Sunday, April 30, 2017

Barrel-fermented and -aged white wines

Oak was the primary fermentation vehicle prior to the post-war inroads made by stainless steel tanks, inroads driven by the latter's perceived advantages:
  • Provides an anaerobic environment
  • Easier to clean, thus reducing the risk of bacterial contamination
  • Increased durability
  • Allowed fermentation temperature control
    • White wines could be fermented cool and thus preserve floral and fruity aromas
    • Cooler fermentation temperatures lowered the risk of off-flavor production
  • Allowed control of fermentation rate.
With all of these advantages arrayed against it, oak had to have some overriding benefits for winemakers to continue using it as a vehicle. And it did. According to Ibern-Gomez, et al*., "Fermentation in oak barrels leads to wines with much more complex sensory properties, largely attributed to the phenols extracted from oak wood."

I will examine these substances and their impacts on barrel-fermented wine in this post.

Oak Wood
As a result of its "strength, resilience, workability, and lack of undesirable flavor," oak is the wood of choice for most wine cooperage applications.

The oak used in the maturation of alcoholic beverages fall into one of three species: Quercus albaQuercus robur, and Quercus sessilis.  Q. robur and Q. sessilis, and their respective subspecies, are European white oaks while Q. alba is the source of 45% of the white oak lumber produced in the US.  American oak used in barrel production is sourced from Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, and Michigan but there is no apparent regional distinction.  European oak, on the other hand, may have designations which reach all the way to the forest from which the oak originated.  For example, French oak from the department of Alliers may be sourced from a forest named Tronçais.

Sources:; Dr. Murli Dharmadikari; Principles and Applications in Wine Science

The journey from oak tree to wine barrel is shown in the graphic below.

Alcoholic Fermentation in Oak Barrels
Grapes are pressed and the resulting juice is deposited into oak barrels (In many Burgundy white wines the grapes are pressed "whole-cluster"). The juice levels do not fill the tank as space has to be left for expansion of the contents during alcoholic fermentation.

In a study on barrel-fermentation of white wines (S. Herjavec, et al., The quality of white wines fermented in Croatian Oak, Food Chemistry, 100, 2007), the authors stated thusly:
One of the practices used to intensify the aroma and flavor characteristics of white wines is to ferment the must in oak barrels, and Chardonnay is one of the most suitable varieties for this. Wines produced by fermentation and maturation in oak barrels have different flavor characteristics to those which have undergone barrel maturation only after fermentation in stainless steel. One reason for this is that actively growing yeasts are capable of transforming volatile flavor components, extracted from oak wood, into other volatile metabolites.
This metabolite transformation results in what Zac Brown, Winemaker at Alderlea Vineyards, describes as "better integration of the oak and softer mouthfeel when compared to a white that is finished and then transferred into oak barrel to age."

In the case of reductive winemaking, we seek to prevent the rich varietal aromas of Riesling, Petit Manseng, and Gewurtztraminer from oxidizing effects. This environment will be subjected to oxygen effects and it is not recommended that these varietal types be barrel-fermented.

Malolactic Fermentation
According to Sauvageot and Vivier (Effects of Malolactic Fermentation on Sensory Properties of Four Burgundy Wines, AJEV 48(2), 1997), malolactic fermentation (MLF) is a bacterial conversion -- most commonly performed by Leuconostoc strains, due to their tolerance of the high acid and alcohol content associated with wine -- of L-malic acid to L-lactic acid and CO₂.

The main effects of MLF on wine are (i) a reduction in titratable acidity (by 0.1 to 0.3%) and an increase in pH (0.15 to 0.30). In addition, dramatic organoleptic changes to the wine are evidenced (Lonvaud-Funel, Microbiology of the Malolactic Fermentation: Molecular Aspects, FEMS Microbiology Letters):
  • The specific taste of malic acid disappears
  • Sugars are catabolized to produce mainly lactic and acetic acid
  • Citric acid is transformed into acetic acid and carbonyl compounds, notably the butter-flavored diacetyl
  • Wine taste and color are modified due to the metabolic activity of bacteria on phenolic compounds (tannins, anthocyannins).
By synthesizing anti-bacterial compounds and depriving the wine of nutrients, MLF also contributes to its microbial stability (Lonvaud-Funel).

The process is encouraged (Bauer and Dicks, Control of Malolactic Fermentation in Wine, S. Afr. J. Enol. Vitic. 25(2), 2004): in cooler areas where grapes have high malic acid content; in cases where the wine is aged in oak barrels; and when the wine style calls for long-term aging in bottle. The practice is sometimes forsworn in warmer, lower-acid areas and in the cases where undesirable organoleptic changes or the production of biogenic amines result.

