In this interview and tasting, I speak with Stefano Girelli, owner of two estates Santa Tresa and Cortese, in the southern part of the Sicily, Vittoria. We discuss the island’s potential for organic produce and why it is so exciting as a 21st-century wine producer.
Today, as the southern gateway into Europe, Sicily is both vibrantly awake and celebrating its wealth of flavours and human activity, coupled with the tense interplay of colours that range from Etna’s volcanic displays to the blindingly pure azure.
Stefano Girelli: ’About 20-25 years ago I went to Sicily and it was like love at first sight.’
‘Vittoria is is in the deep south part of Sicily, south of Regusa, and if you look on the map you will see that Tunis, is north of us! Why did I fall in love? The answer is very simple. In that area you find a unique soil called Terra Rosa or faretti, which is really sandy and gives you an incredible structure. It gives you some really fine and elegant wine.’
‘My perception before going to Vittoria was that all the wines from the south were big, bold with a lot of muscle and of alcohol. Actually from Vittoria you get wines that really elegant with fruity nose and less structure but much more drinkable and enjoyable.’
Santa Tresa, Rina Russa, Frappato - Organic Wine
Incredibly elegant, beautiful fruit and herbaceous aromas. Extremely fine tannin.
Stefano Girelli: ‘That was one of the most difficult grape varieties to grow. Frappato is indigenous to Vittoria and what we found at the estate had been grown here for many many years.
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This is something you can’t fix in the winery. It is something that if you do the work in the vineyards properly, from the harvest to the right yield, to the right number of vines per hectare, you actually balance off all the production of the right fruit which will give you wine of this quality.’
Sustainability and organic production
‘We have two estates, one is Cortese and the other is Santa Tresa. I am paranoiac about organic, I have always thought it is the future. We have been 20 years now organic.
People said 20 years ago, ‘you are out of your mind, why do you want to go organic?’
It was simply because this is the way forward! I can’t see the planet using more pesticide in the future. We have to reduce it!’
‘The whole industry is proving that by growing organic grapes we have wines with more character, with more typicity. They meld together with the terroir and create unique combinations and character for that particular estate.’
It is great to see the difference between a Nero D’Avola in one estate and in the other estate. If you grow organically you see all those differences and it is phenomenal.
Two estates: Cortese and Santa Tresa
We bought the first estate in 2001 and in 2016 we bought a second estate close by, much smaller, organic already. It had been organic for ten years since before we bought it.
The idea was to put the production together to increase our [overall] production but because we were able to get in charge of the estate just 3 months before the harvest, we said, ‘what the hell, let’s pick what we find on the estate and vinify it separately!’ And we found that despite the estates are only 8 kilometres apart, we have a different clone of a Nero D’Avola, and a different clone of Frappato.
It is like two brothers of the same family, one tall with dark hair and the other one is shorter and a little fatter. Yes, it is the same family but they are a little different.
By growing organic, the grape variety really adapts to the soil and grows with more typicity. Instead of being winemakers, we move into being grape growers and now we are thinking about the soil. To put the soil in a perfect balance with the vine to produce the best quality grapes we can.
Senia, Nero D’Avola, Sicilia DOC, Cortese - Oragnic Wine
‘We use open-top barriques. It is an old system we started to use where we take a barrique, we take off the top and we have a fermentation unit that is one barrique. The advantage is that all of the remontage is done by pushing down by hand the skins. It is a very gentle way of extracting colour and tannins.
And, most important, because the volume is about 170 litres, there is not enough volume to increase the temperature of the fermentation over 20-22ºC. You don’t get this critical mass to push up the temperature. It is a natural system but it does require a lot of work by hand.
There is no pump. Once it is in barrique, it is in barrique. Once the malolactic fermentation is finished, we take off the skins, we do a blend and we put it back in barriques.
Vanedda Bianco, Terre Siciliane IGP, Cortese, Organic
One of the things you will see in the future is the phenomenal quality of white grapes in Sicily. It is something that I keep discovering, you know, the quality of the Catarratto, the Grillo, grown in that kind of a climate but if they are picked at the right time with the right kind of yield, you get phenomenal concentration but yet good minerality and acidity.
The Vaneta is a blend of Catarratto Lucido, which is really not like Catarratto. It is a different clone of Catarratto, so much less production, you get a lot of concentration. Then [add to the blend] Grillo with a little bit of Fiano.
Inspired by orange wines
We got inspiration from the Orange wine. And I am saying inspiration. I have been very very curious about orange wine. You know, sometimes when you do an organic wine tasting of ten wines, 8 of them are okaaaaaay… but 2 of them are WOW!
I ended up in a number of these tastings where the last 2 bottles I take home and I drink them that night because they are delicious!
So we start to understand the process because this is how my great grandfather used to make the wine. There was no white wine vinification, you know, they were making wine and they were crushing the grapes and so on.
So we tried to look at the pros and cons of this vinification. Basically what we do is, again we pick by hand, once we withdraw the temperature we de stem the grapes and we go into the red wine fermenter where the wine is fermented on the skins for 2 days.
So it is about 1 day before it reaches the right temperature to start the fermentation and then about 2 days, 2 and a half days when the fermentation is really going well. We rack the wine and we finish the fermentation in 30 hectolitres Slavonian oak barrels where the wine then stays on the fine lees until the next August.
Obviously, as soon as the fermentation ends, we are going to drop the temperature of the room, in order to prevent malolactic fermentation from happening.
It is a wine that needs some ageing but it is complex, it is fresh.'
NB: It also has structure, it is fantastic. Really quite unique.
That is why we only make ten thousand notes a year. It is a lot of work and basically, we take off the wine from the barrels before the next harvest starts and then we make room for the next harvest. It is as simple as that.
There is no filtering or nothing. It is another thing we do in the winery, we don’t filter the wines. All our wines are filtered by gravity. We just do a very gentle filtration prior to bottling. That is how you keep the wine intact!
Nostru, Nerello Mascalese, Terre Siciliane IGP, Cortese - Organic Wine
A strong appeal with ripe strawberry and cherry with a grittiness in the structure that gives it bite and freshness.
This is one of the many indigenous grape varieties we have down here and it yet to be discovered by the major public, if you allow me to say this. But it is a beautiful wine.
The Nerello Mascalese is normally associated with Etna but now it is has been planted and grown in different areas of Sicily. It is different from the one grown in Etna, obviously, because the soil, the altitude and everything, but it does have this phenomenal fruit-driven character without being overdone, or over alcoholic.
Easy going millennial style
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Stefano Girelli: This is to me, the millennial style of red wine. It is perfect for the aperitivo. You live in Liguria and you know exactly what I mean by the aperitivo. This is perfect because it is versatile, it goes with a pizza, or anything you want as an aperitivo and it is phenomenal.
Nick Breeze: it really is. It has super structure, really concentrated fruit and it is just delicious!
Sicily: a wealth of flavour:
Stefano Girelli: Don’t forget one thing. Sicily has so many indigenous grape varieties to be rediscovered that it is unreal! That is the beauty of an island like Sicily that has so much to discover that I wish I had three lives! It is amazing.
In parting Stefano mentions a current project bringing back to life two varieties that have been discontinued. So hopefully we can bring to the market an ancient variety that has not yet been registered, so we are applying for registration again.
One is called Orizi, and the other is called Albanello, a white grape variety from Vittoria. It is because we have a small vineyard, what we call [translated] an experimental vineyard and we are actually growing ancient varieties of Siciliy and when we see potential there we extend it.
So you will see Orizi at the end of next year when we will have around 1 thousand bottles to try.