comune, refreshing Nero d’Avola Rosé and spicy Syrah were on offer, demonstrating that the region has plenty to offer the curious wine lover.

A website is under construction at http://www.stradadelvinovalledeitempli.it/, where visitors will soon be able to find comprehensive information on the region and producers taking part in the initiative.

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I wish them the best of luck and hope that the Valle dei Templi will soon become a more recognisable name on the Sicilian wine map. I’ll certainly be watching their progress eagerly.