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

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