Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Putting Sicily on the Map

Sicilia  in the Ebstorf Mappamundi (V&A)
In the thirteenth century world map known as the Ebstorf Mappamundi the island of Sicily was depicted as a plump apple, pomegranate or peach-shaped fruit.  While the original of this map was destroyed in World War II, there is a glorious color reproduction of it in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  From the Classical Age through the Middle Ages, Sicily was at the center of European politics and culture.  Celebrated for its fertility and coveted for its strategic position in the Middle Sea between Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, Sicily was the very heart of the Mediterranean.  This may come as a surprise in our modern era.  Since the earliest waves of immigrants who left their island home to find a better life in the New World in the early twentieth century, Sicily languished as a long-forgotten corner of Europe in the public’s imagination.  In the tradition of its honored poets, playwrights, and storytellers, Sicily’s winegrowers are now putting Sicily on the world’s cultural map.  The vibrant and diverse flavors of Sicilian wine are bringing Sicily to life for a new generation of wine lover – genuinely seeking to understand this place called Sicilia.

Last week in London, we were honored and thrilled for our book, The World of Sicilian Wine, to win the 2013 André Simon Drink Book Award: http://www.andresimon.co.uk/awards.html.  We hope that in our own small way we have helped to put Sicily on the map.  In the words of an esteemed Sicilian winegrower upon learning this news of the Andr
é Simon Drink Book Award, Viva La Sicilia! 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sestini's Sicily

On the walk leading from Florence's Piazza della Signoria, past the Uffizi Gallery, and to the Ponte Vecchio you could understandably stroll by this fortress-like building bearing the name Accademia Dei Georgofili (Georgofili Academy) without taking notice.  This is the headquarters of the venerable Florentine society dedicated to the study and promotion of agricultural science.


In 1812, Domenico Sestini, a native son of the city, delivered a series of lectures to the members of the Georgofili Academy entitled “Recollections of Sicilian Wines”. Sestini had spent three years traveling around the island and studying the state of Sicilian viticulture and enology from 1774 to 1776.  Much to the astonishment of his elite audience, Sestini proclaimed that Sicilian wine has been prized since ancient times for its “exquisiteness and richness”.  He intended to lecture on seven different subregions, but only got as far as Etna and Vittoria.  Apparently, his words fell on disinterested (if not deaf) ears and he never gave the lectures on the five other subregions intended for the Georgofili’s esteemed members.

The texts of Sestini’s first three lectures are undoubtedly locked away in the Georgofili Academy’s historic archives.  In 1991, they were published by a Palermo-based publisher, Sellerio editore, in a booklet entitled, Memorie sui vini siciliani, the title of Sestini’s original lecture series.  While Sestini’s Tuscan contemporaries were not prepared to believe that Sicily’s winegrowers were capable of teaching northern Italians something about growing grapes and making wine, today two centuries later wine experts and consumers are passionately discovering Sicily as one of Italy’s most fascinating wine regions.  We honor Domenico Sestini for having the courage of his convictions.  Bravo!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Golden Pairing

The Tenuta Gorghi Tondi estate from Mazara del Vallo in Western Sicily produces a dessert wine (passito) called Grillo D’Oro (Golden Grillo).  It is made from dried Grillo grapes which have been graced by muffa nobile (noble rot or botrytis).  Bill and I had the pleasure of enjoying a bottle of the 2010 Grillo D’Oro with family and friends over the holidays.  With aromas of dried apricots, figs, dates, candied orange peel and honey, this dessert wine evokes the fruits which have filled the market gardens of Palermo since the tenth century.  In the mouth, it is velvety sweet, with an acidity that balances the sweet dried fruits and gives the wine freshness.  It was the highlight of our dessert table, a perfect pairing with both the fig-filled Christmas cookies from Sicily called buccellati  (laced with walnuts, pistachios, almonds, oranges and spices) and the buttery Christmas bread from Verona called Pandoro (golden bread).  This wine would also pair well with milder veined cheeses (like a sweet gorgonzola), roasted nuts and dried fruits for dessert.  Squisito!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Sicilian School

From the Sicilian court of King Frederick II in the early 13th century there emerged a Romantic poetry written in the vernacular language and in a new poetic form – the sonnet.  Frederick II was himself a learned man of science and poetry.  This group of poets and their work, known as the Sicilian School, gave Sicily a literary identity that would survive for future generations of Sicilian poets, playwrights, and patriots.  Their literary invention also was the foundation for the earliest proto-Italian vernacular poetry of Dante and his Divine Comedy.  In his sonnet “A l’aire claro ò vista ploggia dare“ (I have seen a clear sky give rain) Giacomo da Lentini, the most renowned of the Sicilian Romantic poets, could well be describing the stark contradictions that have marked Sicily’s history -- and its ancient culture of wine.

