[This is the English-language translation and dubbed version of episode 208, which has originally been recorded in Italian.] In this educational podcast, Monty Waldin hosts Prof. Attilio Scienza again to talk about 4 grape varieties and related wines from Sicily. In the first part, Scienza discusses Nerello Mascalese (the variety which yields the famous Etna Rosso wines) and Frappato (grown in the areas of Noto and Vittoria)—both also part of the progeny of Sangiovese as discussed in episode 196). In the second part Scienza presents two ancient grape varieties cultivated on the islands around mainland Sicily: Zibibbo or Moscato d’Alessandria from Pantelleria, the iconic grape used to make Passito di Pantelleria and grown with the alberello training system; Malvasia di Lipari from the island of Lipari in the Eolian islands. Tune in also for a dive into the history of ancient Mediterranean viticulture and wine trade throughout the centuries in which Sicily played a huge part! [A transcript of this interview in English is available on www.italianwinepodcast.com].
Monty Waldin: Buongiorno! Hello! This is the Italian Wine Podcast with me, Monty Waldin. We are delighted to have Prof. Attilio Scienza again for another of our educational podcasts! This time, this episode will bring you on a journey around Sicily where Attilio will discuss four distinctive wines and grape varieties: Nerello Mascalese, Zibibbo, Malvasia di Lipari, and Frappato. In case you have forgotten, Prof. Attilio Scienza is Italy’s leading vine genetics scholar and has published widely on the topic and on the subject of wine more generally in books and articles. He is also the Chief Scientist of the Vinitaly International Academy and author of a recent book called La Stirpe del Vino published in 2018 by Sperling & Kupfer about the family ties among grape varieties. Like we did for the previous podcasts with Prof. Scienza, we will speak in Italian and we will then record an English-language translation of this episode. By the way: you can find all the Scienza’s podcast in our series “Italian Wine Essentials.” You can access it on both SoundCloud and our official website!
Welcome, Attilio, for another episode of the Italian Wine Podcast dedicated to beautiful Sicily and to four of its characteristic wines and grape varieties: Nerello Mascalese and Frappato the wines coming from the mainland of Sicily (so to speak) AND wines from the islands around Sicily: Zibibbo and Malvasia di Lipari.
Attilio Scienza: Good morning Monty and good morning to all our listeners.
Monty Waldin: Let’s start by talking about two grape varieties which are also genetically linked: Nerello Mascalese and Frappato. Nerello Mascalese, in particular, is the famous variety that belongs to the Etna Rosso denomination—an Italian wine region which is on the rise at the moment. So, Attilio, could you please explain where this connection between Nerello Mascalese and Frappato comes from and can you please tell us something about their areas and history.
Attilio Scienza: Both the Nerello Mascalese and Frappato varieties are the progeny of Sangiovese and Mantonico. They are part of a very large group of vines from southern Italy that also include other non-Sicilian varieties such as the Gaglioppo from Calabria.
Nerello Mascalese is the main Etna vine and together with a small percentage of Nerello Cappuccio vines, they make up the foundation for the DOC Etna Rosso and Etna Rosso Riserva. It is cultivated in volcanic soils of pyroclastic origin; so soils that do not originate from the disintegration of lava, but rather from the eruption of inert materials. Its cultivation ranges from 300 meters to 800 meters. Etna is characterized by a variety of environmental conditions that are determined by two variables, altitude and exposure. There are four fundamental exposures, the north-east, south, south-west, and west. The most famous of these four exposures is that of the north-east, around the Pisciaro Pass (Passo Pisciaro). This is where one can find the ancient viticulture of Nerello Mascalese. It is here that one can still see pre-phylloxera strains, meaning, ungrafted vines.
Etna has had a great oenological fortune. Shortly after the arrival of phylloxera in Europe—since this insect found its way to Etna and other Italian territories much later than it did France— wines from the Etna region supplied French markets for a long time, until France reformed its vineyards. These circumstances were extremely advantageous for the Etna territory, and Etna could really develop an enormous viticulture enterprise producing these wines for export.
