“Everybody uses enological methods to try to make a good wine, but for us, that’s the wrong way. Because you see—we already know how to make wine. We’ve been looking for how wine was made in the past."
Federica Turillo and Cesare Fulvio have a purpose much greater than simply making wine: they wish to retell the stories of the past.
Their goal is to return to ancestral methods of winemaking, viticulture and cooperage, to faithfully emulate the wines of centuries gone by. For them, wine has a unique ability to transport you to another time, another place, and to educate you about the cultures of previous generations.
And when you taste their wines, you’ll see.
Meet Federica and Cesare
We dial into FaceTime with this duo during lockdown due to Covid-19. It’s dusk, and they take us enthusiastically out to the vineyards, to show us Sicily’s famous volcano: Mount Etna. Next, they show us the cellar, where Cesare gestures enthusiastically at a vat. It’s not oak: it’s chestnut. This is one step in uncovering the wines of the past; it was the tradition of the area to use chestnut for ageing the wines. Cesare explains,
“The purpose of building vessels like this is to try to make the same wine that people would have drunk in the past. Instead of using modern enology, we apply the Mediterranean culture of winemaking, which is a very old tradition, running back thousands of years.”
“When people taste our wines and say they’re beautiful, that’s great of course, but we see a limit there. We hope that people might taste the wines, and understand that they can help them to travel back in time. It's a difficult message to communicate.”
We nod. It’s an inspiring way to look at wine—as a time capsule; a message in a bottle to times gone by.
Federica and Cesare aren’t the kind of people who will begin talking about their vineyard with, “we have xxx hectares of xxx grape variety.” Rather, when we begin talking about their vineyard, they don’t mention the vines at all. They start with the trees.
“We have trees just 50m from the vineyard, so biologically and geographically they are close to the vines. So when we made our chestnut barrel and put the wine inside, the two were in touch with one another once more. So of course, there was no bad reaction between the wood and the wine; rather they had something in common.”
He goes on to explain that the trees and the vines have more in common that what initially meets the eye:
“When we cut the staves, we understood so many things. Inside the chestnut was a mixture of something more than just the chestnut—because of the root exchange between plants and trees, each variety of trees gives something to the other. If you cut a chestnut tree that lives only with other chestnut trees, it’s a totally different kind of wood.”
Why is this such a big deal? You might ask. It’s a big deal because chestnut has been known in the past to be an aggressive form of wood, less qualitative than oak. Cesare says,
“But here, the chestnut isn’t aggressive at all, even after just one or two years. I never believed it when people used to say chestnut is a bad wood for wine. We wanted to prove this wasn’t true. As so many things in life, perhaps the decline of chestnut wood was due to commercial ongoings. Like with the barrels, there are so many other aspects of our job—that come before and after the barrel—which can deepen our understanding of wine. This is why we must communicate our message.”
“Wine is biologically alive. so, when it gets in touch with other organic elements, there might be problems, like with cork. So imagine what troubles might happen with untreated natural wood? But we understood in this case that there’s a kind of friendship between the vineyard and the trees that live nearby. In the past, we had a 200-year-old chestnut barrel, but because of its age it didn’t give us an answer to the question. The new one is giving us an answer, because it combines perfectly, with no negative results in the wine. It’s beautiful.”
We’re entranced. Are you?
We ask how this train of thought began; how the intricacy of nature’s relationship with the past was first contemplated. They smile in tandem and their response is almost in unison:
“We live inside a vineyard, and our bedroom is by the winery. So we live and work in the vineyard, 24/7. When you live this way, Nature feeds you. You become part of it. You learn so much: about bugs, plants, weather; you feel everything that’s going on. We don’t even analyse our wines or our soil, because we know what’s going on. We live in the same weather, the same temperature, the same conditions. We learn directly.”
Their vineyard was here long before them; some of the vines are at least 140 years old. The old planting method of layering is still present here; testament to time before phylloxera.
“When we arrived here, there was an old man who’d lived here all his life. He didn’t even know what the word “sulphite” meant. Believe me, until the middle of the 20th century, this part of the world was still medieval. As a result, this place doesn’t know what chemicals are.”