“I have seen a clear sky give rain
and darkness produce light,
and blazing fire become ice,
and cold snow produce heat,
and a sweet thing become bitter
and bitterness transformed to sweetness,

Karla Mallette, The Kingdom of Sicily, 1100-1250: A Literary History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 176.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Bonu Natali

Madonna and Child by Antonello da Messina (1473)

Christmas greetings to all.  It has been an honor to share The World of Sicilian Wine with you this year.  We wish you a joyous and peaceful 2014.

To learn about this magnificent painting and its creator, Antonello da Messina, we invite you to explore "The Garden-Vineyard" on Mount Etna in Chapter 14 of our book.   

Monday, December 2, 2013

In Search of Nerbo

Giovanni La Fauci has another dream besides making great grappa at his distillery Giovi in Messina.  From grapes grown high on Mount Etna, he has started making red wine, endowed with, he says, “nerbo”. Nerbo, in English, means backbone. I learned from tasting wines with him that red wines with nerbo are high in acidity and have a fine, but firm and lingering, astringency. In early October 2010, Giovanni took Fran and me to a vineyard named Prezzemolo in contrada Pirao above the town of Randazzo. At 870 meters in elevation, Prezzemolo faces north, in a tiny amphitheater, ribbed by rings of black lava terraces. The vines, about 75 years old, in alberello, all Nerello Mascalese, stood in stone balconies poised to watch the drama of the harvest soon to come.

Giovanni spoke. “See how few grape bunches each vine carries.  Some carry two. Some carry three; some, four.  I have already cut away and discarded some 500 kilos of grapes.  This is about 30% of the final harvest.”  This green harvest will allow the grapes to ripen more fully. Giovanni pointed to stone stairways which made the terraces accessible. “The terraces, and particularly those stairs, show the hard work, attention, and care of generations of vine growers.  I hunted for this vineyard a long time, girando (turning, spinning), cercando (looking), and cercando (looking some more).  I had a good feeling when I saw it. Prezzemolo (meaning parsley in English) grows all over the vineyard. An old farmer told me that it grows only where chemical treatments have not entered the soil. The soil here is pristine. The owner will let me buy this vineyard when I want.” 

Turning aside, Fran, Giovanni and I strode up a dirt road.  Gigantic cows paraded ahead of us.  We walked to another vineyard, higher up at 900 meters in elevation. It was now almost evening. Fog had started to roll in.  This vineyard was on flat land surrounded by lava-stone walls.  

The vines here, mostly Nerello, were attached to wires. There was also enough Carricante planted here for Giovanni to make one barrique of white wine.  “I came here a week ago with Uncle Francesco and a worker.  We cleaned up the foliage. In this vineyard, the vines are stronger than in Prezzemolo. They want to carry more. So we cut away less, some 600 kilos of the 2,400 kilos on the vine. I buy the harvest here too. Wine producers usually pay for grapes in stages, 30% at the harvest and the balance within a year.  In order to get what I want, I give the owner a better deal. I reserve the grapes by paying 50% of the price upfront and pay the other 50% when I harvest them.   I have an agreement to rent that house over there. (He pointed to a low-lying stone building.) I will begin to vinify my own grapes there.  Until now, I have rented space at Valcerasa.”

I tasted the 2010 Giovi Pirao at Vinitaly 2013. It smelled too ripe and was very astringent. In search of nerbo, had Giovanni waited too long to make the harvest? I look forward to tasting future vintages of Pirao. He makes a second Etna Rosso, “Akraton”, from a blend of unidentified vineyards. Akraton is the ancient Greek term for pure (undiluted and unadulterated) wine. The 2010 Giovi “Akraton” Etna Rosso, now tastes that way: pure, delicious, fresh and lively. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Etna Harvest

