When you speak about the wines of eastern Sicily and especially the wines from the soils of Mount Etna, Sicily’s famous, majestic volcano, it is impossible to not mention the name Salvo Foti. A native of the city of Catania, Salvo studied enology and began his career in 1981 as a technical and agrarian advisor to some noted estates in eastern Sicily. He continues that work today for estates such as Gulfi, Benanti and ViniBiondi, all of whose wines are universally recognized as among the best in Sicily. But it is still working with and for someone else. Salvo wanted his own project to really make a wine that sings.
A number of years ago, Salvo’s love of the grapes and soils of Etna, in particular, led him to initiate a project called I Vigneri. It takes its name from an association that existed in the Etna region in 1435, Maestranzi dei Vigneri, an association of vineyard workers that greatly influenced the wine culture of the Etna region. Today, I Vigneri is an association between Salvo Foti, other vine experts and local grape growers who bring their long experience among the particular vines of Etna to their work in the vineyard and cellar.
The vines for the red wine, Vinupetra, are concentrated at 700 meters altitude on the north side of the volcano near the town of Calderara. Here, the climate is more like the north of Italy than Sicily, winters are harsh and cold, the summers are hot and dry and there can be extreme fluctuations between night and day temperatures. The soils are broken or decomposed lava stone of varying depth mixed with sand. Many of the vines are rehabilitated old vines, some over 100 years-old, planted at 10,000 plants per hectare in albarello(goblet) system, the only system Salvo considers for producing great fruit under the climatic conditions of Etna. All of these factors allow for work only by hand or mule in the vineyards.
Because these vines are so old, there is great diversity within the vineyard and different strains of each of the varieties appear. The grapes are the autochthonous Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio with Alicante (Grenache) and a smattering of vines referred to as Francisi, because their variety and provenance are unknown. There is a system of replanting using only massale selection with cuttings from the older vines while maintaining the diversity of plants. Replanting is done in the older vineyards because some of the old vines die, but there are also new, adjacent parcels being planted. Currently there are two new parcels planted and one is being readied for planting in 2009.
Two other sites in Bronte are at extreme altitiude – A newly planted vineyard in 2005 of white varietals at about a 1200 meters form which comes the Vinujancu while the other is a vineyard of mainly hundred year old Alicante (Grenache) vines with some other red and white grape vines at 1300 meters surrounded by a holly oak forest, and from which a rosé wine called Vinudilice is made.
There is nothing used in the vineyards except copper/sulfur mix. No fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides are used. The grapes are harvested by hand at the end of September until mid-october. Fermentations are done in open oak vats, without enzymes or thermal control (the nights by this time of year are quite cold). There is very little sulfur used on the grapes or must, if at all. Racking and bottling are done under lunar cycle. The wines are bottled with little or no filtration.
Since its incarnation, each member of the I Vigneri association who works in the vineyards here and at other nearby estates where Salvo is involved receive a quota of the grapes they pick at the other estates to make a wine in common for their own consumption. In 2005 and 2006 (hopefully 2007, too), with the workers permission, Salvo bottled some to sell. The wine is made from only the Nerellos – Mascalese and Cappuccio – and is vinified in concrete vats. It is unfiltered.
This is a breathtaking estate with a mission to make great wines. Furthermore, it is an association that is pulling from the experience and energy of local grape growing talent and giving them a vested interest to create great wines in an region that is economically challenging for many of its inhabitants, especially farmers.
Salvo says that a living wine has its own composition that arises from its own variables: the grape, the vine, the vineyard, the climatic conditions and the individual (vineyard worker and vinifier). It’s important that there is harmony and respect for each variable to make a wine that truly sings.
You can see more at www.salvofoti.it. There is a great video of grafting onto a planted rootstock in the gallery. You can see the ash that makes up the soil in this region on the grafter’s hands.
This visit at I Vigneri took place in April, 2012.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Lauren Feldman, Shawn Mead and Ian Becker.
We'd gotten some bad news during lunch at Nusserhof. Our early afternoon flight from Verona to Catana had been cancelled, and the only alternative was an 8:30 A.M flight. From Venice... No one wanted to lose an entire day in Sicily so the group was ok with it, but it meant waking up at 5:30 am and an hour and a half drive to the airport.
On an aside: you know a plane is old when there's still ashtrays on each arm rest...
After a quick, restless flight, we were officially in Sicily! With tiny eyes, everyone grabbed their rental cars and we drove to Randazzo. After checking into our hotel, we were greeted by Alfio from I Vigneri. We arrived just around lunch, and he took us to the incredibly named San Giorgio e il Drago. During the meal, Alfio opened up some Vinudilice rosé. It comes from a parcel called Vigna Bosco.
It's a red and white field blend composed mostly of Alicante, with a tiny bit of mystery white and a bunch random reds (i.e: they're not sure what the grapes are), all interplanted together. The soil is ash, the elevation is 1300 meters and the vines are a 100+ years old. We also had the Etna Rosso, also from 100 year old vines. Both are vinified with native yeasts and minimal sulfur, added only at bottling. Both are very good and paired excellently with the local pastas and rabbit served at lunch.
At some point during the meal, Alfio informed us that Salvo wouldn't be able to join us because of an unexpected medical operation, and that he and Maurizio Pagano (I Vigneri's head honcho) would host us instead. It was nothing serious, but Salvo did have to stay in the hospital for a few days so we didn't get to see him...
After eating, we set off to see the first of many vineyard sights.
A quick walk up the path leads to more terraced vines and Mount Etna looming in the background.
Once we'd made it up top, we were greeted by the incredible Maurizio Pagano.