Nerello Mascalese is a vine characterized by good productivity, and the wine that is obtained from it is rather dull color-wise. This is actually the case with all the progeny of Sangiovese with respect to tannins: even if they are a bit rough and a bit, so to speak, harder in their youth, they do soften and become very interesting; they acquire very particular taste expressions, which almost gives this wine a Nordic character, besides its elevated production; it is also a wine that is characteristically a little thin, with a very elegant aroma. Certainly, perhaps a little different from the Mediterranean models of wine that we have. It is a vine that almost only grows on Etna. Unfortunately, attempts to cultivate it outside this territory have failed, and this says a lot about the close harmonious relationship of this vine with its original environments and its cultivation from ancient times. The oldest information about this vine dates back to the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, when the Sicilian ampelographers of that era such as Jeremiah described a series of varieties, which they defined as Nerelli and which are also part of the ampelographic platform of Calabria. There is a close connection between the Sicilian Nerelli and the Calabrian Nerelli. The definition of Nerello identifies a wine that has a light color, because Nerello is a diminutive in terms of color.
The wine it produces is, as I said, Etna DOC and Etna DOC Superiore, wines that are greatly expanding at this time. This is the case in terms of maturity, in terms of communication, and it is also greatly appreciated on foreign markets for its peculiarity. Its characteristics are quite different from normal Mediterranean wines. It is aged in wood—it is traditionally aged, just like wines used for cooking a roast, or wines which have a long preservation period—and the interesting thing about this wine is that over the years, after reaching a certain age, it maintains a precise character and develops very particular tertiary aromas, it is very interesting and there is a pronounced minerality to it.
Monty Waldin: Thanks Attilio. Let’s move on to another son of Sangiovese, Frappato.—By the way, let me remind our listeners that if you’d like to dig deeper into the history, origin, and progeny of Sangiovese you must tune in to episode 196 of this podcast!—Let’s talk about Frappato now.
A.S.: Frappato is the brother of Nerello and is grown in a small area, in south-western Sicily, in the territory of Syracuse between Noto and Vittoria. The soils of this area are of marine origin, the ones in the inner parts are older and those in areas closer to the sea are more recent. These are soils characterized by a high percentage of sand. Moreover, these are very loose soils with a reddish color that identifies a particular origin. This is due to the runoff of calcium-based compounds and carbonates that have seeped into the parts underneath. When soils are in the process of losing calcium, the iron dioxide present give the soil a rusty color, and the PH becomes a sub-acid PH. So it is a very special soil with a climate that I would say is very severe (the climate is very hot) particularly in certain areas that are some of the hottest in Sicily. Here viticulture is not very extensive. Frappato is a vine that does not have the importance of a Nerello or a Nero d’Avola, but it has very modern characteristics from the point of view of the wine from which it is produced.
Two DOC wines are produced: Frappato di Noto and Frappato di Vittoria or Vittoria, and Cerasuolo di Vittoria. In this case the Frappato is not vinified alone but is vinified with Nero d’Avola. It is a vine that is not very productive and has low fertility, so it is not favored by winemakers and for this reason it has a fairly limited cultivation area. It is a vine that also has difficulties in its productive expression, it has become quite uneven over the years. It does not maintain its productivity year after year and it is a vine that gives rise to light coloured wines, but they are very fragrant, because its aromatic heritage contains terpenes (linalool or geraniol) that give the wine a very precise aromatic sensation, I would say it’s very fine.
It is a wine very suitable for aperitifs and appetizers and also for some fish dishes where the tomato might be an important component, meaning suitable for marine/marinara/seafood dishes, where the fish is the main ingredient. The soils, as I mentioned before, are of marine origin, with a small area also of volcanic origin, but this is very small compared to that of marine soil. These are soils that have a thin viable layer because of the eluviation, that is, drainage of the calcium chromate, at a depth of 70-80 cm, this creates an impermeable layer of limestone that must be broken before you begin to plant something. Therefore, practicing viticulture is quite difficult in this area.
Monty Waldin: Out of curiosity: do we know the etymology of the name Frappato?
A.S.: No. Unfortunately, unlike for Nerello, we do not understand the origin of the word Frappato. Many people have tried to research its etymology, but they have not been able to come up with the answer. The interpretations are very imaginative and are the result of expressions from local dialects, rather than true history of the word.
Monty Waldin: Great! Let’s move on to the wines and grapes grown in some of the islands around mainland Sicily: Malvasia di Lipari and Zibibbo (also known as Moscato di Alessandria).