Lees Aging
Murli Dharmadhikan (Yeast Autolysis, defines yeast autolysis as "... self-destruction of the cellular constituents of a cell by its own enzymes" following its death. Figure 1 below shows the component parts of a healthy yeast cell while Figure 2 shows an overview of the process  -- autolysis -- that occurs once that yeast cell has consumed all of the available nutrients and dies. At a high level, autolysis encompasses (i) the degradation of intracellular materials and (ii) degradation of the cell wall.

The detailed autolysis process is shown in Figure 3 below. The yeast extract, product of the degradation of intra-cellular material, is confined to the cell until such time as the cell wall becomes porous enough to allow the material to seep out. It should be noted that degradation and compound creation continues outside the degraded cell walls.

Figure 3. Details of yeast autolysis
The lees-aged wine is enriched by the compounds released during the constituent-degradation process. Compounds released during autolysis include (Thierry Binder, Cremant d'Alsace, TONG #13; Dharmadhikan):
  • Nitrogenous compounds
    • Amino acids -- known to enrich mouthfeel; aroma precursors of acacia honey notes
    • Polypeptides -- sweet and bitter taste; precursors of the autolytic aromas of brioche and toast
    • Peptides
    • Nucleic acid components
  • Polysaccharides -- originates from breakdown of cell wall components
    • Degradation products are glucose and mannose
    • Mannoproteins increase mouthfeel and foam stability as well as contributing to fineness and persistence of bubbles
  • Fatty acids -- important for foam stability, mouthfeel, and flavor. Can be involved in the formation of esters, aldehydes, and other volatile compounds
  • Volatile components
    • Heavy esters
    • Terpene components
    • Higher alcohols
    • Other volatile components.
In order to ensure distribution of the beneficial autolysis products evenly throughout the wine, a process called batonnage -- stirring of the lees -- is undertaken. Batonnage is generally conducted once or twice per week.

Oak Aging
Wine is aged in wooden barrels to: (i) enhance its flavor, aroma, and complexity through transfer of substances from the wood to the wine; and (ii) allow gradual oxidation of the wine.

In the first instance, many of the wood's native aromatic compounds, as well as the aromatic compounds created during seasoning and toasting, are absorbed, and integrated, into the wine, thus contributing to wine richness and aromatic complexity.  For example, hemicellulose will hydrolyze upon exposure to wine, creating, as a result, sugars and acetyl groups.  The sugars are further converted to furanaldehydes and ketones while the acetyl groups are converted to acetic acid during maturation.  A small proportion of lignin will dissolve in wine (these are called native lignins) while some undergo ethanolysis and are oxidized to aromatic compounds.  These compounds have low olfactory thresholds and will, therefore, impact the wine's aromatic profile. As noted by Dr. Murli Dharmadikari, common descriptors of oak-aged wines are oaky, vanilla, smoky, toasty, spicy, and coconut.

In terms of gradual oxidation, wine loss from barrels amount to approximately 2% per year, resulting from the fact that water and ethanol are smaller molecules and will diffuse into the wood and, ultimately, escape as vapor.  If the air in the cellar is dry, more water is lost and the wine is more concentrated in terms of alcohol.  If the environment is too humid then more alcohol is lost, reducing the ethanol content in the remaining wine.  This loss of liquid opens up a space between the wine surface and the barrel which the winemaker generally "tops up" in order to prevent oxidation and acetic spoilage.  During this "topping-up" process, small amounts of oxygen are dissolved in the wine.  Oxygen is also introduced into the wine during winery operations such as filtering and racking.

The oxygen which is now in the wine reacts with resident phenolic compounds in a manner such that: (i) tannins are softened (polymerization and precipitation as well as tannin-polysaccharide combinations); (ii) complex aromas develop; and (iii) there is improvement in the wine's body and mouthfeel.  It should be noted here that the tannin resident in the wine at this time is the oak tannin absorbed from the barrel (30% from the innermost four millimeters of wood).

In the aforementioned Herjavec, et al., study, the authors found that the sensorial characteristics of barrel-aged wines were modified, due to the wood-derived compounds. These wines manifested roundness in taste with a complex retro nasal aroma." Barrel toast also affected flavor perception: aging in medium-toast barrels yielded a smoky, roasted, and raw oak flavor while light toast resulted in a more fruity aroma.

Comparison of Barrel- and Stainless Steel-Fermented White Wines
According to Ibern-Gomez, et al., "wines fermented in wood barrels are distinguished by the cession of oak wood compounds to the wine." The figure below shows the phenolic compounds found in wine fermented in oak barrels.

