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In a land of fire and smoke, fine wines are born

July 18, 2017
etnarossol

The lava flows of Mt. Etna are the background for the rich microclimates in Sicily’s vineyards. Photo courtesy Hotel La Perla 

Fire and lava normally aren’t considered attributes for producing elegant wines.

But for Chiara Vigo, who makes unadorned natural wines on her family’s estate, Fattorie Romeo del Castello, in the shadow of Sicily’s Mt. Etna, having an active volcano in her backyard is a way of life.

“For us, it’s a part of our life, something we see every day,” said Chiara during a brief conversation last spring at Vini Veri, a three-day gathering of natural wine makers in Cerea, Italy.

In 1981, when Chiara still was a young girl, well before she went off to earn a Ph.D in art and before she became a wine maker, Etna erupted, spewing ash and smoke and sending rivers of lava down its side.

One lava flow, which Chiara described as tall as a house, approached the estate, which grew grapes, olives and hazelnuts on roughly 60 hectares (about 145 acres) on Etna’s north side.

Chiara Vigo, Gianluca Torrisi

Chiara Vigo and Gianluca Torrisi show the 2013 Vigo during Vini Veri this spring in Cerea, Italy. Photo by Dave Buchanan

“We thought we would have to leave and lose everything, but when the lava arrived at the part of the old vineyard, it changed direction,” recalled Chiara in a story she’s told countless times.

Instead of engulfing the vineyard, the river of molten rock turned to the east, toward the Alcantra River.

“So now we have a vineyard with a big flow of lava rock inside the vineyard,” she said.

The 1981 eruption wasn’t Etna’s largest or even its most-recent but it does emphasize a certain aspect of danger not usually associated with winemaking, where the prevalent major threats are pests, bad weather and changing markets.

“You see the signs (of the volcano) everywhere,” said Vigo. “But it’s the lava rocks that give us such rich soil and make our wines special.”

That 1981 eruption left her family with 24 hectares (about 57 acres) of Nerello Mascalese vines, some just now starting to produce but also about 14 hectors of 70-100-year old vines in vineyards that reach close to 4,000 feet elevation. Here, under the Romeo del Castello label, she creates what might be called super-organic wines, going beyond the European organic certification and just short of biodynamic: without pesticides or added chemicals and using natural yeasts.

“We try to use the methods of the past traditions of Etna,” she said in the hubbub of La Fabbrica, the vast building in which Vini Veri 2017 was held. “We plant beans in the vineyards to feed the vines.”

This nonintrusive way of adding nitrogen and building the soil now is used by many producers of natural and organic wines.

“And it means instead of using herbicides, we cut the grass” between the rows, she said.

Grapes are hand-harvested and fermented using natural yeasts in open wooden vats.

The wines are aged in oak casks for about 14 months before being bottled without fining or filtration.

“We use only a little sulphur and only when we bottle,” she explained.

She makes two wines, both DOC Etna Rosso: the Vigo made only during the best vintages and the Allegracore, fermented in stainless steel instead of oak.

lava rocks on Vigo

The 1981 eruption of Mt. Etna left this wall of lave bordering the vineyards of Fattorie Romeo del Castello. Photo –  Louie Dressner Selections.

Sicily has more than 2,500 years of winemaking history (Nerello Mascalese has been grown on the Etna slopes for at least 200 years) but production was decimated when phylloxera arrived in the 1930s. While the island once had a reputation as a major producer of bulk wines, over the last 20 years its winemaking has become as complex as anywhere in the world.

Extended harvests (starting in August in the south to extending to mid-November on Etna’s slopes), rich soils and the new fervor of enlightened producers bring an exciting air to this island’s wine futures. In his book “Brunello to Zibibbo,” author Nicholas Belfrage, a British Master of Wine, argued that Sicily has the potential to be “California, Australia, Chile, southern France, Jerez and middle Italy all rolled into one.”

But as someone who lives everyday with the threat of an active volcano looming over her shoulder, Chiara Vigo shrugged at that proclamation.

“It’s true the wines of Etna have changed a great deal in the last 10 or 15 years,” she said. “I make our wines to reconnect with our ancestors and I can’t imagine doing it any way else.”

She pause while opening her 2013 Vigo. “It’s just another way to think, and to see agriculture and to see the earth. It’s our future.”

 

Her wines are imported by Louie Dressner Selections.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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