Shock, Horror and a Golden Lining


My alarm clock seemed louder than ever this morning. I got back from Paris late last night and having enjoyed every baguette crumb, every bite of cheese and every drop of wine, I was running a high sleep deficit.

The alarm sounded at 6.30am. Half an hour later, I was standing at the top of a vineyard, secateurs in hand, admiring the view down the Val d’Alpone and over to the Soave hills.

We were picking garganega grapes for our recioto today. The Recioto di Gambellara is a traditional dessert wine made in my adoptive town by letting the grape bunches dry out over a period of about 4 months. Gambellara’s Recioto is not like other passito or straw-wines, because we hang our grapes on vertical nets…… which is exactly what we then spent the afternoon doing!

Brutal as my wake-up call was this morning, it is nothing compared to the shock, 3 days ago, when the De Bartoli family in Sicily discovered that someone broken into their winery during the night and stolen 600kg of passito grapes.

Screenshot of their Facebook post. Click for full-screen.

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In The Vineyards With: Anna Martens (Vino di Anna, Sicily)


It becomes a natural impulse when you reach the end of a year to take a nostalgic look back over the previous twelve months. In 2015, some moments jump out more vividly than others and this visit to the Vino di Anna vineyards and the palmento is definitely a highlight.

I met Anna Martens, an Australian married to a Frenchman and living in London, last year and we exchanged contact details.

When I visited Mount Etna in April as part of a Wine Mosaic trip with Jean-Luc Etievent, visiting Anna was high up on my to-do list.


Those concave circles are the vineyard equivalent of scrawling “Salvo Foti woz here.”

It just so happened that our dates coincided and Anna was available to show us around. In fact, she had only just arrived back on the island that morning and suggested that we all go to check out her vineyards.

She and her husband Eric have a handful of plots on the north face of Mount Etna – mainly planted with the highly sought after Nerello Mascalese grape variety as albarello (bush vines), and often ranging between 60 and 100 years old.


To see her excitement while surveying the vines and noticing some which had already reached bud break was fantastic.

Bud break is one of the most exhilarating moments in the year because it signifies the start of a new growth cycle. After the long winter dormancy period, seeing new life emerge from what is essentially an old shrivelled piece of wood is quite miraculous.

Winter 2014-2015 had been a long and difficult one – plenty of snow amidst bitingly cold temperatures.

As well as Nerello Mascalese, there are small amounts of Nerello Cappuccio and Alicante, which are blended with the Nerello Mascalese, and Grecanico, Minella and Carricante for the white.

The vineyards range from between 750m and 900m in altitude, are terraced and are farmed organically. When Anna and Eric are not there, the vineyards are managed by the i Vigneri team (headed up by Salvo Foti – more about him to come later) and a local boy, Valerio, who graduated in agronomy.

As you would expect from this volcanic terroir, most of the soils are black, but there is this one (in the pictures) near Linguaglossa, where the soil is full of iron and therefore bright red.

Anna makes her wine in an old palmento located in the village of Solicchiata (also on north face of the volcano, but slightly more inland.) Like nearly all the wines I talk about on this blog, they are made with minimal intervention, only natural yeasts, and little-to-no SO2. Some wines (the Etna Rosso) are aged in wood barrels, others in Georgian qvevri and others still accordingly to the traditional method of open-fermentation in a palmento then crushed by feet.


Anna and Eric only started making wine here in 2010. It may seem like they are jumping on the bandwagon of modern trends (namely Etna’s terroir and Georgian qvevri) but you can’t deny that the wines are original. This is surely a winery to watch in 2016!


Six Great Summer Wines


I don’t know about you, but here in my little corner of the world, the sun has finally come out!

I was in Piedmont last week, planting Timorasso barbatelle in Stefano Bellotti’s vineyards. Hot, sweaty work at the best of times, but even worse in 30 degree heat and at 600m above sea level!


We would leave the cascina at 7am and not return until at least 7pm when we were panting, sweaty and desperate for a glass of wine.

Here are six summer wines that I tasted at the Villa Favorita (VinNatur) tasting back in March. They are all perfect for picnics, aperitifs or simply by themselves to quench your thirst.


ETNELLA Soc. Agr. La Presa (Sicily) “Kaos” Etna Bianco IGT 2013 Carricante-Cataratto with some Coda di Volpe, Minnella, Inzolia (12.5%.)

