Friday, February 17, 2017

Pre-Phylloxera vines and albarello training in Mt Etna viticulture

In a recent Mt. Etna wine masterclass held in London, Ian D'Agata pronounced that a combination of three factors contribute to the "special" nature of the region's wines: (i) an alpine climate in a Mediterranean land; (ii) volcanic soils: and (iii) the predominance of ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines ( I have previously discussed the unique Etna climate and its volcanic soils and contradas. In this post I discuss these pre-Phylloxera vines and their historic training system.

French vineyards had been decimated by the Phylloxera infestation of the late 1860s, causing French winemakers to cast far afield for sources of supply to fulfill the consumer demand for wine. The French misfortune led to increased demand for wines from Spain, Algeria, and Sicily. According to Eric Asimov, the heyday of demand for Etna wines from France saw a total of 48,562 ha planted to vines on the mountain.

As was the case for Algeria and Spain, Phylloxera did eventually invade Etna but the impact was most felt at altitudes of 400 m and below where sedimentary sols dominated. According to Nesto and di Savino (The World of Sicilian Wine), the decimated vineyards at those altitudes were replaced with citrus fruit trees and new vineyards were planted at higher altitudes where the soils had greater proportions of lava rock and volcanic sand and were resistant to the depradations of the aphid. According to the authors, these new vineyards joined an existing belt of vineyards resident on the northern slope between Solicchiata and Randazzo.

The remnants of that belt of vineyards are today's pre-Phylloxera vineyards of which Ian D'Agata speaks so highly. The picture directly below shows a pre-Phylloxera vine from the Tenuta delle Terre Nere vineyard while the table below that shows a selection of labels from these old vines.

Pre-phylloxra vine. Source:

Table 1: A selection of the pre-Phylloxera vineyards used in wines from Etna.
Producer Label Vineyard Contrada Size (ha) Vineyard Age (yrs) Training System
I Vigneri Vinupetra Calderara Feudo di Mezzo
100 Albarello

Vinudilice Bosco

100+ do.
Tenuta Terre Nere Prephylloxera Don Peppino Calderara Sottano
130 - 140 do.
Graci Quota 1000

100+ do.
Pietradolce Vigna Barbagalli Barbagalli Rampante

80 - 100 do.

Rampante Barbagalli Rampante

80 - 100 do.

Archineri Etna Bianco

100 - 120 do.
Frank Cornelissen Magma Rosso


100+ do.

Munjebel Rosso Chiusa Zottorinoto Chiusa Spagnolo

90+ do.

Munjebel Rosso Vigne Alta

Barbabecchi, Tartaraci, Monte Dolce

90+ do.

Munjebel Bianco Vigne Alta


90+ do.

And these pre-Phylloxera vineyards had all been albarello-trained (As were all vines planted prior to the introduction of the Guyot training system.). Albarello training was well suited to the Etna environment. According to Nesto and di Savinio:
  • Its free-standing configuration aids in withstanding the high winds to which the mountain is prone
  • The 360-degree exposure to light aids in the ripening of the fruit
  • The black soil readily absorbs radiation from the sun and warms up. The low training of the vines allow them to take advantage of that heat and ripen the grapes faster than would other training systems
  • This low training also allows for more rapid evaporation of water through the skin of the ripe fruit, resulting in greater sugar concentration in the fruit (and higher alcohol in the wine)
  • The vine conserves the humidity arising from the ground, a plus in dry growing conditions.
Albarello-trained vines in Etna are planted at densities of 8000 to 10,000 vines/ha dictating costly manual labor for vineyard work. Many of the old vineyards have lost their uniformity due to the practice of replacing damaged vines by sticking one of the branches into the ground where it takes root.

The Albarello system was dominant on the mountain until growers turned first to the Guyot system -- the first half of the 20th century -- and  the cordon-spur system -- beginning in the 1950s -- for new vineyard plantings.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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