Sicilian Island Toils To Save Endangered Vines
For the past five years, scientists have been scouring remote outposts across the Mediterranean basin in search of endangered strains of this ancient vine, carefully removing vines from overgrown estates and remote mountain tops in Spain, Italy, Greece and France and cultivating them on test plots on Pantelleria.
This month, the first fruits of their labour are being harvested from 2,117 vines scattered across the remote volcanic island.
Photo: Andrea Vogt/The Telegraph
“These biotypes are at risk of disappearing across the Mediterranean, but we believe that with careful cultivation, their genetic patrimony can help us enhance existing and new Zibibbo wines,” said the project’s lead scientist Attilo Scienza, professor of Viticulture at the University of Milan.
Experts believe these vines are some of the oldest in existence. The Phoenician goddess of Carthage, Tanit, is said to have seduced Apollo by serving him Muscat of Alexandria from the island. Arab traders who brought it to Europe valued the variety as a table grape – the word Zibibbo comes from an Arabic word meaning “raisin”.
“Wherever the Arabs went, Zibibbo went with them,” said Antonio Rallo, president of the Sicilia DOC Consortium.
“The Sicily region, together with the University of Milan, searched the entire Mediterranean basin for Zibibbo and found 33 different biotypes: nine on Pantelleria, one in Calabria, 10 in Greece, 10 in Spain and three in southern France.”
Photo: Andrea Vogt/Alamy
A well-known holiday destination in summer, Pantelleria’s exposed coastline is battered by sea spray and high winds in winter. To protect the plants, the vine bushes are buried low in hollows along terraced plots divided by small lava stone drywalls. Centuries-old ungrafted vines still produce fruit, shielded from pests and plagues due to the island’s isolation.
University of Milan researchers who studied the Zibibbo’s genetic patrimony say the rootstock is consistently resistant to drought and salinity, but there are important variations.
“In Turkey, France and Greece, these grapes were destined for wine, while in other areas they were cultivated specifically as table grapes or raisins,” said Professor Scienza. “We realised as we compared them that they differed a lot.”
Professor Scienza said the team planned to make five different wines from the experimental vines to compare their variations. Subtle differences in sweetness, aroma and other characteristics are already noticeable in the grapes, but only after they have been processed into the first batch of wine will researchers be able to fully assess their potential.
Mr Rallo paced around the terraced vines on the southern side of the island, first trying a grape from a vine that originated in the Murcia region of Spain, then another from Lemnos, in Greece. “So fragrant and sweet . . . they are good to eat just like this.”
More than half the 3,000 tons of grapes grown on Pantelleria are destined for DOC Passito, named for the natural appassimento process whereby grapes are partially air and sun dried on mats or pallets to concentrate the grapes’ flavors and sweetness prior to vinification.
“Historically, the wines from this area – Passito, Marsala – have had great appeal to consumers abroad, especially the English,” said Pantelleria mayor Salvatore Gabriele.”The trend is that the value of this niche for us is increasing, especially for the natural passito.”
Unesco’s heritage listing put the spotlight on Pantelleria and its prized passito, but the Zibibbo varietal experiment on the island is part of a wider effort to conserve endangered grape varieties.
While about 10,000 grape varieties exist across the globe, only 1,500 are used to produce wine, and of those, only 30 varieties are used to make more than 70 per cent of the wine consumed worldwide, according to Wine Mosaic, a French non-profit association dedicated to conserving indigenous varieties.
The phylloxera plague during the nineteenth century destroyed many of the native vineyards in Europe. In the twentieth century, many surviving varieties were ripped out and replaced by more internationally marketable vines.
In France’s Languedoc region, some old Carignane and Cinsault vines were replaced by Syrah. In Sicily, Nero d’Avola made way for Cabernet Sauvignon. Some went extinct, while others such as the Persan in Savoie have less than a hectare of vines left. Others, like the Zibibbo from Kos, are being revived.
“There are some winemakers who say ‘if we save the old grapes, the old grapes will save us,’” said Wine Mosaic’s Arnaud Daphy in Paris. “There’s new interest from wine lovers and sommeliers for off-the-beaten path wines.”
Regions like Sicily, Tuscany and Piedmont are also experimenting with heirloom varieties of red wine.
“Some of these vines – Alzano, Nocera, Vitrarolo – they were up on mountaintops, and nobody was cultivating them,” said José Rallo of Donnafugata, a vineyard in western Sicily experimenting with 19 relic varieties. “We believe that with special care and new technologies, some of these ancient varieties can become great wines.”
This story first appeared here in The Sunday Telegraph.