Ferrandes on Pantelleria: Deep Roots in Ancient Volcanic Soil

Salvatore Ferrandes, who farms on a volcanic island closer to Africa than Sicily, calls himself a “contadino (peasant farmer) in the middle of the sea”. Despite backbreaking difficulty, he holds fast to organic grape growing and natural winemaking traditions dating back to the 1400s when his Spanish ancestors came to Pantelleria.

They were preceded by the Arabs, whose place names remain along with the characteristic, low lying dammuso houses made from volcanic rock. Salvatore’s wisdom, experience and know how are becoming increasingly rare as winegrowers abandon vineyards that were recently named as a UNESCO World Heritage site. He is one of a very few, who still makes the centuries old Passito di Pantelleria wine on the island (instead of shipping the grapes back to the main island of Sicily).

“Until thirty years ago,” Salvatore told me,”all of the island was in cultivation. She was like a wild horse that had been tamed and domesticated with terraces made by contadini.” T
Dammuso Side
The Ferrandes cellar is a dammuso pictured above. (Since there is no freshwater spring on the island, the Arabs designed the domed roofs of the dammuso houses to channel rainwater into cisterns below ground.)

It is in Mueggen, a bowl shaped valley under the Montagna Grande volcano: one of the few places on the tiny island from which you cannot glimpse the sea. Some of the Ferrandes vines are on the steep hill to the right.
valley vineyards

Some are behind the dammuso (pictured below), and some are outside Muggen in other parts of the island. All are planted in the low bush method of the island. The vineyard to the left of his here was abandoned by his neighbor just a year earlier. (People either leave the island or increasingly turn to easier, more lucrative work related to a burgeoning tourism industry.) For him, seeing the abandoned land leaves him with a feeling of loss, completely contrary to memories of working with his father and grandfather surrounded by other families working their land.
abanFerr

The work is hard because each vine is planted deep in a hand dug basin in the volcanic soil to protect it from the island’s harsh winds and to direct any rainfall or humidity toward the roots. The wind and loose volcanic soil otherwise cause water to disappear quickly.
vines

We drove out of Mueggen toward the sea to visit his other vineyards on the southern and western parts of the island. The islanders discovered centuries ago how to plant Zibbibo grapes (the native variety used for making Passito di Pantelleria) in fertile areas along with capers and olive trees that could grow with less soil. All three are growing on these steep terraces belonging to Ferrandes.
hill vineyard

The capers grow best in rock (below), and a large part of the island is harsh, volcanic rock. Nine different volcanoes formed the island over time beginning with eruptions 35,000 years ago.
capers.rock

Then, olive trees grow in rocky terrain that has some soil. Almost unrecognizable, this is an olive tree (below) that has been deliberately pruned to grow low to the ground to protect it from the near constant wind that strafes the island. The name Pantelleria derives from Arabic words meaning “Daughter of the Wind”.
olive

Some of Salvatore’s most dramatic vineyards hang precipitously above the sea. Visible here are the round, white washed roofs of the dammuso homes, now mostly rented by summer vacationers.
EA from above

The large rock protruding at the bottom of the photo is the Arch of the Elephant, seen here from the side.
arch of Elephant

The small dammuso on the sides of the vineyard here were built not as permanent homes but as temporary shelter mostly from wind and sun. Since whitewashing was expensive, these roofs remained natural.
olive grove

The Ferrandes vines are 45-80 years old with gnarled trunks and roots running for many meters down into the earth.
old vines

The men, who worked these terraces and vines for centuries, developed intricate understanding of the effects of the soil and the wind on their grapes. Their technical know how was passed from generation to generation. Salvatore is passing the knowledge on to his son, Adrian, who on the day I visited had just come home from the university in Florence for the summer.
Father.Son

Adrian jumped out of the car and ran down among the vines as though they were old friends he needed to reconnect with after a few months off the island.
son in vines

Salvatore said, “I don’t accept things just because they’ve been done for centuries, but if they’ve been done for centuries, I try to understand why. More often than not, the contadino knows best.”

In these two videos, Salvatore explains some of the centuries old wisdom he uses in tending his vines. He has to first have the expertise to recognize the subtle differences among the vines then, to prune with delicate efficacy….all of this while leaning over or kneeling on the ground.

He points out here that the choices he makes become his way of expressing himself in the wine he makes.

In this last one, he explains “green pruning” in a detailed way to help me understand how what he does in the vineyard affects the plants: in this case, the “fruit set”. (After flowering and pollination, the plant forms and seed, which the fruit grows around to protect. The successful transformation of the tiny flowers into grapes is called “fruit set”.)

When we got back to Mueggen, Salvatore showed me the screens he lays the Zibbibo grapes on to dry in the warm, September sun for two weeks, sheltered from the wind by volcanic rock walls..
drying rack

Salvatore’s cellar inside the dammuso is sparse with a few stainless steel containers where the grapes ferment naturally with indigenous yeasts. His wife, Dominica Reck, who partners with him in producing and selling wine, capers and olive oil, joined us.
imageedit_5_9047259755photo credit: Susan Savage

We went outside to the terrace of the dammuso where we first tried the dry Zibbibo that Salvatore makes just for the family…clean, refreshing, aromatic. Thirsty as we were from walking in the vineyards, it was the ideal aperitivo wine.
FerrandesAll copy photo credit: Susan Savage

Then, Salvatore poured Ferrandes Passito di Pantelleria 2007. He explained that it is a true vino di meditazione (a wine that can be enjoyed on its own with no food pairing to enjoy its full harmony and complexity). Passito wines are most often drunk after the meal, but we were drinking it before. Salvatore said that he likes drinking it before eating because his taste buds are fully alert to all the complexity in the wine. It was astoundingly delicious in paradoxical ways: both wild and elegant, sweet and salty, strong and soft, intense and delicate.
Passito di Pant

Salvatore explained that his challenge is to find equilibrium among these paradoxical characteristics. The dried grapes give the wine it’s aromatic, sweet characteristics and 14-15% alcohol content. The volcanic soil and the sea, on the other hand, lend crisp minerality, and the natural acidity of the grape variety givesfreshness. And he does all of this naturally according to the wisdom of the contadino.
glass of Passito
As we sat sipping the wine and looking out over the valley, the sun slipped below the horizon, and a full moon rose. Knowing how much expertise and physical labor had gone into the wine, it tasted especially precious.
top of dammusi

In the beauty and silence of the moment, Salvatore said quietly, “Making this wine is also poetry.” There was a pause, then, he continued, “It is terribly hard work, but in moments like this, it is also poetry.”
imageedit_4_7953417774photo credit: Susan Savage

To find out where to buy Ferrandes Passito di Pantelleria, contact:
Proposta Vini
Beverfood in Sicilia
Dominica Reck
Or
Wine Searcher

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