Allegrini 2024

Pantelleria: a heroic and millenary vineyard in search of the future, investing in young people

Over the past 40 years, 90% of the hectares have disappeared. Now, the Consortium has launched a call to encourage new generations to train, and stay

The "Pantelleria Vineyard" boasted 5.000 hectares of vineyards in the 1980s , but in 2021 there were only 407 hectares, or less than a tenth. This incredible reduction of vineyards on the island where there are now 22 wineries and 410 winegrowers, 327 of which (holding 341 hectares, i.e., 80% of the surface) are associated with the Voluntary Consortium for the Protection and Enhancement of DOC Wines from the Island of Pantelleria. Viticulture has given space and surfaces for tourism, but they have abandoned vineyards and terraces, jeopardizing the very identity of the island — a unique geological site between Europe and Africa, formed from an eruption 800 million years ago. The objectives that must be achieved are generational change, increased production, and promotions together with the Pantelleria Island National Park.
The populations that crossed the Mediterranean Sea and passed through the Island of the Wind, left their traces. First the Sesi, in 3000 BC, then the Phoenicians in perennial struggle with the Romans, who then prevailed, the Barbarians, the Arabs who introduced the vine, the Sicilian dominations, up to the Americans who during the Second World War bombed the island, including archaeological sites, to set an example, though fortunately they did warn the population in advance.Its geographical position, as the last European outpost on the Mediterranean Sea, is strategic. Yet the people of Pantelleria are not seafarers. They have turned their backs on that horizon from which dangers and invaders came. They instead tore the earth from the lava rocks and contained it with its stones, building over 7.000 kilometers of dry stone walls. Fatigue and self-denial have transformed the complex volcanic morphology of the island, for the most part sloping, into one of the most harmonious agricultural landscapes in the Mediterranean area. Grape vines, capers, olives and citrus are the main crops of the heroic agriculture on the island, due to extreme environmental conditions, linked to constant winds and scarce rainfall, compensated by high humidity. At the beginning, raisins were produced from Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria), because the Arab culture does not permit drinking alcohol. Then winemaking, using a particular method, as the climate required, and the production of Passito from grapes grown using Pantelleria saplings, an agricultural practice that was recognized a UNESCO intangible heritage of humanity in 2014.
In 1974, the grape production had reached 330.000 quintals, but by 2020 it had been reduced to just over 17.000, of which about 15.000 were denomination grapes. The production of bottled DOC wine in 2021 totaled 8.787 hectoliters. The "black pearl", the most southern European viticulture, faces great challenges; first and foremost, generational change is absolutely needed to preserve the production and landscape heritage.
“Wine growing is a heroic endeavor on the island of Pantelleria. It means sacrifice, mechanization reduced to a minimum and exhausting work with the hoe — a tool now unknown to young people”, Benedetto Renda, president of the Consortium and of the Pellegrino Cellars, explained to WineNews, who boasts the largest production on the island (12.000 hectoliters total potential production) — the average age of the winegrowers is very high and therefore a generational change is urgently needed. Our Consortium is working hard to encourage and facilitate young people to follow courses in agricultural and has set up various scholarships (on the Consortium website https://consorziodipantelleria.it/ the call for the application to participate expires August 31st). Plus, our aims also include stimulating a full return to viticulture, and we have organized training courses about the culture of the island's wines to get young people to know the wines, so that they can better communicate them in the summer months, when they work in catering”. Managing a Pantelleria vineyard takes about 90 working days / man per hectare, which is about three times what is necessary for "normal" viticulture.
“Very low income, fatigue and fragmentation of land plots”, Salvatore Murana, the first ambassador of Passito di Pantelleria with his tales and his Creato and Martingana, to name the most famous, added, “are making the Island’s viticulture suffer. There is a noticeable lack of schools on the island that could train young people in the two predominant activities — agriculture and tourism — while instead, we have a school that trains accountants! To guarantee the Pantelleria viticulture continuity, from the point of view of viticultural material, we have to create a sort of ark, to preserve the 27 biotypes that make up the "Vineyard Park" of Pantelleria, currently scattered among the vineyards”.
The experimental center, Federico Paulsen Government Nursery, founded in 1885 to study phylloxera, has been operating on the island since the early 20th century, and is carrying out conservation work on rootstocks and biotypes of the Zibibbo grape. The center is in the process of registering a clone of Zibibbo. “We are preserving and studying the enormous biodiversity of the island's Zibibbo”, Vincenzo Pernice, manager of the Sicilian facility explained, the results of adapting to different altitudes (from sea level to 600 meters asl) and exposures. We are working together with the producers, whose observations on the vines are invaluable. We supply the cuttings in the vineyards to replace those that are very old, even up to 90 years. Together with the Consortium we will increase their production for renewals, using exclusively native materials, and I would like to point out, in an ideal public-private collaboration”.