Last week as we read about the harvests taking place on Mount Etna, we were reminded of a special vendemmia which we shared on Etna in the autumn of 2010.  It was late September/early October.   One morning we drove to a small vineyard in the contrada (hamlet) of Feudo di Mezzo near the towns of Passopisciaro and Castiglione di Sicilia, on the northern slope of the volcano.  The day was bright and the morning air, slightly cool.  Puffy white clouds hung over the brownish Nebrodi and Peloritani Mountains due north beyond the Alcantara River.  The cone of Mount Etna was to the south shrouded in the steam billowing from its summit.  We were brought to this small vineyard of ½ hectare (about 1.2 acres) by Salvo Foti and his band of vineyard workers known as I Vigneri.  Salvo is a well-known Etna winegrower and writer, but we were not there to hear his story.  Salvo told us that he brought us there to experience something more important.  As he joined his workers in the vineyard, Salvo called to his vineyard manager, Maurizio Pagano, to coordinate the morning’s work.  All the harvesters were wearing the maroon colored T-shirt bearing the I Vigneri logo, the bush-like vine known as alberello and the year 1435 – the founding year of a historic guild of vineyard workers from Catania.

Old Nerello Mascalese Alberello Staked Vine
The vineyard was bordered by low stone walls built of dry lava rocks.  A row of olive trees and sprawling prickly pear plants known as fichi di india lined the left wall of the vineyard.  One venerable walnut tree stood guard amidst the vines.  Herbs and tall grass covered the vineyard floor.  Each single twisted old vine was tied around a wooden stake (as in the Rhone Valley in southern France).  Here though, the dark sandy soil was volcanic in origin.  All of the harvesters brandished a forbice (cutting shears) in one hand and a cylindrical plastic bucket in the other.  The workers bantered in Sicilian with each other as they entered the vineyard and began harvesting the plump conical bunches of Nerello Mascalese.  Maurizio would call out a command – much like a caller at a traditional  square dance – with the harvesters then lifting their filled buckets atop their shoulders and walking through the vineyard single-file to bring the grape bunches (grappoli) to the crates waiting to be filled at the vineyard’s edge.

I Vigneri Bringing in the Harvest

In the vineyard we then saw another I Vigneri worker who had just arrived.  Maurizio greeted him exuberantly, “Ciao, Federico, come andiamo?” (Hi Federico, how are you doing?).  The two men embraced.  We soon learned that Federico had come from Milan that morning.  He had purchased this land in 2008, but this year was his first harvest.  Maurizio chimed in, “Federico, do you remember when you bought this vineyard – it was drugged and almost dead?”  Maurizio explained to us that the prior owner, like so many modern grape growers, had used chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation to manage his vineyard.  Some of the other harvesters came over to describe how they use only traditional and natural methods to care for these vines.  Federico, with all the humility and awe of an expectant papà, gazed at Maurizio and his men as they tended to these now-healthy vines.  Salvo came over to put his arm around Federico, observing how moving it was that they were now harvesting the fruit of a winegrower who had planted and nurtured these vines more than a hundred years ago.

Federico told us that he lived in Milan where he worked as the sommelier at the Michelin-starred restaurant called Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia.  Salvo had telephoned Federico the night before to tell him that his grapes were ready to be harvested the next day.  Federico had taken a flight from Milan at 7:00 a.m. to be on Etna in time for the vendemmia.  He plucked a plump bunch of the Nerelli grapes and savored them as we conversed.  Federico told us that he was a custodian of this vineyard and that he would never have bought it without first entrusting it to the care of Salvo Foti and his masterful vineyard workers who know this land and climate.  Joining Salvo, Maurizio, and the other harvesters among the vines, Federico picked up a forbice and began to harvest his own grapes.

Federico Graziani and his Nerello Mascalese Grappolo
Federico informed us of his plans to work with Salvo to make a wine that he will call Profumo di Vulcano (Perfume of the Volcano).  He hoped to sell his wine to friends, sommeliers and restaurant owners around the world.  The bottle would be the same bottle used for all I Vigneri wines, proudly bearing the stem of the historic guild of vineyard workers.  According to Federico, the red wines of Mount Etna share the potential of the celebrated nebbiolo-based wines of the towns of Barolo and Barbaresco in the Piedmont region of northern Italy.

After the harvest and a celebratory lunch at a trattoria called San Giorgio e il Drago (Saint George and the Dragon) in a former monastery in the nearby town of Randazzo, we drove Federico back to his rental car.  Federico had lovingly carried two bunches of Nerello Mascalese with him from his vineyard.  He gently placed the grappoli in his backpack for the flight back to Milan that afternoon.  Federico smiled as he told us how he planned to share his beautiful Sicilian fruit with the husband and wife owners and guests of Aimo e Nadia that evening.