Further, the authors compared control wines fermented in stainless steel to wines fermented in oak barrels and noted the following differences:
  • Total phenolic content was higher for white wines fermented in oak barrels than for wines fermented in stainless steel tanks
  • New phenolic compounds which are characteristic of oak wood (syringaldehyde, coniferaldehyde, sinapinaldehyde, scopoletin, 4-ethyl-guaicol, and eugenol (the latter two being volatile phenols)) were found in the white wines fermented in oak
  • The gallic acid and 4-vinylguaiacol increased in white wines fermented in oak
  • Browning in oak wood white wines was higher than for stainless steel white wines.
  • Furfural, 5-methylfurfural, and furfuryl alcohol from thermal degradation of cellulose and hemicellulose were found in the white wines fermented in oak.
As it relates to sensorial analyses, the following was reported:
  • Tasters described white wines fermented in oak as having golden hues
  • White wines fermented in oak were described as having toasty and spicy aromas
    • Probably due to the 4-ethyl-guaiacol and eugenol
  • Tasters also described a coconut aroma for the barrel fermented wines
    • Probably due to the cis-β-methyl-γ-octalactone detected.
While the process described herein is identified as being associated with oak fermented and aged white wines, it is not exclusive, in its entirety, to that style of wine. For example, a wine fermented in stainless steel could also be subjected to malolactic fermentation and lees residence in the tank or could have those two procedures completed in oak barrels and subsequent aging in same.

*M. Ibern-Gomez, et al., Differences in Phenolic Profile between Oak Wood and Stainless Steel Fermentation in White Wines, Am. J, Enol. Vitic, 52:2 (2001).

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A visit to Pietradolce Winery (Solicchiata, Mt Etna, Sicily)

“A model small estate making top-level, authentically regional wines from mostly old vines, including several pre-phylloxera parcels. Michele Faro’s grandfather grew grapes and made wine on Etna, and some of the oldest parcels were in family hands, so he got off to a running start in 2005.” Thusly was Pietradolce described in John Szabo’s Volcanic Wines. With this full-throated endorsement of the Pietradolce estate and wines, I was anxious to pay them a visit. Sensing my urgency during our pre-trip communications, Brandon arranged for me to go directly from the airport (after an overnight, intercontinental flight) to the estate in Solicchiata.

After a great “catch-up” ride, we arrived at the Pietradolce (“sweet stone”) estate. The winery building dominates the zone, appearing as an oversized lava terrace overseeing the smaller terraces that fell away before it. We were met in the driveway between the vineyards by Giuseppe Parlavecchio, the vineyard manager, who, after the introductions were made, proposed that we go walk in the vineyard. I agreed. I needed to keep walking to stay awake.

The estate sits on 11 ha that is subdivided into three vineyard plots (two of the plots fall within the Rampante Contrada while the other is in Zottorinoto. The location experiences cool nights, warm days, and a 20-degree day night temperature variance (Such variances are widely held to be beneficial to grape quality.). The area is also subject to steady winds flowing over the Nebrodi Mountains and they serve to keep the vineyard, which faces in that direction, relatively free of vineyard diseases (2015 was a very difficult year in that they experienced higher-than-normal rainfall). 

The soil is comprised of a stony, light sandy loam infused with a bounty of minerals. According to Giuseppe, the soil is very rocky up to depths of 2 - 3 meters over the entirety of the property.

The  vineyard follows the natural lay of the land. Because of the amount of stone that had to be removed during vineyard establishment, they opted for two large terraces, rather than a larger number of smaller terraces. 

The vineyard is farmed organically. Vine training is a mix of albarello (legacy and youngest vines) and espalier. Albarello is cropped shorter here than on other Etna estates. The estate’s position is that albarello affords the best expression of Etna wines in that it forces the roots to dig deep in search of nutrients and water.

The lowest vineyard is laid out between 600 and 800 meters and is simply called Pietradolce. It is planted 4000 vines/ha to Carricante (2.5 ha) and Nerello Mascalese (0.5 ha). The Archineri cru is 2.5 ha in size and is home to 70-year-old Nerello Mascales vines. The Barbagalli vineyard is the highest of the vineyards (900 m) and is populated with 80 - 100-year-old Nerello Mascalese vines.

The estate’s first vintage was the 2007 Archineri — a total of 300 bottles — followed by the Barbagalli in 2010 and the Rosato and Etna Bianco in 2011. The white wine is subjected to a lengthy maceration. The reds are fermented/macerated over 20 days in 500 - 700 hl barrels and then undergo a natural malolactic fermentation. Entry-level wines are aged for 3 months while the more complex wines are aged between 14 and 20 months.

The Pietradolce Etna Rosato 2010 is a Nerello Mascalese wine which saw no maceration. Perfumed cherry nose along with spice and butterscotch. Focused, with great acidity and a lengthy finish. Slight yeastiness attributable to lees with no battonage. Beautiful wine. 9000 - 10,000 bottles per year.

The Etna Rosso 2015 is a 100% Nerello Mascalese which spends 3 months in wood. Cherry, spice, aggressive tannins and searing acidity. Great attack and mid-palate with reticence on the finish. 10,000 - 11,000 bottles.