A.S.: Yes, the islands of Sicily are basically assembled in 2 areas: Pantelleria, in the channel of Sicily between Sicily and Africa, and then there is the group of the Aegadian and Aeolian Islands located to the north-east of Sicily, in the Tyrrhenian Sea. They are all volcanic islands, although very different from the point of view of orogenesis. Pantelleria is an island that has had recent volcanic eruptions, and is essentially made up of consolidated basaltic magma, meaning, all volcanic matrices are of basaltic origin and the land originated from the degradation of this basalt. The soils are quite deep and very rich in terms of mineral components; in some respects, they have a clay that is very similar to the clay that is on Etna. The soil can soak up water during the rains, then deal with the clay during the summer months. This allows for the cultivation of and survival of Zibibbo vines, the main variety on this island, and one that can endure prolonged periods of drought.
Zibibbo is also called Moscato di Alessandria and is the son of a cross between Moscato Bianco and a vine of Greek origin that is called “Eftakoilo” (this vine, however, has different names in Sardinia as well as in other areas). So it is a classic Mediterranean vine that gave rise, in the cross with Catarratto, to Grillo. A recent cross, Grillo is the result of the cross between Zibibbo and Catarratto obtained at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s by Baron Mendola. For a long time this Grillo was a key component, along with the Catarratto and Inzolia varieties and formed the basis for Marsala.
Moscato di Pantelleria or Zibibbo is cultivated in many European Mediterranean areas: it is found in Turkey, it is found in Greece, France, Spain, and also in Calabria, where it almost always gives rise to sweet wines, obtained by overripe or withered grapes. It is a grape very rich in terpenes, this creates the basis of its aromatic profile. It is very rich in Nerol and Citronellol which are 2 terpenes that characterize the sensory profile of this wine for a series of descriptors that inlcude among others dried rose as well as other descriptors that range from floral to sweet.
The cultivation technique of this vine is unique because this vine is grown with the “alberello” training system, but in a horizontal form: roots find their way into the cracks in pits in the ground to protect their vegetation from the salty wind. Pantelleria is an island, so it is constantly beaten by winds from different directions, from Libeccio to Scirocco, and if the vines did not have this protection within these pits, the vegetation would be severely damaged. Production is not very high, even though the Zibibbo vine is quite important, and produces decent-sized berries; it is also considered a table grape.
What matters the most here in the case of Zibibbo is the technique of processing this vine. I believe it to be what was spoken of in Hesiod’s work Le Opere e I Giorni (Works and Days), where Hesiod describes the ways to produce a sweet wine in Greece where he worked. What is this technique? Well, Pantelleria has quite similar geological characteristics, being a rather small island and the result of several volcanic eruptions, but it has profoundly different climatic characteristics in its various parts. The westernmost part is known as the early part, while the eastern part and the areas of greatest latitude are called the later part. Late or early refers to ripening times, which can be as much as a month and a half between the early and late zones. In those that are early, the grapes can ripen towards the end of July, while in those that are so late, the grapes ripen at the end of August and the beginning of September. In the early areas, the grapes are harvested when they are ripe and from these a wine is obtained via traditional white vinification. In the meantime, the grapes from the later areas are harvested and left to dry. The grapes are dried in the sun. The drying process lasts about twenty days, after which the raisins are shelled and added to the wine that has just finished fermenting. This involves a transfer of sugars and aromas, also due to the effect of the alcohol in the wine where this grape is immersed. After a certain period of time the whole grape is separated from the wine which, in the meantime, has been enriched with aromas and sugar. And this is important because the wine obtained is a stable wine, stable for its high alcohol content, stable for its high sugar content. The sugar content can reach very high sugar levels (30-35% sugar) thus guaranteeing a fragrance, a softness, but above all, a preservation of the aroma. When an aromatic wine is fermented and dries, it is difficult for this wine to maintain its varietal characteristics because, during fermentation, these terpenes are strongly degraded. Therefore they do not remain because they are not linked to sugars: only linked to sugars do these terpenes maintain this aroma and therefore this fundamental characteristic.