There’s a ton of smacking minerality on this wine, made at over 750 metres above sea level, near Passopiscaro on Mount Etna.

It’s a simple wine; one year in steel then 6 months to rest in the bottle before arriving on the market. I loved the combination of that intense volcanicity with a touch of sweet, ripe fruit.

FILIPPI (Veneto) “Castelcerino” Soave DOC Colli Scaligeri 2013 Garganega (12.5%) 

Castelcerino is the highest village in the Soave appellation and these vineyards are around 400 metres above sea level on volcanic (basalt) soil. For what this wine lacks in its immediate aroma, it easily makes up with its mouthfeel. An explosion of delicate floral characters (white tea) which transform into conference pears and rich slightly-mulled apples. A very stylish, elegant wine; the finish is marked by a gentle acidity. Persistent.

CANTINA MARGO (Umbria) “Fiero” Bianco Umbria IGT 2013 Trebbiano-Grechetto (12%)

Carlo Tabarrini is a young winemaker working in a thankless area on the Italian penisula. Fermentation with indigenous yeasts, no fining, no filtering, no added sulfites, just lots and lots of great wine. This one in particular has a pleasant tangerine colour. It is made from old vines of Trebbiano and Grechetto, a few days of skin-maceration in open vats without temperature control, then aging in damigiana.

There’s plenty of fruit characters (apples, melon and orange peel) alongside some herbal and medicinal aromas. Dangerously drinkable.

BOSCO FALCONERIA (Sicily) “Catarratto” IGT Terre Siciliane 2013 Catarratto (12.5%)

There seems to be a heavy slant towards southern Italy today because here comes another Sicilian wine in this summer collection of whites. This time, however, the wine comes from Palermo, on the other side of the island from Etna. There’s no denying that Sicilian wines make great thirst-quenchers if you’re outside in the sunshine. This wine merits a place in this list for its grassy and herbal bouquet. It’s immediately accessible and pleasing. The equivalent of a fresh summer breeze with a clean citrus edge. In short, it’s summer in a glass!

DVA DUBY (Czech Republic) “Ex Monte Lapis” 2012 Saint Laurent (11.6%)

The Dva Duby (means Two Oaks) winery is a small winery based in Dolni Kounice, Czech Republic. For centuries it has been a renowned winemaking town, especially for its red wines. The aim is simple – to preserve as much of the unique terroir of Dolni Kounice as possible and to produce wines with great aging potential. No herbicides, pesticides are used and even copper was banned on the estate. From their minimal six hectares of vines, they make an average of 10,000 bottles a year. St Laurent is a highly aromatic grape and being the only red wine on this list, it’s my dark horse. Definitely worth buying if you can get your hands on it!


QUARTICELLO (Emilia) “Despina” Malvasia Emilia IGT Frizzante 2013 Malvasia Aromatica di Candia (11.5%)

Quarticello are mainly known for their Lambrusco but this Malvasia was a very pleasant surprise. A deliciously refreshing wine that could easily be confused for a lime-soda! If you typically avoid Malvasia at this time of year thinking that it will be too sweetly aromatic, you have nothing to fear with this wine. It packs a mean punch of lime, grapefruit and orange blossom. The salinity on the finish (bone dry, by the way) was absolutely delicious.

In The Vineyards With: Patricia Toth (La Planeta, Sicily)


This series is normally the result of an afternoon or day spent in the vineyards with the winemaker. I always want to go, see and touch the vines for myself. This is, of course, all well and good… unless the winemaker in question is suffering from a twisted ankle and can only barely hobble!


Patricia has been working for La Planeta since 2005. She is their chief winemaker and implements their sustainable development vineyard programme.

It is also rather difficult to say “a day in the vineyard with…” in this case as the La Planeta company own six different vineyards, in each corner of Sicily. Nonetheless, to spend a few hours with Patricia was fascinating. She is imbued with a natural charm and boundless energy! I was honoured that took the time out to meet Jean-Luc Etievent and I between appointments and despite her sore ankle. We meet in the main square of Passopisciaro and get in her car to go up to the vineyard. It brings a smile to my face to notice that she has a suitcase permanently in the back of her car and, on this particular day, a half-eaten yoghurt pot by the driver’s seat!