The Archineri 2014 spent 14 months in wood and 6 months in bottle. Pine notes, dried bramble, tar, and mahagony on the nose. Mint, green herbs, silky tannins on the palate. Balanced. 7000 bottles.

Archineri 2010 showed spice, polished wood, caramel, sweet tobacco, and burnt orange. Cigar and leather on the palate. Lengthy finish.

We did not taste the white on this visit, a gap which I intend to address in the near future. Overall I was pleased with the wines on offer and especially so with the Rosato.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Wine styles: Skin-contact whites

In this series on white wine styles, I have treated Champagne and Sparkling wines, reductive wines, and wines made utilizing the process of hyperoxidation. In this post I cover skin-contact white wines.

Skin-contact white wines are recognized by a combination of their residence on the early part of the orange color spectrum, their earthy flavors, and enhanced mouthfeel. These characteristics are the result of macerating the skin of crushed and de-stemmed white grapes in their own juice (i) prior to pressing and (ii) under controlled time and temperature conditions (The procedure is generally carried out under cool conditions in order to limit the growth of spoilage organisms.).

While white juice fermented on their skins are, obviously, in contact with those skins, we differentiate those wines from the ones treated in this post both on the basis of time -- skin contact wines are macerated for between 2 and 24 hours while the fermented-on-skin wine is macerated for weeks to months -- and phase within the production process -- skin contact is a pre-fermentation process while its compatriot extends beyond that to fermentation and, in many cases, maturation.

Maceration refers to the release of constituents from the pomace following crushing and is facilitated by "the liberation and activation of hydrolytic enzymes from crushed cells." Substances extracted include: aromatic compounds, aromatic precursors, phenols and polyphenols, unsaturated lipids, nitrogen, and potassium. At high enough levels, these extractives will produce earthy flavors and enhanced mouthfeel in the wines and will contribute positively to the fermentation processes. The best results are obtained from fully ripe, aromatic grape varieties such as Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Muscat, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc.

What is the makeup of the grape berry skin and what role do the constituent parts play in the makeup of a skin-contact white wine? The berry skin consists of an outer layer with a wax-like coating (cuticle) and 6 to 10 layers of thick-walled cells (hypodermis) which accumulate phenolic compounds in fairly high concentrations as the berry matures (Dharmadhikari, McGlynn). The main components of the skin are phenols, aromatic substances, potassium, and other minerals.

Phenolic compounds are:
  • Responsible for the color of red grapes and wine
  • Involved in the oxidative browning of white wines
  • Contributors to taste and astringency through interactions with salivary proteins.
The two major classes of wine phenolic compounds are flavonoids (defined by a C6-C3-C6 skeleton consisting of two phenolic rings joined by a central, oxygen-containing ring -- Jackson) and nonflavonoids (possessing a C6-C1 or C6-C3 skeleton; all numbers following "C" are subscripts). The sources and roles of the phenolic compounds falling into these two classes are illustrated in the figure below and the relative concentrations of selected classes are provided in the table following.

Table 1. Generalized concentration of various phenolic compounds
present in wine
PhenolicWhite Wine (mg/L)Light Red Wine (mg/L)Full Red Wine (mg/L)
Hydroxycinnamic acids
Other nonflavonoids
Polymeric catechins
Source: Kennedy, et al., Grape and wine phenolics: History and perspective,
AJEV, 57(3), September 2006.

Skin contact increases the amount of hydroxycinnamates, gallic acids, and flavonoids. Flavonoids increase slightly with contact time but strongly with temperature. These compounds are of concern because they contribute to bitterness and astringency and also serve as substrates for oxidation in white wines. While there are elevated levels of astringency in skin-contact white wines, they are nowhere near as high as in red wines. First, even though tannin is extracted from the skin of the white grape, the lack of anthocyanins means that only tannin-tannin bonds are formed, a combination that is less soluble in alcohol. Second, during fermentation, most of the tannin will precipitate out, thus limiting its ability to negatively impact the wine's sensory characteristics.

Aromatic Substances
Aromatic substances are located in the skin and layers of cells immediately below it. Examples of these compounds include (Dharmadhikari):
  • 2-methoxy-3-isobutyl pyrazine -- imparts bell pepper odors to Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc
  • 4-vinylguaiacol and 4-vinylphenol -- spicy, clove-like, and medicinal odors in some Gewurtztraminers
  • Terpenes -- can be found in Muscats and Rieslings.
Fermentation Benefits
While winemakers do not pursue skin-contact because of the benefits that it provides to the fermentation process, they gladly accept what is offered. Maceration (Jackson):
  • Improves juice fermentability and enhances yeast viability through its release of particulate matter, lipids, and soluble nitrogen compounds into the juice
    • Particulate matter provides surfaces for yeast and bacterial growth, adsorption of nutrients, the binding of toxic C10 and C12 carboxylic fatty acids, and the escape of CO₂
  • Improves the production of extra-cellular mannoproteins formed during alcoholic fermentation
    • When combined with reduced concentrations of carboxylic acid, facilitates malolactic fermentation by Oenococcus oeni.
When contrasted with a more traditional white wine, a skin-contact wine may exhibit lower levels of fruitiness and acidity. In addition, the familiar characteristics of your favorite varietal may be hidden behind a spicy character that may now be present.