In the past, this wine was also obtained by acting on the must through the process of mutage: with this process the must ferments partially by adding alcohol. This type of Pantelleria wine which was obtained was very fashionable in the 50s and 60s. It was a very stable wine from a physio-chemical point of view, very pleasant, but this was certainly not a southern viticulture expression; it was more of a French viticultural expression, because French sweet wines are not made in the same way as we do, that is, using only dried grapes that are added to the wine. So, after this phase, the consumer started to reject this model of wine obtained by fortification. So after this phase, we finally moved on to the production of Passito di Pantelleria, to this very important DOC, one that naturally has its own market of fans, even if in this moment, unfortunately, sweet wines are going through a difficult phase with respect to their consumption on a daily basis, because they are rich in alcohol and in sugars. There are problems of a dietary nature, it is not easy to place this wine in a food context, what do you consume it with? With what food? Who still thinks of them as meditation wines? However, it is a very important product from a historical point of view and for what it evokes about Mediterranean culture.
In these years, also because of this commercial difficulty of sweet wine, we started to produce dry Zibibbo wines with great success. These wines are having great success, not only in Pantelleria, but also on the mainland in the Marsala area. And this is because the modern winemaking technique is able to vinify this grape without this grape being transformed into a wine with bitter characteristics as is usually the case with the Muscat and they have a good aromatic fragrance and are highly successful with respect to the elegance of their sensory qualities.
Monty Waldin: OK perfect, thanks Attilio. Now let’s sail to the island of Lipari to talk about Malvasia delle Lipari.
A.S.: Another important sweet wine of Sicily is the one produced in the Lipari Islands, which takes its name from one of the islands, from the largest of these islands, the island of Lipari. It is also produced on other islands such as Vulcano and Stromboli. This vine is really a vine we can say is ubiquitous to the Mediterranean: Leipzig Malvasia is cultivated with a different name in Dubrovnik, on the Adriatic coast, it is called Dubrovnik Malvasia; it is cultivated in Bianco, this town in Locride, where it is called Greek in this case, so it is White Greek; it is cultivated with a different name in Bosa, Sardinia where it is called Malvasia di Bosa; it is cultivated in Sitges which is an area of southern Spain; or it is cultivated in the Canary Islands with the name of Malvasia and also with other names but always with Malvasia. This is a vine of Greek origin, which was probably spread by Greek settlers first but on the northern coast of the Adriatic and then taken by them to southern Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean, where it is grown.
It is a vine that is a bit capricious in its production characteristics, it has very sparse bunches that allow this vine to dry out. Usually the withering is done on the plant as opposed to other ways from which you get a sweet wine. There are also some experiences of drying grapes on mats in the sun, but it is a variety that withers because of the characteristics of having rather small berries, and a rather thin bloom. Let’s say, this method allows you to have good drying in a very short time and therefore it creates a special elegance.
It belongs to the great family of Malvasia; there are about thirty Malvasia that are cultivated in Europe, and most of them cultivated in Italy. It cannot be defined as an aromatic Malvasia; it has a very subtle aroma, very fine, and is certainly not comparable to many other Malvasia that have these aromas of Muscat. It produces 2 types of wine: a sweet wine that is very elegant, not aromatic, with particular characteristics, I would say, not cloying, it does not give very sweet wines, it gives wines that have a good acidity, that have a good balance, therefore they are almost savoury food wines, not only dessert wines. Then it also gives origin to dry wines, therefore, and importantly, it allows for the possibility to provide an interesting product due to the non-drying, to the vinification of this wine in such a natural way, without drying.
The soils where it is cultivated are pyroclastic volcanic soils, very different from those of the island of Pantelleria where, instead, soils are the result of the disintegration of basalts. In this case they are soils formed by the explosion of the volcanic openings, and by the exit of these light materials, pumice, ash, pozzolana, that is all the materials I would say that constitute very, very light soils, where the root part of the plant can go deep. In summer, however, it can have some problems since it is not indifferent to drought. This ancient form of farming used to avail of a small pergola, where the vegetation was grown horizontally, so as not to go against the wind as the wind could ruin the foliage. Now we are looking for forms of espalier training, trying to put the vineyards in a position that the wind reaches them in a lesser way, not hitting the canopy directly. Having a good arrangement was very important, the lower trees were very onerous to deal with, while the espaliers were manageable.
