How To Produce Wine On A Volcano And Make It UNESCO Heritage
Disclaimer: this is not a guide on how to produce a best-selling wine! So, if you thought of quitting your job to follow a rural dream filled with grapes and money, I will stop you right there.
However, if you are curious to know how some people managed to actually make a best-selling wine and UNESCO Heritage in the worst environmental conditions possible for crop cultivation, here you will find out.
Vine needs the sun…but who said it needs the rain?
Now, I also believed that vine cultivation was limited to nearly endless rows of vine plants, grown on fertile hills under a scorching sun (yes my Northern friends, you can keep trying to produce wine in cold and dark latitudes but, at least for red wine, the sun is a must for a proper sugar content in the grapes).
Well, apparently I was right only about the scorching sun. The other environmental conditions which usually are a matter of life or death for a crop, such as water, wind and soil, seems to be not as important for the grapes grown on the Island of Pantelleria, in the region of Sicily in Southern Italy. These grapes, grown on the slopes of an (active) volcano, produce a straw white wine called “Passito di Pantelleria” (named after the Island on which it is produced), from the “Zibibbo” variety.
The Island is located off the shores of Southern Sicily, in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, completely exposed to the fury of the winds (the Island is called in Arabic “Bent-el-Rhia”, which means “winds’ daughter”). In addition, the rainfall is very scarce on the Island, so the cultivation of these grapes is carried out without an irrigation system, on a soil which dosn’t retain the water due to its coarse physical structure.
How on Earth can you not only grow wine without water and have your crop constantly hit by strong winds, but even make it popular all over the Globe? With a couple of stones and a bit of thought.
The vine plants are in fact grown basically at the soil level, inside a shallow hole (20 cm) in the ground, to protect them from the winds. In addition, many of these plants are surrounded by circular stone walls, to allow the plant to grow a bit taller, while still being protected from the wind. There is another reason why the grapes are surrounded by a wall: although the Island’s climate is characterized by the absence of rain, the humidity is instead very high. At night, the stone walls create a microclimate which helps keeping the moisture within the stone “cell”, preventing the plants from wilting and supplying them with the water they need. The same goes for the plants not surrounded by the walls but simply grown at the ground level within the hole.
However, the plants are pruned to keep them low, as they shouldn’t grow too high also for another reason: since the water is scarce and the plants are not irrigated, the crops shouldn’t waste much energy in transporting the nutrients up to the leaves.
Resilience lesson from Pantelleria
The farmers growing these grapes, had to adapt to the environmental conditions and, by making the best out of them, they managed to produce a wine which has been awarded in 2015 as UNESCO Heritage. The cultivation is also sustainable from an environmental viewpoint: besides being basically water consumption-free, Pantelleria is dotted with the terraces along which the vines are grown, protecting the Island from the wind erosion.
Take this story not only as a cool agricultural fact, but also as a lesson of sustainability and adaptation. Sometimes, excellence comes out of the most unexpected places.