The family making magic in a medieval mine.
Wednesday 10 November 2021
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The Alagna family has been making wine in and around Marsala since the Second World War, from its traditional winery built into the cool and humid depths of a medieval sandstone mine. Its own story charts the history of the island’s wine industry, moving from bulk production and a focus on Marsala fortified wine to a more respectful, traditional form of quality winemaking over the course of several decades.
“When the winery was started by my grandfather, everyone here was very focused on Marsala. I don’t know if you know this, but Marsala was actually invented by a British person, which really kicked off large-scale winemaking in the province. Just to put that into context, 50-60% of all the wine of Sicily comes from around here, so it’s really shaped the look of the countryside because it’s full of vineyards.”
Alagna has approximately 80 hectares of vineyards spread over Marsala, Mazara, Trapani and Salemi, where it cultivates local varieties such as Zibibbo, Nero d’Avola, Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia and Damaschino. Charmingly, 50 hectares are managed by Antonio’s father’s side of the family, and 30 are managed by his mother’s side.
“My grandfather basically started as a farmer, before moving into bulk wines and Marsalas. At the time, the vast majority of Sicilian wine was exported in bulk to northern Italy; very little of it was actually sold to customers. But my father was always the one developing different models and introducing a little bit of wine tourism into the business, which gradually became more important as the market began to change in the 1980s. Today, I’m in charge of export activities and tourism, which is very important for us. Marsala production is still part of our business, but we are quite diversified now.”
The historic Marsala connection isn’t the only reason this area is a hub for Sicilian wine. Its low latitude and proximity to the Mediterranean coast means it enjoys a fairly consistent warmth, with little temperature variation between day and night. Most characteristically though, the region is renowned for its warm winds, which result in grapes with a high concentration of sugars and, consequently, wines of higher alcohol content.
As well as creating a distinctive terroir though, the relative dryness of the climate, combined with the coastal soil, can create problems, as Antonio explains.
“We prefer to position our vineyards a little inland, because that’s where you find more clay in the soil. The closer you go to the sea, the more sand you find, which is much less effective at retaining water and therefore makes your vines more susceptible to drought. So we’re slowly creeping back from the coast as the climate gets hotter and drier… This also means we often keep our vines for longer – sometimes more than 20 years – as old vines have deeper roots and are again more drought resistant. We have to harvest these old vines by hand, the old fashioned way, so around half of our grapes are manually harvested.”
Sadly, at the time of writing it’s still not particularly practical to visit Sicily, which is a great shame as Alanga’s home is meant to be spectacular. Hewn from the same sandstone that built the temple at Segesta and the ancient city walls at Marsala, the medieval mine in which Antonio’s grandfather built his winery provides the perfect environment for maturing wine. But in truth, it wasn’t the beauty of the historic surroundings or the potential for tourism that drove the decision.
“My grandfather was looking for cheap land, basically,” Antonio says. “In these areas around Marsala that were heavily mined, land 60 years ago was very cheap. We had no idea where the mines ran, and this was before anything like x-ray machines to scan the ground, so there was always a chance your land could collapse into an old excavation. My grandfather found one of those old caves, used it to store some barrels and eventually built these huge concrete pillars that were both structural – supporting the level above – and each hold about 1200 litres of wine. They’re quite impressive.”
Tourism has become dramatically more important to Sicily’s wine industry over the past 30 years, in line with its shift from bulk exports to quality wines with true regional provenance. The challenge, says Antonio, remains less about recovering from a poor reputation, and more about having no reputation at all.
“It’s a bit of our fault, honestly,” he says. “I think that is a bit linked to our economic history, where the mentality was not that much about creating brands or getting the territory known, but just to produce a lot in the cheapest way. Today, there is much more attention put into quality, but that’s also backed up by building our brands – both individual wineries and Sicily as a whole – and generally in the way we tell our stories. Having people visit and really understand the unique landscape and culture that these wines come from is a huge part of that, so hopefully we will welcome some Wine52 members as soon as travel becomes easier.”
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