At this year’s Vinitaly, there was a horizontal tasting of the red wines of Mount Etna.  Sixteen producers presented their Etna Rosso wine from the 2010 vintage to a packed hall of wine journalists, buyers, and fellow winemakers from around the globe.  It represented the formal coming-of-age of Etna red wine on the world stage.  Each Etna Rosso was made from the two indigenous red vine varieties of Mount Etna, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. While we had previously visited almost all of the estates represented on the stage that day, we were there to witness (and taste!) the debut of Federico Graziani’s Profumo di Vulcano. Federico, who is also a well-respected wine writer in Italy, introduced his wine by expressing his appreciation for the opportunity to be a custodian of this special land.  His wine showed the pure ripe expression of a high elevation Nerello Mascalese.  One by one, the other fifteen wines each also expressed the elegance and vibrancy of Etna’s fruit.

This summer Mount Etna was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In awarding this designation, UNESCO recognized that Etna’s “exceptional volcanic activity has been documented for at least 2,700 years”.  The culture of wine in Sicily also reaches back at least 2,700 years.  From a land which for centuries shipped its wine to mainland Italy (and continental Europe) to be blended anonymously with the wines of the north, the wines of Mount Etna – with the help of Federico Graziani, Salvo Foti, and I Vigneri – are beginning to reveal the beauty and complexity of this ancient land.

Mount Etna from Randazzo

Monday, October 21, 2013

Radio Sicily

We were delighted to be interviewed recently by Lynn Krielow Chamberlain on her iTunes radio show, iWineRadio, about our book, The World of Sicilian Wine.  We described how we were inspired to tell the story of Sicily and its wine culture after our first trip together in June 2008 to this storied island.  We hope that you enjoy hearing us tell our story. You may listen by clicking on the following link: http://www.winefairy.com/iWineRadio1004c.mp3

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hope Springs

In our travels throughout Sicily during the last five years, we have seen and felt the vibrant spirit of Sicilians in every walk of life.  It is unmistakable.  They express the energy, dedication, and courage of an indomitable people.  Their intelligence and passion are evident.  But there is something new in the wind, water, and wine of Sicily.  There is hope – and pride.  A couple of years ago during one of our sojourns in Sicily we happened upon a glossy magazine called I Love Sicilia.  It is a monthly periodical that celebrates the style, trends, and tastes of modern Sicilians.  A stylish bi-monthly wine magazine called EnoS does the same for Sicily’s winegrowers and consumers.  The Mandra Magazine affiliated with the Mandrarossa line of wines (and olive oil) from Sicily’s flagship cooperative, Settesoli, is an exuberant expression of the pride that the grower-members of Settesoli have for their land surrounding the town of Menfi on the southwestern coast of Sicily. 

As any traveler who has driven around Sicily has observed (including Goethe in the late 18th century), there are certain apparent challenges still facing Sicily’s sanitation engineers.  And while not all of Sicily’s political and economic challenges have been met, Sicilians have a consciousness of their capacity to shape their own future.  It has not always been this way.

At the end of the 19th century following Sicily’s incorporation into a unified Italy, two Tuscan intellectuals, Sidney Sonnino and Leopoldo Franchetti, were commissioned by the Italian government to investigate the problems that plagued Sicily.  Their report is a two-volume work called Sicily in 1876.  Sonnino and Franchetti hoped that the light which they shined on Sicily would not alienate Sicilians from Italy.  They saw grave problems in need of fundamental reforms.  They believed that the North of Italy had a responsibility to help cure the ills of Sicily as part of a unified nation.  Franchetti’s volume began by using the archetypal description of the mythical garden paradise to describe the environs of Palermo.  According to Franchetti, the first-time visitor upon leaving the city of Palermo was immediately impressed by the perfection of the citrus orchards, the irrigation and tilling of the soil, the care of every tree (as if it were a rare plant in a botanical garden), and the rows of vines, fruit trees, olives and vegetables gardens.  The remaining 475 pages of Franchetti’s report revealed a much darker and sadder reality.  According to Franchetti, the two fundamental diseases which afflicted Sicily were the domination of the public good by private interests and pervasive violence.

