Sicily and Sardinia, the ‘green’ islands of Southern Italy.
By Francesco Saverio Russo - Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 31 January 2022
Island viticulture has always been judged separately from regions which have not been ‘isolated’ by the sea. Italy has two very important islands which represent two of the most interesting regions from a national winegrowing perspective – Sicily and Sardinia.
Recent DNA analyses of more than 2,000 grape varieties have traced the beginning of Sicilian viticulture back to the Copper Age (6,000-5,000 years ago!), while archaeological findings in Sardinia prove that the island's populations were already cultivating vitis vinifera in the Nuragic period (1800 BC to the 2nd century AD). These are two of the oldest winegrowing areas in the world which, thanks in part to their ‘isolation’, have been able to maintain truly indigenous varietal genetics. Combined with vines brought to the islands by other populations over the centuries, they now form two very varied and distinctive ampelographic bases.
Due to their particular soil and climate conditions, the two regions can pride themselves in a winegrowing approach geared towards sustainability, with Sicily holding the record for the largest area of organic vineyards (36% of its 100,000 hectares of vineyards, putting it in first place for total area of vines - more than the whole of South Africa!). In Sardinia, certified hectares are still low (less than 10% of the total), but traditional viticulture has always been respectful and sustainable, and the growth of organic vineyards has accelerated in recent years. In 2020, the region also launched a project that will involve the entire agri-food sector, including wineries, in the creation of Europe's largest organic district.
As evidence of the different approaches to sustainable winegrowing in Sicily and Sardinia, we have selected the following excellent wineries.
Palmento Costanzo is located in Contrada Santo Spirito, in the hamlet of Passopisciaro, on the northern side of Mount Etna. Here, Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Carricante and Catarratto have always been grown organically. More than a hundred terraces, with dry lava stone walls, guard a vineyard grown using the alberello system, which climbs the slopes of the volcano from 600 to 800 metres above sea level. With this system, all the vines, even those over a century old, are supported by chestnut-wood poles. Both the construction of the new winery and the restoration of the original structure adhered to the principles of bio-architecture.
Valeria Agosta Costanzo is the heart and soul of Palmeto Costanzo
The use of natural light, thick lava stone walls which provide optimal thermal insulation, and a thermal labyrinth system running through the cellar under the floor, all combine to minimise the energy footprint. In fact, the company's aim is to showcase the natural richness of the area with minimal environmental impact.
The winery produces 100,000,000 bottles a year, 50% of them exported (USA, Japan, Sweden, Germany, Canada, France, Australia, etc.), thanks in part to its organic certification, which is increasingly in demand.
Cantine Fina, located in Marsala, is a family business run by Bruno Fina – who was the right-hand man of the renowned oenologist and father of Sassicaia, Giacomo Tachis – and his children Marco, Sergio and Federica. Fina uses his extensive knowledge of Sicily to select the best grapes from across the island with an ever-increasing focus on sustainability, so much so that today over 65% of the grapes come from organic vines.
Winemaker Bruno Fina and his children Marco, Sergio and Federica, all play a part in managing the compagny
In addition to this, the company is committed to sustainability, with 70% of its energy coming from renewable sources. In 2021, the Fina family also decided to use local suppliers for bottles and labels, to minimise the environmental impact of transportation and support the local economy. For Cantine Fina, the choice of organic was initially driven by the obvious commercial benefits, but over time it has become a matter of pride to respect the land which, fortunately, lends itself well to this type of sustainable approach. In addition to Italy, the countries that have been most receptive to the winery’s 'green' approach are Japan and the United States, with a significant volume of the 650,000 bottles produced exported there, albeit with slightly different certification procedures.
The Barbadoro company belonging to the Lirosi family is located in Caltagirone, in the province of Catania, around 500 metres above sea level. It has been a family farm for more than three generations, producing wheat, olives, oranges and, of course, wine. “The company's vineyards”, explains Francesco Lirosi, “are all bush-trained, non-irrigated and, in keeping with tradition, all field work is done by hand”. The focus on sustainability can be seen through their 1999 organic certification, and their photovoltaic system, which produces all the energy required by the vineyard, thereby reducing CO2 emissions. Francesco inherited this attention to sustainability from his parents, who based their lifestyle around respect for the environment and the importance of natural products.
