In Sicily, New Hands Make Old Wine

Article from DIRTonline | Words & Photos KATIE JUNE BURTON

In Sicily, New Hands Make Old Wine

Nov 18, 2016

After an hour of winding roads and scenes of mountains, valleys, and grazing sheep, you start to forget about the wildly intoxicating city of Palermo behind you. Welcome to Sambuca di Sicilia, recently named 2016’s Most Beautiful Town in Italyin the country’s famed annual competition. In true Sicilian fashion, we're greeted by fifth generation winery owners, brothers Gunther and Klaus Di Giovanna. First on the menu: olive oil harvested and pressed that day, as well as a variety of their wines. The beauty greets you right away and the people who live there could not be more excited or proud to share it, the Di Giovannas included.

Nestled in the mountainside of the nature reserve of Monte Genuardo, the Di Giovanna estate spans across 250 acres of vineyards, olive trees, forests, and wheat fields. The vineyards combination soils—volcanic tuff, calcareous limestone, and clay—are home to myriad local and international grapes; Chardonnay, Grillo, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Syrah, Cabernet, Sauvignon, and Merlot. Bolstering the wine program is an organic olive oil operation, finessed by hand from prune to bottle. Here, Gunther’s wife Melissa explains what it really takes to run a vineyard, and the ever subtle alchemy required to balance tradition and innovation.

What is your winemaking philosophy?

The best way to describe our philosophy is purity, cleanliness, and authenticity. We grow traditional Sicilian grape varietals and produce them organically, but with a modern approach. We’re not just selling a beverage; we’re capturing a year in a bottle.

All grapes come from your property, how does this contribute to the quality of the final product?

When you have total control of the product that you grow, you have total control of the wine you produce. Other wine producers and co-ops that buy grapes by the kilo are measuring quantity, but not necessarily quality. We really focus on vineyard management and harvesting the best, healthiest grapes. Producing organically made wine demands that grapes come into the cellar healthy, as there is nothing we can do to manipulate unhealthy grapes to make good wine. That means making sure the vines are clean, the ground is clean, and the humidity is low (humidity is what breeds fungus and disease). It’s also important to manage the vines so they don’t overproduce grapes and minimalize the flavor of the variety.

“It’s been our mission for generations to take these traditional grapes and share them with the world.”
— Melissa Di Giovanna

What is it about Sicilian geography and climate that makes it the excellent wine country that it is?

Historically, Sicily has been excellent viticulture territory; the Phoenicians and the Greeks produced wine, olive oil, and wheat here and exported it to the whole Roman Empire. The climate is ideal—we’re surrounded by water, so we get the influence of the ocean and the salty air, and having four perfect seasons—not too cold in the winter, and hot dry summers—plays a huge part in growing and maturing grapes, as well as the volcanic properties in the soil. Sicily is basically one huge volcano (there’s active Mount Etna in the east and then several volcanoes underwater surrounding the island), resulting in mineral-rich, tuffaceous soil.

Being located in the mountains in high altitude is definitely one of the defining characteristics of our wine, as it gives us a warm climate, but extra crisp air. This results in a unique freshness and minerality that is less typical when you get closer to sea-level, where grapes can lean towards jammy flavors, really ripe and mature, which you don’t really get in ours. Our grapes develop more citrus, floral notes that are a bit more aromatic—and that comes from the altitude.

How do you stay connected to the old tradition of Sicilian wine production while still innovating?

We’re working with indigenous varietals as a way of preserving the history and culture of Sicilian wine. We focus on the Nero d'Avola, Nerello Mascalese, and Grillo grapes because they are specific to Sicily and extremely important to our winemaking identity. It’s been our mission for generations to take these traditional grapes and share them with the world. Also, by practicing organics with our growing and winemaking, we’re preserving the soil and land.

Has there been a time when you took a risk on making a wine?

In 2004 we decided to make a dry, high quality rosé and almost all of the Sicilian producers laughed at us. There was this idea that no decent Sicilian wine producer makes rosé, as it wasn’t considered a serious wine. Ten years later, we’re all making and drinking it, and we’re on our 12th vintage of Gerbino Rosato de Mascelese and Nero d'Avola.

What are the biggest changes you've seen in winemaking during this generation?

Everybody is making great wine now, so it's pretty competitive. It’s becoming easier for people to gain access to the knowledge, education, and materials they need to produce a quality product.

What are the biggest challenges in running a winery?

The commercialization of the product is the biggest challenge. The wine market is so saturated and it’s hard to find the right people and get them interested in what you're doing. The work behind running our vineyard has been systemized for a long time—we have a great team, we have our brand established, but getting the wine to the people is the demanding part. The only way to make the right impression and tell the story is to pack your suitcase and go door-to-door.

What are the advantages and challenges of running a family business?

Family business means everything is personal; it’s a bit more complex and can sometimes take away the professionalism. Then there’s the pride that comes along with producing wine and having your name on every bottle. Gunther and Claus get to continue doing the work and planting the vines like their great grandfather did, and they really hope that preserving a business and craft will be important to their kids, too.