Murli Dharmadhikari, Composition of Grapes,
Ron Jackson, Wine Science, Academic Press.
William McGlynn, Basic Grape Berry Structure, April 15, 2012,
Tim Patterson, White Wine Skin Contact, August/September 2013,
Nicola Tazzini, Polyphenols in Grape and Wines: Chemical Composition and Biological Activities, August 9, 2015,

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The wines of Salvo Foti

Salvo Foti decries the use of the words "natural wine." There is no "all natural" wine he says. "It is a marketing ploy" as vines left to their own designs would seek to maximize reproducibility rather than great winemaking fruit. The wine grape is a human contrivance and there is nothing natural about that.

Yet, if one were to consider the natural-wine bucket in today's winemaking arena, Salvo Foti is as natural as they come. I have previously discussed his traditional, low-impact, sustainable farming practices built on respect for the land and the people who work it. And that philosophy, and those practices, extend into the cellar.

If the laws allowed it, Salvo would make all his wines using the traditional Palmento (he owns a functioning Palmento on the Vigna Caselle property) but, lacking that option, he ferments instead in oak vats using indigenous yeasts and no temperature control (By the time of crush, temperature on the mountain is cold enough to allow that practice without unduly stressing the yeasts and resulting in the production of off-odors or stuck or sluggish fermentations.). Wines are never filtered and minimal SO₂ is used at bottling. Wines are racked and bottled according to the phases of the moon.

After our lengthy promenade among the vines, and being subjected to hundreds of Lidia's must-have picture compositions, we made our way down the hill and across the street to the Palmento in Vigna Caselle. We stepped through the small entry door and negotiated a catwalk-type structure to the crushpad where a table and chairs resided conference-room style. And it was here that we were treated to Salvo's wines and the philosophies and practices that I reported on in previous posts.

Salvo Foti and Author (Picture credit Lidia Rizzo)

In this post I report on Salvo's wines. The tasting group was comprised of Salvo, his son Simone, Brandon Tokash, Lidia Rizzo, a female winemaker, and the author. From time to time visitors would pass through to greet Salvo and he would have to take a small break to go acknowledge them.

I Vigneri vineyards around Mt. Etna (Source: Salvo Foti)

We started out with a 2014 Aurora Etna Bianco Superiore, a blend of 90% Carricante and 10% Minella. This wine was made from grapes sourced from the 5-ha, 5-year-old Caselle Vineyard. Slate, salinity, and eye-popping acidity. Salvo mentioned that this bottle had been opened for a week and offered to open a new one for comparison purposes. We did not object. The new bottle exhibited the same characteristics but with greater freshness. 6500 bottles.

The second wine tasted was the 2014 Vinudilice, made with grapes sourced from Vigna Bosco, a vineyard nestled within the depths of a holly oak forest 1300 meters up. This vineyard lays claim to being the highest in Europe.

100+-year-old vines in Vigna Bosco (Photo courtesy of
Sarah May Grunwald. Used with permission)
The varieties planted here are Alicante, Grecanico, Minella, plus some other unidentified varieties. They are co-vinified to produce a field-blend Rosato. The wines are matured in old oak casks and concrete.

The coloration on this wine was slight. It yielded subtle red fruit on the nose and a density, coupled with freshness and a mineral complexity, on the palate. This is not your grandfather's Rosato. 2,500 bottles.

In addition to the Rosato, we were also treated to a 2014 Vinudilice Metodo Classico. This sparkling wine was stunning but, unfortunately, it is not made every year. This is without a doubt the best sparkling wine I have tasted on the mountain to date and I have not been so excited about a non-Champagne sparkling wine since I tasted the Xinomavro-based Karanika. Fresh and attention-grabbing. Mouth-filling mousse and great persistence. The world deserves to see more of this wine.

Vigna di Milo 2014 is a 100% Carricante Etna Bianco Superiore sourced from a 0.15-ha vineyard located at 950 m asl and planted to 10,000 vines/ha. The wine is matured for one year in stainless steel and then racked into large wooden barrels for further refinement. This wine was fresh to go along with a salinity and slatey minerality. 2500 bottles.

