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Salvo Foti, the messiah of Sicilian wines

We can imagine Salvo Foti chasing the merchants away from the temple. "The problem in Sicily is that some people want to make too much money too" he confesses.

That August morning, we walk in the heart of the Sicilian Burgundy, in Solicchiata, on the northern slopes of Etna. These centenarian vineyards give birth to the huge Vinupetra - probably the greatest red wine of the island. Salvo is grumbling against the workers coming from Eastern Europe and against the big companies which hired them. Few qualifications and no knowledge of the soil : these are two "qualities" for these firms which want pay all them as little as possible.

Then he rails against excessive mechanization that killed terracing - which is still the basis of the Mediterranean culture. And above all, Salvo goes after the international varieties and their wanted high yield - what killed the "gobelet" cultural method, or arbarello as they say in this part of Sicily. Greeks and Romans popularized this method but the profit race has almost done away with this tradition.

Yet Arbarello is the love of Salvo's life. It's pretty, it grows right on stakes. He explains. "The worst enemy of the grape is the shadow, the best friend of the grape is the sun, as my grandfather say. When you make it rise vertically, the vine is standing and faces the sun. When you make it rise horizontally, it sits and breathes badly. It's like a man ... " But the automatic machines prefer a horizontal vine. You can spare time, and money...

But Salvo Foti disagrees. A few years ago he discovered that Arbarello was the pillar of a maestranza dei Vigneri founded in 1435 in Catania. This winegrowers association had defined a precise specifications for the cultivation and winemaking in the Etna area.

Over 500 years later Salvo Foti has decided to revive the association simply called i Vigneri. Its symbol? A "gobelet"-cut vine...

Salvo means "I save" in Italian. This can not be invented.

Around him he gathered friends in a club of wineries and workers from Lipari to Pachino who share the same philosophy of wine : an Arbarello culture and minimal intervention in the vineyard and in the winery.

And if I buy a vineyard here and if I ask to work with i Vigneri? Yes, it is possible Salvo replied but we feel reserve. He is right, I would make a poor wine... He wants me to understand that i Vigneri are friends who work together in the vineyards and in the main structures (building dry stone walls, houses...). A real community.

Salvo Foti operates in some specific plots and bottled the wines as i Vigneri "brand". The winemakers are also able to bottle their own production in a i Vigneri-sealed bottle but with their own labels.

So we crossed Vinupetra for real, behind this fence. Salvo's tired of being vandalized or even being robbed for plants to regrow elsewhere.

Tasted two hours later, the 2012 vintage is a loving Sicilian red. Nerello mascalese (a kind of local pinot noir), Nerello Cappuccio and Grenache (Alicante). Although too young to express himselves fully, it has already a huge class.

Let's go to a splendid rosé - we didn't wait for it... Salvo takes us closer to the heart of Etna, in a plot at 1300 meters high (Vinupetra was at 700 meters) near the crater. To get there  you have to slalom between the lava flows that are the same age as me, 34... It's also Jeus age at his death, pretty much.

Here is the famous plot called Vinudilice (for the Sicilian oaks, those around the plot. It's a white Blend (Minella, Grecanico and other stuff that even Salvo does not know) and Grenache that gives its color. No SO2. This is a sensational wine. Those who have seen these vines are familiar with this feeling of fullness.

At the foot of the always cloudy Mount Etna we feel calm and once again feel it when you taste the wine in the glass. Never thought we would make a wine here in this remote corner... Thought it was only for trees ... and regularly damaged by lava flows. But Salvo was evasive on the issue. "Living on the slopes of Etna, the risk of life." While lava flows at specific locations, one is never immune. This Vinudilice 2014, is the hermit in the desert and the Beatitudes.

This is the true color of the wine, Photoshop has not being used...

Each plot has so much an identity, a history, a soil, a grape variety... a particular terroir that inevitably each wine tells something else. Take the car for an hour, the time to drive along the crater of Mount Etna in the storm. "Because of global warming, storms are there earlier in the year."

Direction Milo, eastern side of Etna. Here ht king is the famous white grape catarratto - that gives birth to the most addictive wines of the island in my opinion. Next to Salvo's house, a land ebony : he has planted vineyards for his son. "Preparing for the future is a respect for the land and people."

On this picture we understand very well the arbarello growing method. I understand because I'm here... Salvo agrees. "I do not work with wine merchants or importers who do not come to see the vineyards." We must see to believe.

Further, grow the grapes that give life to this Aurora, 2013, the "little" white with a majority of catarratto and a zest of Minella. The wine is named after a Etnean endangered butterfly.

These wines make us think about Eric Callcut's wines - in a totally different style of course. But as we said, what a talent ! That is to say : only mastery and sudden whim can produce such great wines ...

Without much added sulfur or sulfur-free methods, it is possible that the i Vigneri wines experienced oxidation phases. This is what makes the wine living. "People do not understand oxidation because they are used to the Coca-Cola", Salvo says.

Salvo receives us at his table, as buddies. That is to say, those with whom you share the bread. But also his sublime pasta and olive oil.

(Salvo Foti's olive oil and wine : I had first unearthed them at RAP in Paris. They are still there). 

The i Vigneri palmento is in Milo too. Here is the typical winery of Etna. Imagine a house built on the slopes of the volcano: the grapes are brought through the attic, you work on the first floor and take the wine from the ground floor. This ancient tradition is attacked by the European Union for safety reasons... Italy follows the rule : now it's forbidden to vinify in palmento. i Vigneri Etna red wine is banned from sale in Italy... They are often very drinkable cuvées but regarding Salvo's one, you can add the word "smart" to the word "drinkable".

I'm sure that all these considerations about grape growing and winemaking on Etna are universal. If you do not sell your identity, you will make good wine. Simply, as I said, you need a control and a touch of madness. And intransigence. Salvo still rattle on this Etna appellation - too wide to him. "We must make the difference between an Etnean wine and a wine produced on Mount Etna. For example the town of Giarre in the valley has the Etna appellation but terroirs have nothing to do with wines made in the slopes of the volcano. "

Thus says Salvo, the man who raised the Arbarello... The winemaking traditions against the robots. 

And then we stopped on the way back to Solicchiata.

There are days like this ...

 

"The surest pagan, atheist the most honest,
to let go sometimes to believe in God."
Brassens, La Religieuse

 

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