It’s sadly a rarity today to find land that has never seen a chemical. This is land that human beings have trampled less; something to be cherished.
“The owners before us, they were smart, beautiful and honest people; very careful with nature.”
Home Video: Harvest 2020
So from the word go, they knew they wished to respect the soils and ecosystem of this magical place. Even for their sprays, they don’t buy any external products.
“We prepare and make our own sprays from very old recipes. It works really well, it’s very cheap, and it enriches the land and plants. We don’t want to harm the land or take anything away from it.”
They melt their own sulphur, along with other minerals, and prepare fertiliser and sprays from cow manure, milk, ash, herbs, fruits. We stop him, asking, "fruits?"
“Yes! All sorts. The point is fermentation. When things start to ferment, if you put it into water and spray, you’ll transmit energy, as you’re spraying microorganisms that are alive. Those tiny guys work in the vineyard by creating a very big energy in the hummus. That’s romance: something that gives life, that transforms, that keeps working.”
When it comes to the varieties; the predominant part of the vineyard is planted to Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, but there are white varieties present, too. Carricante, Catarratto, but many others are a mystery. Federica laughs, saying,
We don’t even know what kind of varieties some of them are. Some are so old; we ask around but nobody knows. Some even look like little bananas!”
We’ve never seen anything like it. Some Georgian varieties, like Rkatsiteli, have ovoid shapes, but bananas? We’re speechless.
Their cuvée Superluna is harvested by full moon: they begin at 4am by the light of the moon in the sky. Cesare explains,
“Harvesting with an ascending or full moon is important. When the moon is rising or full, the plant takes all of the sap from the roots upwards, so have all of the sugar, the phenolics, the bacteria, everything going into the grape. When the moon is descending, the plant empties.”
After pressing the wines, they put the wine into the barrel where it lives for the foreseeable future, without being touched or even tasted. The same moon principle applies to the winery; bottling is also done at full moon, to capture the energy in the wine.
“Everybody uses enological methods to try to make a good wine, but for us, that’s the wrong way. Because you see—we already know how to make wine. Instead, we’ve been working to look for how wine was made in the past; what those people who were here 2,300 years before us were talking about.”
Aside from the chestnut wood they are using to make new barrels, they also use other ancestral techniques: everything is foot stomped.
For their red wine, they have chosen to work with stems:
“In the past, we tried to separate the berries from the stems, but lately we’ve come to understand it’s better with the stems—almost in a similar manner to the chestnut tree. We realised we didn’t separate the berries when we first made wine, but we’d changed along the way. Perhaps we’d been influenced by something we read or heard. So, we started again.”
Their only rule is time: the wine must go through every season in the barrel.
“Every kind of nature’s activity should happen in the barrel, not the bottle. If you wait for a season with the wine in a barrel with no temperature control, just natural temperature, it will experience the cold, the spring, the summer, the heat… the wine lives through great fluctuations of temperature. After that, we consider the wine ready to go into bottle. We are quite sure nothing else can happen.”
He laughs, as he tells us,
“We discovered this, because last year we bottled our rosé and white before the first season was complete, for several reasons. It meant we had refermentation in the rosé. It became sparkling. We were happy anyway because we like that kind of wine, and are sure that people will understand and eventually even appreciate the nature of the wine—an alive wine.”
They are also trialling other types of wine, such as an old farmers’ wine that was given to workers. It was created by taking the remnants of grape skins, putting them into a barrel, putting water inside and leaving the mixture outside in the sun for 20-odd days to referment. A little like an ancient Roman version of a piquette.
“At the end, we tasted it and we understood what that story was about. It was a pleasure to drink it, and it brought us an insight.”
It’s not just ancient history they’re seeking. Cesare ventures,
“I started drinking wine here on Etna when I was born. I can remember the wines of 50+ years ago, and I remember how beautiful they were. Much better than so many today. So who says we need to change? For us, there is nobody better than nature. Nobody can do better than nature. You must respect nature with your feelings, and with your love.”
Natural wine is a term that’s splashed around far too often, without really contemplating its meaning. But when you speak to Federica and Cesare, you begin to understand. The Masseria del Pino wines demonstrate history through the lens of Mother Nature: with love from Mount Etna, herself.