Vinupetra 2014 is an Etna DOC red wine produced from grapes grown in a 0.5-ha plot in the Calderara vineyards of the Feudo di Mezzo district on the mountain's north face. The varieties included in the blend are Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Alicante, and Francisis. The vines here are in excess of 100 years old and are planted albarello style and at 10,000 vines/ha. This wine had a perfumed nose with plum and cherry notes accompanying spice and sweet vanilla aromas. Focused, with a lengthy finish. This wine was pleasing. 3500 bottles produced annually.

In addition to the wines shown above, Salvo produces two other wines (not a part of this tasting). The first is a white made from Carricante, Rhine Riesling, Grecanico, and Minella grown in a 0.4-ha plot in the Nave Vineyard (1200 m asl) in the Agro di Bronte district. These bush vines were planted 10,000 vines/ha in 2005. The wine is bottled under the Vinjancu label.

The second wine is the I Vigneri Etna DOC which is produced from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes given to the cultivators by vineyard owners to make wine for their personal consumption. This wine is fermented in a Palmento and sees no wood during the maturation process. Four thousand bottles of this wine are produced annually.

As an overall observation, each of the wines tasted was of extremely high quality and fully representative of its place. For the Carricante wines, salinity, acidity, and minerality were not in short supply. I remain blown away by the Vindilice Metodo Classico.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Aeris Vineyard: An Etna joint venture between Salvo Foti and Kevin Harvey of Rhys Vineyard

A visit with Salvo Foti was the first thing on our Saturday morning agenda so Brandon picked me up in Linguaglossa bright and early in the morning for our trip out to our meeting point at Vigna Caselle, just west of Milo.

We arrived at our destination and turned left into a driveway with a locked gate. Brandon got out and examined the gate which appeared to be latched from the inside. He walked around to the other side of the building but there was no automobile access from that side. There were no signs of humanity so he opened the gate and we drove on into the compound. We looked around, calling out all along, but raised no one. Brandon got on the phone and called Salvo and, lo and behold, they were in the vineyard across the street, half a mile away and 50 meters up.

As I came to find out later, we were in Vigna Caselle, a Salvo Foti property, while they were in Vigna Aeris, the Salvo Foti - Kevin Harvey joint venture. The two properties are separated by a street. We started out in their direction, lifting a pound of volcanic sand with each step, but an exit point from our enclosure was not readily apparent. The view of the volcano was spectacular though.

So we placed another call to Salvo and he said ok, they would come down to us. Brandon is not a guy who can sit still, however, so he continued to poke around and eventually found a gate which provided egress. We crossed over into the Aeris vineyard and met up with the group coming down.

The group was comprised of two men and a woman. As introductions were made, it turned out that the older gentleman was the famed Salvo Foti, the younger was his son Simone. The woman was a visiting winemaker from mainland Italy (or, as the Mt Etneans say, Italy). As the group had completed their circuit of the vineyard, it wad agreed that Salvo would continue on to the Palmento to taste his wines with the winemaker while Simone would show us the vineyard.

The vineyard is 3 ha in size, rising from 800 m at its lowest point to 850 m at the top, and was planted to 20,000 albarello-trained Carricante vines in 2013. This vineyard, as explained by Salvo, lies between the mountain and the sea and the warm air from the latter meets with the cold air from the former over Milo with the result being significant rainfall over the entire growing area. Red grapes do not ripen here. In addition to the rain, growers have to contend with year-round winds which can attain speeds of as much as 50 miles/hour.

There are beneficial aspects to the winds however. Moisture dries out rapidly, keeping vine diseases at bay. As a result, the vineyard makes it through the growing season with only sulfur and copper sprays. In addition, the sea and wind combine to imbue the Carricante grown on this side of the mountain with a saltiness that is not evident in Carricantes grown on the north face.

The soil is sandy and of volcanic origin with a substantial portion of ripiddu (lapilli and eruptive pumice) intermixed with red soils from the Sahara Desert deposited here by the aforementioned winds. The sandy soils drain rapidly, forcing the roots to dig deep in search of moisture and nutrients. A soil profile of the vineyard is shown in the image below.

Aeris soil profile
Foti works this vineyard according to I Vigneri principles. The vines are planted high-density in a quincunx formation with chestnut staves for support. The Quincunx planting system is, essentially, a square planting system with a fifth plant in the center.

Quincunx planting system (
As described in
In viticulture, the quincunx is a planting pattern: the vines, trained as bushes, are arranged in staggered rows that repeat the lines hinted at in the quincunx. It was the favorite system of the ancient era, because at the same time it met the requirements of order, efficient use of the space and aesthetics: the vineyard looks symmetric regardless of the terrains shape.
It is a way of doing viticulture that is very expensive in terms of energy and economic resources: machinery, in fact, can only be employed to a limited extent. Furthermnore, to grow and maintain a healthy bush vineyard planted in the quincunx pattern, it is essential that the growers have a long experience in the area where they operate. 
According to Salvo, in the original system there was a middle plant (in the Sicilian dialect called "o francisco") but now they no longer place a plant in the middle, but when they make the alignment, they still mark the spot. So, essentially, they have a square planting system with a marker in the middle for esthetic purposes. The diagram below, provided by Salvo, illustrates his point.

