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Slow as the mountain: making wines in Mount Etna’s shadow

A porter hauls a bucket of grapes of Foti, in his vineyard north of Mount Etna.

LINGUAGLOSSA, Italy: When a would-be winegrower comes to Salvo Foti, Sicily’s top wine consultant, for tips on starting a vineyard, he begins with a warning: To make good wine you have to be in it for the long haul.

“When they ask me ‘What’s the first thing I should do?’ I say ‘Have children,’” Foti told AFP, as he strolled among the thick, knotted vines of his own property on Mount Etna’s northern slope.

The son and grandson of Sicilian winemakers, Foti believes that getting the Italian island to shine requires a long-term commitment. His teenage son is at his side to oversee the harvest, learning just as he once did.

“Many winemakers are not thinking of the future,” says Foti. “If you’re thinking about money right now, you’re not thinking about terroir and what’s good for the vineyard.”

Sicilian wine is in a peculiar spot. Historically, it has been made for local consumption or exported in bulk to give more delicate French and Italian wines a needed bit of backbone.

Despite centuries of winemaking, bottling and selling it for export has only begun in earnest in the last 25 years.

Once Sicilian wine began hitting shelves around the world, there was something of a mini-boom, with Nero d’Avola, a grape indigenous to southern Sicily and worthy of a careful tasting, leading the charge.

The percentage of IGT (name-controlled) wines produced per hectare nearly doubled between 2009 and 2010.

Earning and keeping an IGT label forces growers to meet strict standards, usually resulting in a better wine, so the jump suggests some growers understand that quality, rather than quantity, is key to success.

But the good work has sometimes been obscured by others who over-exploited the island’s new-found visibility, producing homogenized plonk to turn a quick buck.

Winemaker Foti has watched it all happen. If Foti had his way, he might have pushed the boom off until about now, giving winemakers time to learn to work their land, and their wines time to age.

A 2000 Nerojbleo – the entry-level wine at the Gulfi winery, where he consults – retails for about $19 but stands up to competition costing more than twice that amount.

Unfortunately, most of the Sicilian wine on retailers’ shelves is a much more recent vintage.

“There are lots of ‘international’ style wines that are fine, but that’s not the point,” he says. “You’ve got to speak of the humanity of wine, of your own humanity.”

In the hill towns north of Mount Etna, Sicily’s wine boom is unfurling – but quietly.

Etna’s blown-out crater lords over everything, sending wisps of steam into the air on some days and on others, it is lost in the clouds.

Stop in one of its small towns for an espresso, look at the black volcanic rock used to pave the streets and build the houses, and you could only be beneath Etna.

Everything is small-scale by necessity. Drop down a side road to witness the meeting of man and nature: The tiny plots of farmland cut into the mountain’s undulations can only be so large before topography gets in the way.

At Foti’s Etna vineyard, part of an association with other local wine experts called I Vigneri, vines are grown albarello style, each one trained to a stake and grown like a bush.

Over the course of the day on Foti’s property and that of his neighbor, client and co-producer, Mario Paoluzi, a few of their industry friends drop by.

Their mouths drop open at the sight of the museum-quality vines – thick as a man’s thigh and old enough to have survived the phylloxera plague that wiped out many European vines around the turn of the 20th century.

It’s a wonderfully wild approach, inconceivable in most other wine-growing regions in the world.

Quince, cactus and fruit trees dot the vineyard. Between the vines, lizards flit around through the tall grass, fennel and mint, stray zucchini and chard plants. Occasionally, parsley springs from the crook of a vine and when a vine dies, it’s replaced by a new one, leaving old and new next to each other.

At Foti’s vineyard, the harvesting is done by hand since there is no way to get anything more mechanized than a mule into most of the plots.

The grapes in any one plot are a mix of nerello mascalese, nerello cappuccio, grenache, and a few so old their provenance is unknown, the whole creating a sort of pre-blended wine.

The workers, Foti and Paoluzi’s shared crew of less than 20 men, seem pulled from an early 1900s movie reel, singing, shouting, picking, hauling, laughing and working their way through each parcel in a loose pack.

They cut the grapes by hand and pass them to a pair of porters who sling each full bucket on their shoulders and walk it out to a waiting truck.

“A ‘normal’ vineyard takes about 30 days of human power per year per hectare,” says Paoluzi. “Here we need 200. It’s pretty expensive.”

The effort, however, is worth it.

At I Vigneri, Foti’s Vinupetra, particularly those cellared for at least four years, are marvels, with flavors associated with big reds, while remaining light and maintaining wonderful acidity.

His wines have picked up praise from the world’s top wine critics – helping to justify the price premium for bottles that retail from just under 30 to 40 euros and beyond.

As stressful as the harvest is on most vineyards, Foti floats around with a beguiling calm. Asked what his job is at harvest time, he laughs.

“I organize the team. My work is to guide, to stimulate. To give input. I created the team and I indicate the way. Basta. Stop,” he says.

He is confident that if other Sicilian winemakers follow his lead, they’ll all be better off in the long run.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 12, 2011, on page 12.

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