This is of course a wine that is produced in small quantities, it is a hidden viticulture, which mainly feeds a local market, a market characterized by local consumption, both for restaurants and guests visiting these seaside resorts, and for tourists who want to take a few bottles home. The quantities are very modest; the production of dry wines partially solves the problem of sweet wine and the commercial difficulty of sweet wines in general. Instead of always using the same variety, alternative winemaking techniques are being tried, through the use of amphorae for example, much longer macerations than the normal ones.
The vinification technique is an ancient technique, but certainly not as complicated as the production of Moscato di Pantelleria. In this case, after pressing, producers wait for the cap to rise, so there is a small phase of maceration on the marc, after which the wine is drawn off and stored away from the marc. However, a beautiful amber color remains and there is a wine scent that is extracted from the skins with these maceration techniques. The wine is secured by a DOC. The DOC protects the origin, the cultivation techniques, the winemaking techniques. This is certainly a wine that has no problems with respect to sophistication, because its production is so small that there is no need for great protection. It is a very interesting wine with regards to its aromatic profile, because it is perhaps one of the few sweet wines that is characterized by this ripe, apricot perfume, so to speak. It is instantly recognizable when you put your nose to this wine and you are almost attacked by this strong apricot scent; then of course this aroma is accompanied by a whole series of other aromas, the typical Mediterranean aromas, thyme, oregano—all very important characteristics that make this a truly authentic southern wine that was borne out of ancient cultural traditions.
Monty Waldin: Attilio, can we now talk a little bit about the origin of the name “Malvasia”? The etimology of grape varieties is always very interesting and provides material for fascinating stories!
A.S.: Like all Malvasia, the origin of the name comes from a place in Greece, which was discovered by the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade, when the Venetians had offered to transport the Crusaders to the Holy Land and on that occasion—we are more or less in the early 1200s—militarily occupying most of the ports in the Eastern Mediterranean. Certainly, the Venetians had not offered this service free of charge, but they thought that by transporting these troops they could build a network of locations that they could rely on for their trade. One of these places was called “monobasos.” “Monobasos” in Greek means a port with only one entrance, because it had this important characteristic of being a port from which one entered on one side, but had the option of being covered on two sides, depending on the direction of the wind. And when the Venetians arrived near this port, they noticed the quality of the wine that was produced and shipped from that port, so they immediately began to think of a use for this wine. The climate in Europe was very difficult—this was at the beginning of what was called, the small medieval glaciation—and of course the rich markets of the north needed a sweet wine, alcoholic, medicinal, as the Venetians called it, to replace the wines that did not hold until March. They would expire, turning into vinegar, thus Venice took advantage of a great trade opportunity. Venice, however, had to produce an enormous quantity of this wine and so it began to produce it in Crete.
Hence, Crete became an enormous vineyard, but Crete around 1600 was regained by the Turks and Venice had to relinquish it, leaving this island. They lost the great vineyard where Malvasia was produced. But Venice could not give up the Malvasia market and therefore had a whole series of wines produced on the two coasts of the Adriatic fjord (the eastern and western) using an enormous number of vines, these had the characteristics similar to those of the original Malvasia. At that time all these varieties had different names before the Venetians arrived, now they were suddenly all called Malvasia. The reason for this was that the wine gave the vine its name, not the other way around. And among these Malvasias there is also Malvasia delle Lipari, but there are many others, Malvasia di Candia, Malvasia di Candia Aromatica, Malvasia di Schierano, Malvasia Istriana, Malvasia Rossa. There was an enormous number of varieties that all suddenly became Malvasia to produce this wine with which Venice fed its great northern European market. The Lipari belongs to a group of lucky varieties because through this rich trade with Northern Europe it was able to maintain its identity and presence in the Mediterranean.
Monty Waldin: Fantastic! We are now at the end of this episode and, as usual, I would like to thank our guest Prof. Attilio Scienza for this amazing journey in the history, geography, geology, and wine making tradition of Sicily through 4 iconic wines and grape varieties: Nerello Mascalese and the Etna which are very trendy these days; Frappato, grown in the South of Sicily in the areas of Noto and Vittoria; the Passito di Pantelleria wine made with Zibibbo grapes which carries an ancient tradition of viticulture and wine making; and finally Malvasia delle Lipari grown in another unique island of Sicily. Thank you very much Attilio, we look forward to having you on the show again soon!
A.S.: Goodbye all! Wishing you all the best and I hope these conversations will help you understand the complexity and richness of Italian wine. See you soon.