The field is worked by hand on the slopes while a small tractor aids in the process on the flatter portions. Lavic stone terraces have been built to ensure that the soils are not washed away by rainfall.

Lavic stone terraces

There is no irrigation and no fertilizers or pesticides are used. The vines are green-pruned in June.

Halfway through our walk we were joined by Lidia Rizzo who lent her formidable expertise to the discussion in the vineyard and the tasting which followed. I will detail that tasting in a follow-up post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Salvo Foti, the pillar of tradition in Mt Etna winegrowing

For most of it lengthy vinous history, the Mt Etna region has utilized the albarello training system as the foundation of its viticultural regime. This system reigned supreme until growers turned to the Guyot and speranato cordone (cordon spur) systems in the early and middle portions of the 20th century. As explained to me by Salvo Foti during a recent conversation, if you went back 20 years, most new plantings were Guyot, as growers pursued the perceived benefits of mechanization and increased yields. As a result, he said, we (the Etna growers) have lost our patrimonial history. But now things are looking up, he continued, as small producers are going back to albarello for new plantings.

Viticulture on the mountain is a mix of the traditional and these "newer" training systems and associated practices. There is no fiercer proponent and advocate of the traditional approach than the aforementioned Salvo Foti.  I provide some insight into Mr Foti's philosophy and practices in this post.

In their seminal work on Sicilian wine (The World of Sicilian Wine), Nesto and di Savino describe the subject thusly: "Salvo Foti stands out, by himself, as Sicily's greatest homegrown consulting enologist ..." who "... more than any other person, ... has fostered an awareness of (Etna's) unique wine culture."

Salvo Foti with Lidia Rizzo, Contrada Caselle
According to Nesto and di Savino, Foti's grandparents owned vineyards on the slopes of Etna. Salvo gained a technical degree in enology on the 1980s and began consulting work with a number of producers in Sicily. He continued his studies and eventually received a specialized degree in enology from the University of Catania. When Giuseppe Benanti made the commitment to the production of high-quality wine on Etna, he turned to the young Foti to work with him on the needed experiments. Foti was Benanti's enologist until they parted ways in 2011.

In his writings (Foti has written a couple of books and a number of pamphlets on wine-related topics), Foti draws a sharp contrast between "producing Etna wines" and "making wine on Etna." Producing an Etna wine results in a product that "captures the essence of the land, the environment, and the people;" requires a winemaker who is "committed to improving and preserving the land where she or he operates," and a vineyard that is ...
in harmony with the terroir, is naturally integrated with the Etna volcano and is expressed in vertical: lives and grows upwards (leaves and shoots to the sky, in lavic stone terraces) and down in the depth (roots), in opposite directions but complementary between them (Salvo Foti, Applied Viticulture, Book 4, The Etnean Palmento: the traditional vinification).
Foti's core mission, as described by Nesto and di Savino, is:
  • Protection of the land
  • Preservation of albarello viticulture
  • Cultivation of indigenous vine varieties
  • Emphasizing the humanity of the grower
  • Conservation of Sicilian culture.
His key viticultural principles are:
  • The use of the albarello training system
  • Dense vine spacing
  • Avoidance of systemic sprays and synthetic soil additives
  • Chestnut poles for vine support.
Foti's key principles on display at Aeris Vineyard

In Foti's view (expressed in my conversation with him), albarello is perfect for grape maturity: (i) the leaves cover the grapes, affording protection from the sun's direct rays and (ii) it affords the capability of working around the vine. He is not a big fan of non-albarello training systems (Foti, The Verticality of Etna):
In the Etna, the vineyard cultivated in the horizontal way (destruction of the terraces to make flat the land, cultivation of the vineyards in the espalier system) is a forcing system for the vine, intended only for the mechanization and for the quantity. 
Foti has been very proactive in disseminating his thoughts and practices:
  • I previously mentioned the books and pamphlets
  • Salvo has formed an organization called I Vigneri which is comprised of like-minded grape growers and producers operating in Etna and eastern Sicily. In addition to work on their personal properties (if so endowed), members of the organization are available to work the vineyards of clients, all work based on the I Vigneri principles.
  • He has guided new Etna winemakers, such as Ciro Biondi and Alice Bonaccorsi, and has served as consultant to Edomé, Romeo del Castello, and Il Cantante, among others.
  • Salvo's work on Pietra Marina caught the eye of Kevin Harvey of US-based Rhys Vineyards and they eventually entered into a partnership to grow Carricante grapes at the Aeris Vineyard in Contrada Caselle. But that is not the end of the story. Salvo is also planting a Carricante vineyard for Harvey in California, using I Vigneri practices and personnel.
In our conversation Salvo emphasized that his focus was on respect for the people and the environment. In the Mt Etna region they have been doing the same thing for over 200 years. The viticulture and the people have evolved together and he sees no reason to change that dynamic. He feels strongly that he has a responsibility to the people and the native varieties of the region to ensure their continuity.

