By Frank Cipparone
This is a story of two islands and two grapes separated by roughly 200 miles as the gull flies. Pantellaria and the Aeolian Islands are defined by their proximity to Sicily, the Mediterranean air currents that blow across their rugged terrains, and the perseverance of those who fly against the headwinds of reason to make wine.
Pantellaria means “child of the wind.” Lying off the southwest coast of Sicily, its culture reflects a Moorish past. The only grape of significance is Moscato di Alessan-dria, called Zibibbo by the inhabitants, a derivation of the Arabic word for dried grape or raisin.
The Aeolians off Sicily’s northeast corner are sometimes referred to as the Seven Sisters. They are named for Aeolis, the god and keeper of the winds who rendered help to Odysseus and his Argonauts. Viticulture and a specific type of Malvasia were introduced to these volcanic islands by the Greeks over 2,000 years ago.
Agriculture on Pantellaria is labor inten-sive and not for the meek. The landscape is sun scorched and windswept. Fields marked off by lava stones sprout cactus and wild scrub bushes. Squat olive trees no more than six feet in height have been trimmed to avoid wind damage. Circular, stone-walled enclo-sures dot the hills. Introduced a thousand years ago by the Arabs, these “giardini arabo” protect citrus trees. Pantellaria’s weather calls for specialized methods to cultivate grapes. Vines are trained low in the “albarello” method that trails the leaves along the ground but keeps them out of the wind. Others are anchored in sloping holes that retain water during searing periods of dryness.
Turning Zibibbo into wine is an exercise in patience. Low vines can only be picked by hand, kneeling and lifting them to get at the clusters. The bunches are stored in green-houses to dry and must be turned by hand every other day over several weeks. When they become raisins, the dried stems can only be plucked manually. There are two harvests months apart. The earlier ripening sweeter grapes are dried until they become raisins. The second batch are pressed, fermented by natural yeasts and turned into a potent dry white. The two batches are mixed and left to age in wood for years.
What emerges from those barrels is Passito di Pantellaria, a descendant of a style that dates to the Carthaginians. It takes time for it to develop from a light, amber colored wine that tastes like apples and pears to a darker, stronger one that has the same flavors but adds earthy golden raisins and almonds and is more like those made back in the day. If that sounds good to you look for the di Bartoli label; for a more up to date take there’s Murana and Ferrandes.
Though many of the same grapes that are found in eastern Sicily grow in the Aeolians, the islands of Lipari, Salina, and Vulcano rely on Malvasia di Lipari and Corinto Nero. Warmer and temperate growing conditions are more favorable than Pantellaria’s. Volcanic soils rich in mineral elements combine with ocean breezes to add salinity and energy to the grapes.
The islands were in an economic downspin in the 1960s when an artist from Brescia in Lombardi came for a visit. As seen elsewhere in Italy it took an outsider to revitalize winemaking on Salina. Carlo Hauner was smart enough to start his venture with tried and true Malvasia, which the winery still uses to make three passito wines that are lighter but just as compelling as those from Pantellaria. Other grapes cultivated are Inzolia, Alicante, Nero d’Avola, and Nocera. The red Corinto Nero is outstanding.
Nino Caravaglio took over his family’s Salina property in 1989 and changed it from a bulk producer of blended juice sold in Italy and France to a small organic operation that has grown to fifty acres. The principles that guide him are using only organically grown local grapes; no added yeast in fermentation; the wine must express the unique taste of Salina’s volcanic soil; no use of barrels. He is one of a few winemakers who produce a dry Malvasia di Lipari (I’ve had it, it’s really good), as well as Corinto Nero from vineyards on Lipari and white blends of Malvasia, Catar-ratto, Carricante and obscure Salina grapes.
Not content to stand pat, Caravaglio looks to both past and future for inspiration. He created a project to see if Malvasia could age better in oval shaped barrels. He has also planted Vigne del Mare on Stromboli, from which the first release is a dry Malvasia that will be come out next month. Taking a page from the Greeks, he’s experimenting with aging Corinto Nero and Nerello Mascalese culled from sixty year old vines in amphoras.
Modern technology is evident at Lipari’s Tenuta di Castellaro. Started by two Lombardian entrepreneurs in 2005, towers were constructed to harness marine winds to cool a barrel cellar that houses native island grapes and Carricante, a Mt. Etna transplant. Their white “Porticello,” a blend of Moscato Bianco, Malvasia and Carricante, is billed as “summer in a glass.” One sip will have you nodding in agreement.
The late Luigi Veronelli wrote that “Wine is the song of the earth toward the sky.” If so, the melody of these island wines is an ancient one that has withstood the test of time. Is there a place for them in today’s world? The answer is blowin’ in the wind.