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 papĂ , 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

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