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Firriato: A Sicilian Star
By Rebecca Murphy
Nov 15, 2016
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“Sicily is a wine continent,” said Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato.  “We try to get the best from every scenario.”  Federico is the son-in-law of Salvatore and Vinzia di Gaetano, founders of the Firriato wine company, established in 1984.  The company has vineyards in four estates in Trapani, the westernmost province of Sicily, one on Mt. Etna, on the eastern side of the island, and one on the small island of Favignana off the coast of Trapini.  As they like to say, three terroirs:  Hill in the Trapini countryside, mountain on Etna, and sea on Favignana.  The idea is to embrace the blessings of Sicily’s various soil types and climatic conditions to create multidimensional wines.

I visited three of the Firriato estates in September and the Etna estate in 2013.  Federico was my host in my most recent visit.  His professional background before Firriato was in information security program management.  He went to work at Firriato in mid-2013, and he has immersed himself in the world of wine with intelligent gusto.  His LinkedIn profile says he is Sicily Evangelist & Nature's Helper Responsible for Agronomy & Vineyard Operations, WineMaking, Marketing, PR, Comunication and Whatever Needed to Make Good Wines :-).  He is a champion ambassador for Firriato, generous with his time and knowledge.

This is not a small company.  They produce 4.5 million bottles annually from 350 hectares (864.8 acres) of organically certified vineyards.  The wines for all of the estates but Cavanera on Etna are processed, fermented and aged at a large facility in Paceao equipped with all the bells and whistles needed for making a full range of wines.  Cavanera wines are processed on the property in Etna, which is a requirement of the Etna DOC.  Salvatore Di Gaetano--along with with winemakers Peppe Pellegrino and Giovanni Manzo--oversee these operations.  The organization holds several certifications from the International Organization for Standardization including for the reduction and containment of greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring the use of packaging materials that are recyclable, ensuring full traceability between vineyard and bottle.  Firriato may be big, but they work hard to make unique wines with a sense of place.

Regarding that organic certification, Federico said “Italy requires that all of the estate, not just the vineyards, be certified organic.  Being organic means you cannot be reactive, you must be proactive.  If you get a problem, there is no way to destroy it.”

The Firriato project started with the Baglio Sorìa estate in Trapani.  The property is 110 hectares (271.8 acres) with a beautiful resort with all the amenities including guest rooms, swimming pool, a restaurant headed by chef Gaetano Basiricó, a wine cellar and a bar up the hill from the main resort buildings with a spectacular, 360-degree view of the Trapini countryside.  New buildings for the resort were constructed around a “Baglio,” a 17th century rectangular building enclosing a central courtyard.  The old building included a main house, craft and storerooms and a few rooms for workers.  At this estate, they grow Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  When I was there in early September, pickers were scrambling to harvest the grapes.  Federico was even considering harvesting machines because of the simultaneous ripening of grapes and the threat of rain.

Their best known wine is probably the Harmonium, Sicilia IGT Nero d’Avola.  From the Borgo Guarini estate, it is a blend of Nero d’Avola from three crus in the 165 hectare (407.7 acres) estate, each with different soil types, sun exposures and farming techniques.  I tasted the 2012 ($37 Soilair Selections) and 2006 vintages.  Both wines have great structure featuring vibrant acidity and chewy tannins .  The 2006 showed how well this wine can age with layered flavors of cherry, plum fruit, tobacco, anise while the 2012 showed more forward dark fruit and was more round and smooth in the mouth.

The Perricone grape is indigenous to Sicily.  According to Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, it was grown all over Sicily in the 1800s, but was decimated by phylloxera.  As of 2010, only 133 hectares (328 acres) are planted on the western side of the island near Trapani and Marsala.  Firriato’s Perricone is grown in the 35 hectare (85.5 acre) Pianoro Cuddìa vineyard, which is dedicated to indigenous varieties.  During the hottest months, this vineyard is well ventilated with a high diurnal range of temperature between day and night, which helps this grape to maintain freshness.  Firriato, Terre Siciliane IGT, Ribeca Perricone 2012 ($36, Soilair Selections) is 100 percent Perricone.  It is an elegant, light bodied wine with spicy cherry fruit and notes of woody herbs, crisp acidity and sturdy tannins.