This guy is a serious character: his conviction and passion for viticulture, at least in his way of vocalizing it, is unparalleled. On a prior visit, he apparently told Arianna Occhipinti (who had tagged along with Jeff Vierra and was translating), something like:
"We give him (Salvo) the gold, he makes the wine."
At this point, if you're not familiar with the association Salvo Foti founded 12 years ago, you may be asking yourself, what exactly is I Vigneri?
The renaissance of Etna wines over the last decade can be largely, if not entirely attributed to Salvo Foti and the team he put together in 2000. Salvo was born in Etna, and has always had a love affair with the wines of his region. He is also famous oenologist, and makes the wine for a lot of people in the area. I Vigneri is the culmination of Salvo's desire to promote an environmentally sound agriculture with a simultaneous return to traditional farming. Taken from the association's official website:
"The "Maestranza dei Vigneri" ("Winegrowers Guild") was established in Catania in 1435. This important association of vine cultivators working in the Etna region was the foundation stone for professionalism in wine growing and production.
After 500 years, I Vigneri is today the name of a company of winegrowers and producers operating around Etna and in eastern Sicily. The proprietors are vine experts like Salvo Foti (www.salvofoti.it) and a group of local growers from the Etna region.
I Vigneri is the culmination of more than 30 years experience in Eastern Sicily, of historic, social and technical research aimed at achieving "excellence" in wine growing and producing. We have sought to use non-invasive methods and systems, to respect local traditions and our own ancient grape varieties as far as possible, and to avoid the damage that over-reaching ambition and egoism can cause. Our work ethic lies in the pleasure of work well done, without frenzy, in harmony above all with ourselves, and with all that surrounds us: environment, nature, the volcano Etna, which is so much a part of us. I Vigneri is also a holistic system of grape growing and wine production which respects our environment."
The deal is this: if you want Salvo Foti to make your wine, the I Vigneri team have to be the ones taking care of the vines. This means immediately shifting to organic viticulture practices, eliminating any mechanical labor, hand harvesting and a focus on lower yields. The vines must also be trained in albarello, which Salvo believes is the only way to express Etna's terroir. Maurizio leads the pack, and all in all 35 vignaoli are responsable for day to day maintenance of A LOT of vines. These guys have been in the vineyards their whole lives, so they know what they're doing. What's great is that this also offers them job security they might not otherwise have, all while encouraging locals to take pride in traditional agriculture.
Everyone involved is extremely proud, and they show it by always being adorned in I Vigneri gear (see Maurizio's photo above, and the great pics from their 2011 harvest). When you see the red gear with an albarello vine somewhere on it, you know who's taking care of business...
At the first parcel we visited, the guys had just planted some very young vines.
All vines, especially when they are very young and the roots haven't really sunk into the ground, have to stay on stakes because the ash soils are so loose that they could easily be ripped out during routine plowing and soil work.
On the same site, we visited the beautiful palmento where the Etna Rosso is made.
The fruit is brought up a flight of stairs to the top of the edifice where the grapes are foot trodden. The juice then trickles down into concrete vats below to begin fermentation. I once again direct you to the 2011 harvest pics, which (un-chronologically) document this process. We also checked out the attached -and very abandoned- barrel room.
There was actually still wine in that thing, and it stunk!
After visiting another site, we took a quick rest before dinner, which took place at I Vigneri's club house. Ok, it's not really a club house, but it's a little space in downtown Randazzo where you can buy the wines, the two books Salvo has written about wine, as well as his novel. Yes: Salvo Foti wrote a novel. We had the "Vinujancu" as an aperitif: this white wine comes from a small parcel at 1200 meters altitude; the grape is Carricante, and indigenous varietal. The wine is un-sulfured.
Maurizio was there, and he was almost a different person. Casually dressed in jeans and sneakers, his stern persona from earlier was gone; he was all smiles and told funny stories the whole night. He did however keep reiterating how great all the the wines were throughout the meal...
Upstairs, a big table was set up for us and we got to taste a bunch of I Vigneri wines that Salvo makes but we don't import. To be clear, we only import Salvo's line of wines. I asked Kevin why, and he explained that many of them were inoculated and/or more copious in sulfur. I was surprised to hear this, since I naively assumed that because Salvo was so insistent that the vines be worked organically, he'd also be diligent on spontaneous fermentation. Kevin replied:
"You have to choose your battles. Salvo has chosen to focus his energy on agriculture and the environment, and in doing so he's cleaned up a lot of Etna's vineyards. With his own line, we're on the same page philosophically. But he still makes the wine his clients want him to make for them. Spontaneous fermentation and low sulfur is a risk many are not willing to take."
The next day, we woke up bright and early to check out even more vineyards, starting with the Vigna Bosco.
We got to meet Ciccio the mule!
I Vigneri does as much soil work with mules as they can. It's a lot of hard work for both man and beast, and Maurizio told us that the last one couldn't handle it: his heart exploded on the job! Maurizio punctuated this story by doing "the meh".
It was pretty hilarious. I'm pretty sure that if he was a New Yorker, he would accompanied the gesture with: "Whaddaya gonna do?". Fortunately, Ciccio is a great worker and Maurizio likes him a lot.
But he'll still ride him if he's not doing a good job.
Alfio told Ciccio he WAS doing a good job, and not to worry about Maurizio always bossing him around.
We then visited another new site, where a mystery white was being grown ("ask Salvo what it is!")
Before we knew it, it was lunch time so we went back to San Giorgio e il Drago because Alfio said we weren't going to find better. Nobody complained.