Searching for the best way to make pure, terroir-driven wines, a few brave producers in Italy have traded in their temperature-controlled stainless steel fermenting tanks and wooden vats for clay amphorae. For thousands of years, terracotta containers – called by various names in Italian including anfore, orci and giare – were the only option available to early winemakers when they transformed grape juice into wine. Originating in the Caucasus in Georgia – the area credited as the birthplace of wine some 6,000 years ago – these large ceramic jars are still used in the region today.
Due to politics (it was part of the Soviet Union until 1991) and years of civil unrest, Georgia’s amphora wines remained virtually unknown to the rest of the world until the turn of the new century, when Italian winemaker Josko Gravner visited the area and brought some of clay vessels, known as qvevri back to Italy.
Today a small but growing number of producers from Italy and around the world have adopted amphorae of varying sizes and origins. For most converts, amphorae are the natural progression of a holistic approach to winemaking that includes eschewing harsh chemicals in the vineyards and a non-interventionist approach in the cellars. Winemakers who have switched to amphorae say the vessels allow them to produce the purest expression of their grapes and vineyard areas.
From beguiling honeyed whites to earthy reds boasting radiant fruit purity, you’ll never forget a wine vinified in amphorae.
A young trio who started making wine during a long summer break, spurred a viticultural renaissance in southeastern Sicily. Kerin O’Keefe reports.
Hanging around waiting for the university term to commence in 1980, friends Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Cirino Strano came up with an unusual project to fill their vacation: using a small vineyard and abandoned cellars owned by Cilia’s father on the island of Sicily, they decided to resurrect a local winemaking tradition.
At the time, they had no idea they were embarking on an adventure that would not only change their lives, but also the destiny of an entire denomination.
Once infamous for making industrial quantities of concentrated musts and uninspiring sweet wines, Sicily is fast shaking off its bulk-wine and sticky Marsala image. Kerin O’Keefe identifies the island’s best growing areas and the dynamic estates that are transforming its reputation.
Photography by Paolo Tenti
Thanks to almost ideal growing conditions and a patrimony of unique native grapes, Sicily’s once stagnant wine scene is undergoing a much deserved quality renaissance. Now a wellspring of experimentation and investment, the largest island in the Mediterranean is quickly becoming Italy’s most exciting wine-producing region, as winemakers discover the island’s ancient grapes and classic growing areas.
Though the recent past was devoted to industrial-quantity winemaking, the future is focused on top-quality wines of relatively good value that are both modern and indisputably Sicilian. Sprinkled with ancient Greek temples and Norman cathedrals built by former invaders, Sicily has long been a land of contradictions, and this is especially evident in its flourishing wine sector, where new boutique wineries can be found alongside sprawling cooperatives the size of oil refineries. Even though Sicily is no longer merely a vast reservoir of grapes and concentrated must, the island’s determined drive toward quality is hindered by its steadfast image as a bulk-wine producer.
Its lingering reputation is not groundless: Sicily remains one of Italy’s most prolific wine-producing regions, with as much land under vine as all of Australia and more than double that of Piedmont or Tuscany. Surprisingly, only 17 percent of Sicily’s massive output is bottled on the island, and only 3 percent of this is under Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) appellation system. The island remains a leading producer of strong grape must (vino da taglio), which is covertly used by many northern producers to give their more delicate wines an injection of southern muscle, while the brunt of the harvest, of dubious quality, is still sold in bulk or distilled. But side by side with these dismal remnants of mass production, dynamic winemakers have carefully revived ancient grapes and are now making some of Italy’s most innovative wines.