In Francesco Lirosi's vineyards all the work is done manually
The company produces about 6,000 bottles of high quality wine a year, while new vineyards have recently been planted, offering bright hopes for the future. Due to the size of the company and its niche production, there is very close attention to detail, and the principles of organic viticulture represent very significant added value. At present, the company, as well as selling within Sicily and to the rest of Italy, exports to Canada and Vietnam, two countries which are at very different stages in their organic wine journey. While the organic wine market is larger and well-established in Canada, Vietnam is much newer to the scene, but it too is showing growing demand for organic wines.
Cantina Ferreri, owned by the three partners Rosario Ferreri, Mario Ferreri and Vincenzo Bianco, was founded in 2003 in a corner of Sicilian paradise between Selinunte and Segesta, at 290m above sea level. The 50 hectares are located on different hills, ranging from 250 to 500 metres above sea level, allowing the winery to reap the benefits of different microclimates. The winery’s objective has always been to make wine from pure grapes, favouring indigenous varieties which express the varied identity of the region. Since its inception, the winery has maintained a conventional agronomic regime which is not organic but is focused on respect for the environment and the consumer. Techniques used include mechanical weeding by ploughing (no glyphosate!), the use of green manure with leguminous crops in the inter-rows, and natural nitrogen fertilization. This method of production is supported by the soil and climate of an area which is characterised by excellent wind flow, low rainfall, high levels of sunlight and a good temperature range. These factors make it possible to use few (if any) systemic treatments with only a few essential uses of copper, sulphur, lime or gypsum. Although this method is not classified as organic, it respects the environment and biodiversity, guaranteeing the genuine characters and wholesomeness of the wines produced.
The vineyards of Cantina Ferreri, cultivated with respect for biodiversity
Moreover, the winery completes the quality control process by overseeing the entire production cycle, from the vineyard to bottling and packaging. For the tartaric stabilisation phase, it uses cold temperature control, bringing the temperature down to minus 6-8 degrees and allowing natural precipitation of the solids, without using other products which, although authorised, do not guarantee the same results. Annual production is about 100,000 bottles and the wines’ focus is on typicality, genuine characters and sincerity. Over the years, they have been enjoyed in areas such as the USA, Canada and the EU, where they are valued for their tradition rather than their certification.
La Contralta is a young company established in 2019 which has around 30 hectares of land divided into 2 farms. The farm to the south of Olbia is in the Enas area in the municipality of Loiri Porto san Paolo and has 5 hectares of espalier vines that are around 18 years old; a new winery is being built here. The farm in Palau starts on the hill and goes all the way down to the beach, where there is the original building used to receive guests, and where alberello vines have been planted at a density of 10,000 plants per hectare. The aim is to produce wines that are identity-driven, minimalist, elegant, vertical and long-lived. Agronomist Maurizio Saettini ensured the principles of integrated pest management and the protection of biodiversity were implemented, using an approach based on integration and balance between history, culture, knowledge and intuition.
Roberto Gariup, co-founder and winemaker at La Contralta
“Being an organic winery is fundamental. The future is green. In the next 10 to 15 years, in our opinion, either you produce sustainably or you're out. In the 18 months that we have been on the market, we have seen a great deal of interest in the issues around sustainable production”
In order to limit CO2 emissions due to the mineralisation of organic matter, La Contralta only carries out essential work, using non-destructive tools. It restores organic matter to the soil by green manuring. The vineyards are grassed over for most of the year in order to limit soil loss. It preserves soil biocoenosis by limiting the use of copper to about half that allowed by the organic regulations. It fights harmful insects by setting up sexual confusion strategies and freeing their natural antagonists. It combats pathogenic fungi and bacteria by stimulating the plant to produce endogenous defences and by distributing useful fungi. The company currently produces 22,000 bottles per year with a potential of 60,000 bottles per year. The current set-up has not affected production as, being a new winery, there has been no need for a real conversion except for the 18-year-old vineyards purchased.
“Being an organic winery is fundamental. The future is green. In the next 10 to 15 years, in our opinion, either you produce sustainably or you're out. In the 18 months that we have been on the market, we have seen a great deal of interest in the issues around sustainable production”. The key markets are the UK, Switzerland and the USA, as well as Italy, of course.
