It may be just a sliver of land off Sicily, but Mozia is remaking history after bringing back viticulture, writes Christine Austin

I was fortunate to find the Charioteer at home.  He has had a busy time since being discovered in 1979, covered in mud and stones off the shore of the little island of Mozia.  He came to London for the 2012 Olympics but now mainly stays in a tiny museum on Mozia, and is regarded as one of the finest ancient Greek statues in the world.  At 2500 years old he is wearing very well, still powerful, athletic and impressive.

The island of Mozia, formerly called Motya is so small that its area is measured in metres (850 x 750) not miles.  It sits a short boat-ride off the shore of the western point of Sicily and at one point in its history it was an affluent city and major stronghold for the Phoenicians who used it as a hub for their excursions to Africa and across the Mediterranean.  They were not just traders; they were largely responsible for the spread of viticulture across the Mediterranean. Eventually the island was laid siege to and sacked by a more powerful army and  then it fell into ruins, to be inhabited just by local fishermen for centuries.  Maybe they tended the vines that the Phoenicians had inevitably planted.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 20th century when Giuseppe Whitaker, Sicilian-born of Yorkshire heritage, decided to buy the island.  He had inherited a fortune from the family’s Sicilian Marsala wine business, but rather than spend his life in commerce, he became a noted ornithologist and archaeologist.  He started to explore and excavate the island of Mozia, discovering quantities of ancient amphorae that had been used to hold wine during the island’s heyday, centuries before.

And that was probably the start of the new phase of wine on Mozia.  At first there were just a few vines but now there are new plantings, tucked in between the ruins of ancient houses, roads and a fortress, to show that the vines are at last returning to Mozia.

Starting with a tiny plot, the vineyards have been gradually expanded so that there are enough vines on this historic site to make a realistic amount of wine. Now with 11 hectares planted, each plot is fenced off to keep rabbits out, and bearing in mind the size of this tiny island, this is probably the maximum that can be planted.

The island is now owned by a foundation in the name of Giuseppe Whitaker while the vines are tended by a team from Tasca d’Almerita, one of Sicily’s top wine producers.  They have planted Grillo grapes, a typical grape for this part of Sicily, that was created a century ago by crossing local Catarratto Bianco and Muscat of Alexandria. The result is a crisp, lively, refreshing wine, with a minerally, almost salty character.  It goes perfectly with the local fish.

Despite being sheltered between the Sicilian coast and a larger island, this low-level sliver of land is constantly buffeted by winds, so to prevent the vines from being rocked out of the soil they are pruned short and tight.  Then the two main fruiting shoots are woven together to create an arch which sits barely 18 inches above the loose limestone and sandy soil.  This is a style of pruning I have never seen before.  There is no irrigation on the island and while rainfall is a reasonable 400 mm a year, the vines yield a very small crop,

The vineyards are organic, grown without chemical fertilizer or pesticides and Tasca d’Almerita has a strong ecological ethos so nothing is done that could harm the local wildlife.   Once ripe, the grapes are picked into small boxes and taken down to the landing stage. There are no modern winemaking facilities on the island, and while there are archaeological remains which could have been used for making wine they really don’t come up to modern standards.  Over the water on the mainland of Sicily, the grapes are transported to the Regaleali estate to be made into wine. The result is a tiny quality of beautifully fresh, vibrant wine whose significance far outweighs its actually price. At present Grillo wine from Mozia is not available in the UK, but if you go to the island you can buy it there. It is also available in a few shops in Italy at around £16.

With its historic ruins, the vineyards, wine and of course, the Charioteer, the island of Mozia is a worthwhile excursion when you are in Sicily, especially if you already plan to go on one of the many tours to the cellars in Marsala.

As well as Grillo wine from Mozia, Tasca d’Almerita produce a fine range of wines from their vineyards at several sites across Sicily.

Tascante is the name of their estate on the side of Mount Etna where they grow grapes in rich volcanic soil. The white is made from Carricante grapes, producing a wine with a fresh, fragrant style, edged with minerals.  Find this at Tannico in Nottingham priced £17.89.  The red is made from Sicily’s juicy, lively Nerelo Mascalese grape, which tastes like a generous fruity, cherry-filled Pinot Noir crossed with the freshness of Beaujolais.  The result is a fantastic lively wine that goes perfectly with pasta and pizza.  Find this at Winedirect .co.uk at £19.95.

Tasca d’Almerita also make excellent wines at their showpiece estate, Regaleali.  Located high in the hills of central Sicily this largest estate produces elegant whites and rounded, full-flavoured reds.  Head to Winearray in Boroughbridge for the crisp, minerally flavours of Regaleali Bianco 2015 made from a blend of Inzolia, Catarratto  and Grecanico grapes (£13.50). Winearray also has a few bottles of the superb Rosso del Conte (£45) from old-vine Perricone and Nero d’Avola grapes.   This was the first single-vineyard wine produced in Sicily and it stands out for its complex figs and damson fruit with supple tannins and a long, full finish.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

Let us know what you think

comments