One of my aims this summer was to experience a wine harvest, or vendemmia as it’s known in Italian. The vendemmia is much more than just picking grapes and making wine, it’s a cultural moment in Italy where friends and families come together to work, eat and taste the new wine from last year.
Mount Etna is abundant with vineyards as the volcanic soil creates exceptional growing conditions for various grape varieties especially the Nerello Masacelese. Most people are familiar with Nero d’Avola of Sicily, which is cultivated further south in the Syracusa region, however Etna’s grape varieties are arguably richer and more complex in taste.
I’d been in contact with several vineyards and met some grape people, sorry great people, offering a hand with their vendemmia but due to a busy travel and training schedule I’d been unable to make it work so far. I saw through Instagram that Gambino Wine were due to have a last season harvest so I got in touch and luckily it was due to go ahead the week I got back from Milan.
The harvest can be an unpredictable thing, with weather conditions playing a strong hand in when it takes place. Throughout the summer when I was talking to various wineries many people said it’s not a normal year as it had been very dry. Gambino had been harvesting various varieties over the summer, but the Nerello Mascalese is left until last at the end of October, sometimes even November.
We arrived at the vineyard located on the slopes of Etna close to Linguaglossa. It’s a terraced vineyard that dates back to 1978 when Maria and Vittorio Raciti acquired the land to start producing wine. It took 20 years to build the vineyard to a commercial level and unify the terraces. In 2003 it was passed onto the three children Filadelfo, Francesco and Maria Grazia who are running it today. It’s a beautiful setting with a fairly new cantina (built in 2013) sitting on the terrace with a great view across the countryside and down to the sea.
At the cantina I met Francesco who’d I’d been chatting to on email. He explained some of the complexities of producing on Etna and what makes the wine special…
“It is very challenging because of the terracing of lava stone, since temperature lapses are extreme from day to night and being a mountain on an island you can imagine how unpredictably winds can affect the weather.
The wine-making process starts from the grapes and the presentation to the final guest is a teamwork which combines skills of many type.
It is the combination of Etna soil and Nerello Mascalese which is special, as well as other grape varieties, they simply found their right ‘mate’ and this makes the wine great.”
The vendemmia started at 8am, with the ‘vendemmiatore’ comprised of around 20 people, friends and family who come to every harvest at Gambino. We were given a bucket and secateurs and spent the morning working our way along the vines cutting the grapes at the stalk and then filling bigger crates which were picked up by a tractor with a trailer after we’d finished each field.
At 12pm we downed tools and headed to the cantina where we had lunch together on a long banquet table. This comprised an antipasti of cheese, olives and sun-dried tomatoes, pasta with sausage and zucchini, followed by grilled sausages and salad, and of course plenty of wine! It was a pretty epic lunch and I was glad of the espresso after to wake me up as there was still plenty of work to do.
Following lunch we finished up in the higher fields, then headed down to the older vineyards closer to the cantina. You can see the conditions vary from field to field, with the amount of sun affecting the grape size and abundance. We had met the enologo Salvo at lunchtime and he spends his day monitoring weather and growing conditions, with a small laboratory for testing. It was a real scientific approach that I wasn’t expecting, but when you are on the terraces you can appreciate how tough it is to grow on this landscape and maintain consistency for a large-scale production.
We finished all the vineyards by 4pm and after saying farewell to the others, Maria Grazia and I headed to the cantina for a quick taste of wine… it would be rude not to! The cantina was busy with tourists for lunch, a lot of Americans come to visit for wine tastings and lunch, and you can see that Gambino lay on a great experience, greeting guests with a glass of wine as they arrive. We tried a glass of the Cabernet Sauvignon, sitting outside enjoying the late afternoon sun.
As we headed off Filadelfo gave us a bottle of Feu d’O 2016, a blend of Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese. I’m looking forward to having with some pasta before we head back to the UK in a couple of weeks.
Check out the full selection of Gambino wines here: gambinowinery.com