Sicilian natural wines
The first vine plant was probably introduced to Sicily by Phoenicians in the second millennium BC and with it the art of viniculture. That art was brought to perfection when the Greeks colonized the island in about 750 BC. The ‘nectar of gods’ produced at those times was not much different from what today would be labelled as ‘natural wine’. It took 3000 years of viniculture to get to the starting point as today we are witnessing the rebirth of Sicilian ‘natural wine production’.
There is no real Italian legislation as yet regarding this category but there are two important organizations of producers of natural wines who published their ‘rules’, namely, Vinnatur and ViniVeri. Their guidelines are practically the same. They prohibit the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in the vineyard and advise as little human intervention in the cellar as possible (only natural yeasts for the fermentation, no chemical winemaking products in the must and wine and the limit to the use of sulphur dioxide which cuts the amount down to 80mg/l while obviously preferring no use at all). But there is more to the natural wine-making philosophy. It’s about preserving the individuality of wine, promoting biodiversity, respecting the territory, history and culture. It’s about producing less but producing a product with a soul, product which follows a natural cycle of life and which aims at leaving both the vineyard and the cellar toxic-free. Here is how it is defined by Vinnatur:
‘A new, different, exciting experience with which to retrieve the old value of nature and man’s work; this is the natural wine.
The natural wine comes from a minimal technological intervention in the land, in the grapes and the wine itself, without the use of chemical additives and man’s manipulations. These complex methods require a deep understanding and knowledge of both the vineyard and the winery.
The natural wine is produced in low rather than industrial quantities by an independent producer. The vineyards have low yield per plant and grapes are healthy and free of pesticides; lands are suited to the production of grapes which are harvested by hand with special attention to the integrity of bunches. The grapes do not undergo any chemical treatment nor weeding, no added sugar, enzymes or additives. The fermentations are spontaneous, without the addition of selected yeasts in the laboratory but only yeasts naturally grown in the vineyard; acidity adjustments are excluded as well as micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis treatment.’
‘Natural’ with respect to wines is thus not a clearly defined term – it covers organic and biodynamic wines, sustainably produced wines, wines which are territorial and made with care.
Quite a few wine producers in Sicily have undertaken that path. There is no better land for that than on the slopes of one of world’s most active volcanoes, namely, Mount Etna, where the beauty of the territory calls out for maintaining the traditional ‘bush-vine (‘alberello’) cultivation for instance while naturally fertile volcanic soil and altitude permits to limit or eliminate the use of chemical products. To me, nothing compares to the lava stone terraces and the single-growing hundred- year-old vine plants that require hand-harvest.
Many years ago, I was taken around the vineyards of Mick Hucknall, near Sant’Alfio on the eastern side of Etna by his winemaker Salvo Foti. They were all bush-vines, single-growing plants trained on a stake. He pinpointed once and forever to me, that growing a bush-vine was not just the matter of beauty. According to him, the ‘alberello’ vines were tree-dimensional as opposed to bi-dimensional which could permit the air, the insects to circulate around it. The bush-vine was beautiful but it was also healthier! Salvo Foti now owns his own winery called I Vigneri on the northern slopes of Etna, in Randazzo, producing around 7000 bottles.
Some of the most magnificent ‘alberello’ vines I have seen on Etna were in Frank Cornellissen’s vineyard, just above the ‘quota mille’( height 1000) road on the Northern slopes of Etna. Frank is a Belgian producer who moved on Etna around 2000. ‘Il vino prima di essere buono deve essere vero’ (‘the wine more than being good needs to be ‘true’) says a sign on his wall. This former mountain climber was probably attracted to Etna not because of it’s altitude but because of his conviction that Etna’s terroir was that one place on earth which was every winemaker’s paradise- where it was possible to make wine free of chemicals, preservatives, and modernity. His approach was thus considered ‘extreme’ when the trend was clearly of Etna being ‘New Burgundy of Mediterranean’, and the Sicilian producers were focusing on producing the ‘quality’ vines in the very traditional sense – wines free of ‘defects’, aged in French wood and with use of selected yeasts, expensive modern presses and tanks. During that trend Frank was experimenting the production of wine in amphorae, just like the Greeks that lived here millenniums ago, only with use of indigenous yeasts and without addition of sulphates. Here is his philosophy in his own words:
‘Our farming philosophy is based on our acceptance of the fact that man will never be able to understand nature’s full complexity and interactions. We therefore choose to concentrate on observing and learning the movements of Mother Earth in her various energetic and cosmic passages and prefer to follow her indications as to what to do, instead of deciding and imposing ourselves. Consequently this has taken us to avoiding all possible interventions on the land we cultivate, including any treatments, whether chemical, organic, or biodynamic, as these are all a mere reflection of the inability of man to accept nature as she is and will be. (…)The surface area of our estate is approximately 15 hectares, of which 12ha are vines in the classic free standing alberello training system (Gobelet or bush-vine), approximately 1ha of olive growth and the remainder are fruit trees, vegetables and bush. Although Etna has a tradition in high density plantation of vines, we search to reduce monoculture and have interplanted various local fruit varieties and keep bees to regain a complex ecosystem. The new vineyards are planted without grafts, using the cuttings of a selection of our pre-phylloxera vines. The training system used is the alberello. Buckwheat is used for rebalancing soils low on organic material without recourse to industrial compost, especially important when preparing land for a new vineyard plantation. We try avoiding soil-tilling although this depends on the vintage and the quantity of water over the winter (recovering of the vines after the production cycle). Our goal is to avoid all treatments whatsoever in the vineyard, orchard and surroundings, in which we succeeded even in difficult vintages such as 2004 and 2005. Unfortunately there will always be the exceptional vintages where treatments with copper sulphate and sulphur are necessary to avoid vines from dying.
As 13 years on Etna have passed Frank’s hands are still soiled and busy as he is taking us around his vineyard in which many plants were over 50 years old. Removing weeds, moving the soil with bare hands, that was a rare view among the Sicilian producers. In the decade on Etna his tiny production grew to 35.000 bottles per year on the surface of 12 ha and his 1100 bottles of Magma 2011 now sell for 170 € to be able to subsidize the cheaper Contadino and Munjebel 8.
Many other producers on Etna followed Franks ‘natural’ path. There is definitely a new trend now- lots of Sicilian wines are certified biodynamic and organic and there is also a number of Sicilian wines without the addition of sulphates.
When it comes to all natural wines with philosophy Vino di Anna is another winery that fully embraces it.
‘In the cellar we use no or little sulphur, fermentation is by indigenous yeasts without temperature control. We use no new oak. Our aim is for minimal handling/intervention. Our wines are bottled without fining or filtration’
Once again it is ‘strangers’ : a French rugby player Eric Narioo and his Australian wife Anna Martens who is a winemaker. They launch their first wine together Jeudi 15 Vino di Anna’ Sicilia Rosso IGT just few years ago. The current production is of 4000 bottles per year. The wine is fresh and vibrant, made mainly of Nerello Mascalese with a tiny addition of other local varieties.
Then, there is local’s turn- a delicious wine called Quantico. The name of this great wine comes from a strange practice of applying the rules of quantum physics in the vineyard, the practice discontinued, while the philosophy is still to grow and produce ‘naturally’, without chemical treatments in the vineyard and the cellar. The wine is bottled without the addition of sulphates and it is produced from the endemic Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio ( Etna Rosso) and Carricante, Cataratto, Grillo ( Etna Bianco).