And that continuity extends to his farming and management of the land. His grandfather and father worked Carricante. He is farming the way they did. They passed the practices and principles on to him and he is passing it on to his son Simone. And hopefully Simone will pass it on to his son. Continuity.

Foti with his son Simone

Simone, Salvo, Lidia Rizzo, and Brandon Tokash

Salvo Foti and author (Photo credit Lidia Rizzo)

Foti is a quiet and soft-spoken man. At least those were the characteristics that he projected during the course of our meeting. But he also impressed as being extremely knowledgeable, having a strong sense of self, commitment to a set of ideals, and intensity of purpose. Albarello could not have happened upon a stronger proponent.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The major Etna DOC grape varieties

The Etna DOC has established the following wine and labeling requirements:
  • Etna DOC Rosso -- to be made from the indigenous varieties Nerello Mascalese (> 80%) and Nerello Cappuccio (< 20%) plus up to 10% of other non-aromatic grape varieties (red or white)
  • Etna DOC Rosato -- same as for Rosso
  • Etna DOC Bianco -- to be made from Carricante (> 60%), Catarratto (< 40%), and up to 15% of other non-aromatic grapes such as Minella or Trebbiano
  • Etna DOC Bianco Superiore -- to be made from Carricante (> 80%) and Catarratto or Minnella (< 20%). All grapes to be sourced exclusively from the area of Milo on the eastern side of the volcano.
I continue to flesh out my understanding of the Etna DOC viticultural  environment with the following post on the main grape varieties included in the DOC specification.

White Varieties
Carricante is an ancient white variety -- prevalent on Mt Etna's eastern face -- that yields low-potassium, low-pH, high acidity wines ( The bunches are of average length at ripening, with medium-sized berries of a green-yellowish color.

Carricante (
Frank Cornelissen, one of the leading winemakers on the mountain, has historically viewed the variety as too acidic to produce world-class wine. Ian d'Agata, author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy, on the other hand, is quoted in Szabo's Volcanic Wines thusly: "potentially one of Italy's greatest cultivars ..." that "... when properly tended to, yields wines of great longevity and intense mineral character."

According to Salvo Foti, long-famed viticulturist, Carricante vines have to be somewhere between 10- and 15-years old in order to begin giving great concentration. Salvo said that both his father and grandfather worked Carricante and the wine's high acidity was extremely important in the days before widespread access to refrigeration. The wine is also great for raw fish, the main dish in the area.

There is a saltiness in the east side Carricante that is lacking in wines made from grapes grown on the north side of the mountain. For Salvo, typicity is the key; and he sees Carricante as the grape for this place.

There are some 100% Carricante wines on the market but the grape is usually the primary varietal in an Etna DOC wine. It is also used, at lower elevations, to lighten the color and body of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappucchio blends.

Catarratto is a high-yielding, low-acidity Sicilian grape variety. It is the main grape used in the production of Marsala but on Etna is primarily blended with Carricante. There are two clones -- Commune and Lucido -- with the former having more acid and less sugar than the latter as well as being the clone of choice on the mountain.

Catarratto (
Catarratto does not engender as much discussion on the mountain as does Carricante.

Minnella is a white-berry vine that is indigenous to Etna where it is mostly found in old vineyards interplanted with Nerello Mascalese and Carricante. This is an early ripening variety.

Nerello Mascalese
Nerello Mascalese is the most important variety on Mt Etna. In older vineyards in can be found interplanted with Nerello Cappucchio while newer plantings position these varieties into separate rows or blocks to facilitate cellar rather than field blends.

Nerello Mascalese (
The vine is vigorous and is readily affected by:
  • Vintage conditions
  • Cultivation area
  • Training system
  • Density
  • Cultural practices.
The wines from the variety are mildly sweet and "distinctively tannic." Szabo compares it to Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo both in color and the ability to reflect even minor variations in terroir.

Benanti sees the best training system for the variety as follows:
  • Free standing bush with 2 - 3 branches per tree
  • High vine density -- 6000 - 9000 vines /ha
  • Spacing of 1 x 1 or 1.25 x 1.25.
Nerello Cappuccio
This variety's medium-to-small-sized bunches and medium-sized grapes produce wines with good acid and tannin levels. The variety buds and ripens earlier than Nerello Mascalese with the former characteristic bringing the negative effects of late spring frosts into play.

Used primarily in a blend with Nerello Mascalese, this grape brings color and perfume to the blend as well as serving to soften up some of the harder edges of its partner.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme