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Salvo Foti’s Vigna Di Milo: Etna authenticity and fire

by Claudio Celio

Volcanic sand held together by drystone walls. Low, bush-trained vines cultivated according to the norms and tenets of times immemorial. Manual production, loyalty to centuries-old winemaking traditions, respect for Etna’s terroir, environment and wine heritage. Salvo Foti’s world and its meaning can be summed up in these few snapshots.

The enologist and grape-grower’s I Vigneri venture goes beyond its strictly agricultural perspective, takes on a social significance: handing down an ancient winemaking wisdom that was in danger of extinction, preserved by a man who knows every vineyard and every plot of Etna land.

The latest among Salvo Foti’s many projects is a vineyard, half a hectare in size, at an altitude of 900 meters on Mount Etna’s eastern slope: Vigna di Milo. Here, Salvo has been growing ungrafted, bush-trained Carricante vines (that is, ungrafted onto American rootstock) for the past four years. He personally selected and propagated the vines in the course of many years’ vineyard management among the drystone walls that punctuate Mount Etna’s slopes.

Vigna di Milo soil is volcanic in origin, sandy with a substantial portion of “ripiddu,” i.e. lapilli and eruptive pumice from the volcano. Weather conditions resemble Trentino rather than Sicily: the high altitude makes for significant temperature variations, and this side of the volcano is a lot rainier than the Sicilian average, even in the Etna area itself.

It is therefore, in a way, logical that Vigna di Milo should resemble a northern wine rather than one from southern Italy. The alcohol content in itself (12.5% by vol.) sets this white apart from numerous southern examples. On top of which, the Carricante variety is mainly characterized by its acidity.

What is most striking, though, is the incredible aromatic complexity. This pure Carricante’s bouquet is strongly reminiscent of a northern Riesling: the crisp, focused web of hydrocarbons and flint is almost hypnotic in clarity. It literally jumps out of the glass, together with notes of incense and herbs, gradually giving way to depth, richness and great persistence on the palate. The latter is dominated by a near-primeval salinity that seems to have an enthralling, inexhaustible energy of its own.

“Carricante is a very particular and difficult variety,” says Salvo Foti. “Its qualities were already widely known in the past, though cultivation of the grape declined in time as it is not suited to high crop yields and alcohol content. It generally yields wines with high acidity and low alcohol that, on the other hand, have excellent aging potential.”

Vinification techniques are natural: indigenous yeasts and 1 year’s maturation in steel, then in large wooden barrels so as to absorb the elegance of the fine lees. Only 2,500 bottles were issued of the wine’s first vintage, 2014, which Salvo Foti deems very good. Keep an eye out for 2015 which, according to the grower, promises to be exceptional.