Activities at the Pantelleria headquarters of the Paulsen Nursery, which also include micro-vinifications, have recently expanded to include must analysis service to monitor chemical parameters — previously only available in Sicily - which has resulted in improving the quality, especially for small productions. The numbers tell us that this service is definitely useful: 8.000 analyses carried out from September to December. Furthermore, a study has recently been launched on re- fermenting in the bottle of sparkling based wines obtained from the second flowering bunches of Zibibbo. These are normally not used, but instead represent a resource for increasing production and income. Several wine producers have already seized this new opportunity, such as Salvatore Murana, who introduced the Matué Classic Method Pas Dosé TGI Terre Siciliane, 100% Zibibbo and 55 months on the lees. The production of a classic method in Pantelleria is the most recent example of expanding to types of wines other than Passito. Whites are produced, as well as reds (and the 2021 harvest also a rosé wine) on the island up until now, exclusively in the Kuddia da Abraxas district, a company now owned by Prosit SRL (Adler Group), which has been recovering vineyards and abandoned properties for the past 5 years. It is an entrepreneurial project that aims to involve the winegrowers (again) to confer the grapes, recovering their trust and, on the tourist front, to the widespread hotels consisting of several dammusi (small, stone houses, typical of Pantelleria), and an agritourism farmhouse.
The soil, altitudes, exposures and wind make Pantelleria a complicated area for its vineyards, grapes and wines. It is key for all the Pantelleria wine companies, to be able to receive grapes from vineyards located in different microclimates that have different aromatic characteristics and ripening times. “The harvest in Pantelleria begins in mid-August and goes on for a long time, depending on the altitude and the various exposures”, Baldo Palermo di Donnafugata explained, speaking of the famous Ben Ryé, “68 hectares of vineyards located in 16 districts and the winery in Khamma, built according to sustainable architectural criteria, perfectly inserted in a natural, terraced amphitheater. “Grapes that ripen earlier, are more sugary”, Baldo Palermo continued, and are for drying, to have a better chance of success and escape rains or excess humidity. During the 2-3 weeks of drying in the “stinnituri”, or in greenhouse-tunnels open on the sides, the grapes dehydrate, there is a concentration of sugars, aromas and organic acids that are very important to the organoleptic profile. The dried grapes, de-stemmed by hand, are added to the fermenting must obtained from grapes harvested in the later areas. We do this procedure three times, and each time we separate the flaked skins, and then it is put on the market two years after the harvest. Passito di Pantelleria is a unique drink and deserves special attention”. Each producer makes different choices, more or less close to tradition — also involving the use of wood — however, the common factor is the very low yield. You need at least 4 kilos of fresh grapes to produce a liter of Passito di Pantelleria. “Every vintage is different, and even more so for Passito”, Giuseppina De Bartoli, who together with her brothers, Sebastiano and Renato, is in charge of the company founded by her father Marco, who came from Sicily and was among the first to invest on the island, said, “this is the message that my father wanted to give. The greatest vintage is the one in which drying lasts for at least three weeks, in perfect conditions, and determines the wine to which we allocate the grapes”. In this case, the “Father of the vineyard”, Bukkuram, is produced (42 months in French oak barrels and 6 months in steel vats, ed.). On the other hand, if it is not possible to continue drying beyond August, the grapes produce “Sole di agosto” Bukkuram (a short time in the cask, at least 6 months aging in steel vats, ed.). Pantelleria is famous for its Passito, natural and fortified. However, there is also an interesting production of Zibibbo from fresh grapes. Various producers, such as Isesi, age them for 12 months in steel and they give an outstanding aromatic bouquet. The Italian Sommelier Foundation awarded the Oscar 2022 as the best sweet wine in Italy to Cantine Pellegrino, alongside Passito Nes (“miracle” in Hebrew) for the 2020 vintage. The large company is based in Marsala, has vineyards in the Trapani area, and is a market leader in the production of Pantelleria wines. “Since we arrived in Pantelleria in 1992, the year in which we built our winery, we have chosen not to buy land and vineyards”, Caterina Tumbarello, heir of the Pellegrino family and shareholder of the company in which she has held various roles, and wife of Benedetto Renda, who is president, “preferring to acquire the grapes from the winegrowers. Thanks to the experience handed down for generations, we now count 350. Our choice to support the economy of this small microcosm paying attention also to protecting the environment by putting in a photovoltaic system that makes the winery almost self-sufficient” . “Through cold technology and the zoning of the island”, Benedetto Rende, president of the Consortium, said about the producing white wines from fresh grapes, “ we have been able to produce successful white wines for several years.
Each one of the eruptions that gave life to the island had its own peculiar characteristics, originating different soils that give different grapes from which we get very interesting whites. The production is a reality today, and is destined to grow, since many companies are putting in place suitable winemaking technologies. A consortium like ours, one of the smallest in Italy, has few resources for promotion. However, the dialogue that has been established with the Pantelleria National Park, begun two years ago, is becoming an operational collaboration. At the recent Vinitaly, we shared we shared and managed a single stand. Our aims and those of the Park coincide, and we intend to give impetus to the future of this territory especially for the new generations, by combining our modest finances with the more important ones of the Park. Regarding the traceability of our wines, the Board of Directors has decided to put the seal on starting January 1, 2023, which the Regional Institute of Wine and Oil, in charge of controls and certification, will manage".

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