By the mid-twentieth century, following the massive waves of emigration of landless peasants and two World Wars, life in Sicily was still in desperate need of reform.  There is one man who personifies the struggle of Sicilians to cure Sicily - the social reformer and writer, Danilo Dolci.   Referred to in the international media as the Sicilian Gandhi, Dolci came to Sicily in the mid-1950s as a young man and spent more than forty years as a champion of social justice for Sicily’s dispossessed peasants.  Dolci used non-violent techniques (such as hunger strikes and sit-down protests) to combat the endemic corruption and violence of western Sicily.  His poetry is as powerful as the riveting eye-witness reports in his books, The Outlaws of Partinico and Waste.  In a poem created over the course of eighteen years of listening to and speaking with countless peasants, Dolci gave voice to their unheard voices and words to their unspoken hopes.  More than that, Dolci’s poem was an anthem for the brave Sicilians who dared to fight for justice and for all Sicilians who reject the evils of fatalism.

“We dont want rivers wasted
barren mountains eroded
land-sliding with every squall.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
We want milk from cows
that eat grass,
                clear lakes
and the sea still sea
with sparkling beaches.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . .
We want Mafiosi put
in museums, as relics
of an incredible age."

Danilo Dolci, “The Moon Lemon,” in Creature of Creatures, Selected Poems, translated by Justin Vitiello (Saratoga: Anma Libri, 1980), 12-13.

In recent years young Sicilians have bravely propelled the grassroots movement called Addiopizzo, banding together merchants and consumers to renounce the historic stranglehold of organized crime doing business in and around Palermo.  Lands that have been reclaimed from the Mafia now are also organically planted to vines, olive trees, and grain under the banner Libera Terra (“Free Land”).  Sicilians are creating their own new incredible age for Sicily.  We share their hope.                                      

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Targa Florio: Racing Wine Road

 1913 Targa Florio, Beni Culturali in Sicilia
Marco De Bartoli drove a car for the first time at age 10 on the pathways of his family’s garden in Marsala.  By age 21, De Bartoli made his racing debut as the driver of a Lancia Fulvia sports car in the Termini Imerese-Caccamo race.  From there he would go on to compete in races along the winding mountain roads of some of Sicily’s highest peaks – Mounts Pellegrino, Erice, and Etna.  While pursuing his studies of agrarian science at the University of Palermo, he raced under the assumed names Debam and Marco Paolo to avoid the wrath of his mother and his grandfather, Paolo Pellegrino (of the eponymous Marsala estate).

In 1972 De Bartoli went on to win first in class in the storied Targa Florio.  Created in 1906 by Vincenzo Florio, the scion of the Florio Marsala house (and himself a racing driver), the Targa Florio was among the premier open road racing events in the world. The original course snaked around the whole island, but later was redesigned as an eleven-lap circuit in the Madonie Mountains which hug Sicily’s northern coastline.  The Targa Florio was considered the ultimate test of a race-car driver’s endurance and daring.  Fans of De Bartoli’s Marsala and Pantelleria wines (who also read Italian) will be thrilled to read about Marco’s passion for racing and winemaking in the slim biography written by Attilio Vinci and published by Veronelli in 2004.

Marco De Bartoli Biography

Marco De Bartoli is not the only Sicilian winegrower with racing roots.  Paolo Marzotto, founder of the Baglio di Pianetto wine estate south of Palermo, won the Targa Florio (then called the Giro di Sicilia) race in 1952 at the helm of a Ferrari.  To speak with the genteel and elegant Marzotto now, one would never dream that he conquered the world's toughest road race sixty years ago.

Paolo Marzotto and his 1952 Winning Ferrari 166 Inter 2000

In homage to this epic race, Porsche introduced the convertible model of its iconic 911 in 1966 with the name Targa.  Porsche credits the challenge and experience of the Targa Florio for the very evolution of its sports cars.  No small compliment!

"The road to excellence takes many turns. For Porsche,
that road runs through Sicily."
Porsche Brochure (2001) 

New World countries Australia and New Zealand have each created an open road rally with a nod to Sicily's mother of all races, the Targa Tasmania and Targa New ZealandThis year amateur race enthusiasts came to Sicily in early June for the XXIII edition of the 4-day Giro di Sicilia rally, driving vintage sports cars along more than 1,000 kilometers of Sicily’s coastline beginning in Palermo and ending with the Circuito delle Madonie of the Targa Florio. There is also an official Strada del Vino (wine road) in Sicily based on the legendary Madonie circuit of the Targa Florio that encompasses the Contea di Sclafani DOC – home to Tasca d’Almerita’s Regaleali estate and Fabio Sireci’s Feudo Montoni.  Further proof that Sicily is not your everyday wine road!