Piazza di Passopisciaro

We arrive at the Feudo di Mezzo vineyard; a fairly young vineyard at around 960m above sea level. La Planeta have been working here and at two other sites on Etna since 2008. Patricia herself had actually just come back from a stint in California and she starts by talking about her amazement at their usage of cover crops.

“We tried to do the same thing here,” she says, “because here, especially on the volcano, conserving all available water is essential. We therefore tried experimenting with cover crops. They formed an impenetrable mattress and consumed all the water. After just a few months, our vines were dead.”


La Planeta Etna winery

We arrive and start the tasting: Carricante IGT Sicilia 2011, Etna DOC 2014, Frappato Vittoria DOC 2013 and Nero D’Avola Nocera Sicilia DOC 2014.

Patricia knew that we were there in order to try the most typical, most indigenous expressions from this volcanic island… and effettivamente, we were spoilt rotten!

Interestingly, it was the Etna DOC 2014 – straight carricante – that Patricia chose to have with lunch.

She talks more generally and we learn that she returns to her native Hungary every 4 or 6 weeks. She has enchanting, dazzling green eyes. She speaks fluent English and has an easy, affable way of making conversation. Unsurprisingly, her telepone is always ringing; a continuous stream of people asking for appointments.

When asked about organic farming, Patricia claims to prefer to look at the larger picture. For her, the option is between using a herbicide just once in the springtime or ten natural treaments during the course of the season. Once you have considered the extra gasoline and petrol fumes for the extra work in the tractor, for Patricia, this outweighs the benefits of natural agriculture. She also explains that the very dry soil on Sicily tends to become as hard as nails if a heavy tractor has to pass through the vines on a regular basis. One treatment early on is better for the overall health of her vineyards apparently.

As for what she looks for in making wine, Patricia doesn’t like her grapes to reach an state of over-ripeness. “Wait just a day too long to harvest the grapes and you find yourself with nothing left to work with!”

As I’m writing this post back in Paris, I’m drinking a bottle of the La Planeta Carricante Sicilia IGT 2011. Despite the name, there is actually 5% of riesling in this wine which gives it a delicious onctuosity. I’m going to be making a basil pesto for dinner this evening… this will be perfect!

DSC07177aSee other blog posts from my visit to Sicily:

Benanti Winery’s use of selected natural yeasts.

More to come… use this tag.

Knowing Your Yeast: a follow-up.


Did you read the blog post I wrote last year called “The Importance of Knowing Your Yeast“? In short, I said that I didn’t know of any studies identifying and analysing naturally occuring ambient yeasts in winemaking.

I’m happy to say that I stand corrected!


The Benanti Winery, on Mount Etna in Sicily, embarked upon an ambitious five-year study with Istituto Regionale della Vite e del Vino in Palermo in 2005. The full methodology and results are going to be published later this year. This is just a sneak-peak.

Before I launch into the detail, I should be explain what a palmento is. Essentially, it is the building containing an open-air stone tub into which the crushed grape juice runs for the alcoholic fermentation. It is very similar to Cantillon’s “chapel” and the fermentation pits in authentic mezcal production. Ventilation is vitally important in the palmento because not only is there indigenous yeast on the grape skins but there are also many ambient yeasts in the air.


For this study, the researchers took 4 palmenti where commercial yeasts have never been used. They then identified over 400 different strains of yeasts that were naturally present in these places. Of these, there were 13 strains that were considered interesting for alcoholic fermentation.

The conclusion is that Benanti have taken 4 of these strains and patented them for their own exclusive use. It’s a selected indigenous yeast, if you like.


That, admittedly, is rather a contradiction in terms. I’m sure there will be some people who would argue why even bother selecting a naturally-found ambient yeast.

It should be understood that nowadays, the palmento cannot be used for making Etna DOC wines…. and that’s a whole other kettle of fish… Winemaking now takes place at controlled temperatures in stainless steel rather than in those traditional palmenti. The Benanti winery has also grown to a size and gained such a reputation that consistency is very important for them.

It seems to me that this study is effectively their manifestation of a desire to create a link between tradition and modernity. Of wanting to dock their caps to history albeit in a contemporary context and to find a way to use nature in conventional winemaking.

The full report will be published later this year.