The Azienda Agricola Antonella Corda was established in 2010, when Antonella inherited the winemaking tradition of her branch of the well-known Sardinian wine family Argiolas. The company has a total of 40 hectares, 16 of them planted to vines, 13 home to olive groves and the rest arable land. Love and respect for the land have led to the use of an eco-sustainable approach. The choice of integral organic farming was made, not only to blend human activity into the characteristics of the land, but also to be able to return it intact to future generations. Consequently, this approach is followed from the vineyard to the bottle.
The glass is lighter and for about a year now, the corks have been made of cork and beeswax. These are all natural products that have a reduced environmental impact in terms of disposal and recycling. “Organic is not a synonym for sustainable, but it is a very important part of it”. Equally important are the choices linked to the use of irrigation water and agronomic techniques such as green manure and grassing, which reduce tillage but above all preserve the organic substance and microbial biodiversity of the soil. Even the washing water from the cellar can be recovered and reused for irrigation.
Antonella Corda and her husband Christian Puecher in their vinyrds in Serdiana
In order to pursue the company's main objective, which is to produce wines of the highest quality, the path taken since the first vintage has been squarely set on organic winegrowing. Annual production is around 60,000 bottles, a volume impacted by the choice of organic farming, but less quantity does not worry the likes of Antonella Corda, who is seeking to achieve quality. Speaking purely in economic terms, in the medium term the vineyard will have a longer average lifespan, whilst in the long term this style of vineyard management will lead to a lower environmental impact. The wines are sent to a range of markets currently, including Italy, the United States, Australia, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, England, Japan, Brazil and Canada. Some markets such as the United States, Denmark, Sweden and Germany are more attentive to production methods and require information on vineyard management.
The Berritta family's business is family-run and focuses on promoting the indigenous grape varieties of the Dorgali area, though it also has a passion for Syrah, which thrives in the Oddoene Valley. The vines cover about 10 hectares, with a further three hectares planted to olive groves which are set aside for family consumption. The Berritta family's focus on sustainability is patent both in the vineyard and in the winery. Even the choice of packaging and all the materials used for packaging were made from recycled materials. Cantina Berritta’s vineyards have always been farmed using traditional methods and agronomic techniques aimed at respecting the environment and biodiversity, in order to produce wines with a strong identity in a healthy environment. Since 2019, the company has been certified organic. Although it was already working under the organic system, certification has opened up fast track access to northern European markets where it exports a large part of its production of between 35,000 and 50,000 bottles.
Antonio Berrita at work in his vineyards in Dorgali
Giogantinu Cantina Sociale
The Cantina Sociale Giogantinu was founded in 1955 and has grown over time to its current 250 members. It boasts 320 hectares of vineyards managed by its members, who bring their precious grapes to the modern winery. The company always looks to the future, devoting great attention to innovation and training, and feels that evolving means growing and improving while respecting tradition. The area covered by Giogantinu's winegrowers is located in the north-east of Sardinia, an enchanting hilly region with a strong vocation for wine production. It has a strong regional identity and clear stylistic precision, all with an increasing focus on sustainability. In fact, in recent years Giogantinu has been experimenting with the principles of organic winemaking. In collaboration with partners, it supports the conversion of Vermentino vineyards from traditional farming techniques to organic.
Cantina Giogantinu's agronomic approach favours the lack oh chemicals for growing vines, showing complete respect for nature
In 2018, it switched to the renewable energy source of the sun, installing a photovoltaic system to the roof of its buildings – the system now produces 136775.31 kWh annually from 497.46 m2 of panels. Its new approach is epitomised by its organic Vermentino di Gallura DOCG and an IGT Isola dei Nuraghi Rosso without added sulphites. This is a very important milestone for this historic Sardinian company, which has a processing capacity of 25,000 quintals of grapes per year.
Sicily and Sardinia are two benchmark regions for organic winegrowing in Italy, not only due to their predisposition from a soil and climate perspective, but also due to the determination of sensitive and far-sighted producers, from small, young wineries right through to the large, long-standing co-operative. Their approach encapsulates a high level of respect and heralds an increasingly organic future.
By Francesco Saverio Russo - Photographs: courtesy of the estates
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