The Calamoni Estate on Favignana Island, is probably their most quixotic venture.  It was acquired in 2007 and they planted 5 hectares (12.3 acres) to Nero d'Avola, Perricone, Cataratto, Grillo and Zibibbo in 2009.  They are pioneers here where there is no written history of vine growing.

Two of the very cool assets of this property are that the soil, full of 600,000-year-old sedimentary shells, is inhospitable to phylloxera and that the dried sea grass that blows into the vineyard is a natural fertilizer.  They have trial vines planted on their own roots and are finding that these un-grafted vines demonstrate a greater ability to adapt to the habitat and greater resistance compared to plants with rootstock.  The biggest pests for the Favignana vines are pigeons who love the ripe grapes. 

I tasted the Favina, Terre Siciliane IGT, La Muciara 2014 ($23, Soilair Selections), which is a blend of Grillo, Catarratto and Zibibbo grapes that were harvested on the island, delivered by boat to the winery, crushed and fermented together in stainless steel.  It spent six months on the lees then six months in bottle before released to market. It is aromatic with a touch of pine, round in the mouth with crisp citrusy acidity making it bright and refreshing.

At the 165 hectare (407.7 acres) Borgo Guarini estate, they were sun-drying an early harvest of Zibibbo grapes laid out on what looked like hundreds of straw mats.  Federico explained that they have developed a new approach to making a passito wine, the “Firriato method.”  The grapes they were drying were from the first harvest when the grapes are not quite ripe, so the finished wine will have crisp acidity.  They hand-turn every bunch as the grapes brown and shrink. The goal is to uniformly dry each bunch.  The grapes lose about 70 percent of their weight in this process.  The second harvest is of super-ripe, late-harvest grapes, which are fermented in stainless steel.  The dried grapes are added to this wine and allowed to steep.  The dried grapes swell and release flavors and aromatics into the wine, then the raisins are removed and go through a second pressing.  This process creates a sweet, rich wine with bright, balancing acidity. The Firriato, Sicilia IGT, L’Ecru Passito, sold in 500ml bottles ranges in price from $37 to $50 in the US depending upon vintage.

As I noted previously, I visited the 11 hectare (27.2 acres) Cavanera Estate on Mount Etna in 2013.  They have a modern winery there, but they have retained the beautiful old press and winemaking area called a palmento, a large, shallow stone basin where grapes are foot-treaded, then pressed by the large wooden press.  The property has terraced vineyards as well as pre-phylloxera vines.  Etna is a truly special wine area with its volcanic soils, high altitudes and indigenous grapes like Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Carricante, Cataratto and Minella planted in Firriato’s estate. 

The elegant Nerello Mascalese takes the lead with Nerello Cappuccio in a supporting role in Cavaner, Etna Rosso DOC, Rovo Delle Coturnie 2011 ($40, Soilair Selections).  It’s got that ethereal red cherry, raspberry fruit laced with rose petals, taut with energy and vibrant acidity and silky tannins.  Cavanera, Etna DOC, Bianco 2014 ($20, Soilair Selections) is a blend of 80% Caricante and 20% Cattarata fermented in stainless steel, with 6 months on lees then 6 months in bottle before release.  I must admit I love Carricante and this one has a light leafy note in its fresh citrus, pear aromas.  It has a lovely soft, round mouthfeel with juicy apple fruit and lemony acidity. 

Big company they may be, but the people of Firriato are clearly dedicated to understanding the estates they farm and making wines unique to those estates.  They clearly have the resources and adventuresome spirit to venture beyond familiar territory.  They clearly have wines you need to experience.