Wine is Life: Daring Natural Wine on the Tuscan Island of Giglio

Francesco Carfagna has a zen approach to the extraordinary challenges of grape growing, wine making and life on his beloved Giglio. The terrain is rocky and rough on this tiny island (9 sq miles) with fewer than 500 full-time inhabitants. (The wreck of the cruise ship Concordia made it famous in 2012.)

The name of Francesco’s winery, “Altura”, means “wild, high altitude location”, a completely apt description. His vineyards cling to a steep slope that drops precipitously toward the sea. But nothing seems to deter him. His motto is “Wine is life.”

This rocky, acidic, granite soil mixed with sand along with the salt air, wind and sun yields wine with a crisp edge and lots of personality. Francesco grows primarily Ansonica (called Ansonaco on the island) and Sangiovese, two classic grape varieties for this part of Tuscany, in alberello vines, some very old and most over 25 years old.

While he was growing up in Rome, Francesco spent summers on Giglio. The call of this Tuscan island got stronger and stronger with time. Beginning in the 80s, Francesco began staying out there as much his job in Florence (teaching high school math) would allow him. He picked up odd jobs as a stone mason. In 1986, he decided to quit teaching altogether in order to opt for life on the island.

Eventually, some years later, he bought abandoned vineyards near the uninhabited southern tip of the island. The drive out there is not for the faint of heart.

The road hugs the side of the hill and passes through acres of abandoned vineyards in what in 1996 became part of the National Park of the Tuscan Archipelago. This photo shows a tiny triangle of a vineyard that is one part of the vineyards that Francesco reclaimed.

The environmental regulations have made it illegal to reclaim any more vineyards, a decision that Francesco strongly disagrees with. This summer, in what seems like a completely absurd decision, a judge fined him 8,000 euro and sentenced him to 11 days in jail for clearing a small path (100 sq meters) between his vineyards. Slowfood Italia recently published a letter that he wrote about the situation. His view is that natural cultivation of the vine has existed here for millennia and deserves equal protection to “jungle wildness”. This bureaucratic challenge is worse for Francesco than all the natural ones combined.

The main part of his 3,5 hectares tumbles down toward the sea so steeply that from this view, the lower part of the vineyard isn’t visible.

It took Francesco 5 years to clear the vineyards of brush and another 7 years to finish all the walls. He does all the vineyard work by hand with the help of one other guy and a hoe. This is what is known as “heroic” grape growing.

Francesco has also had to wage a continuing war with the rabbits. In pure frustration, he finally had to fence in the new vines that he planted.

In 1987, Francesco met his wife, Gabriella, who had come from Mantova with friends to stay at Pardini’s Hermitage, a rustically elegant outpost on the other side of the island. Their grown daughter now works full-time with them at Altura.

Their home and cellar are in a former grain mill, a short walk from the walls of Giglio’s Castello.

It is, without a doubt, the most unusual winery I’ve ever visited.

The living quarters in the upper two stories are reminiscent of being aboard a small ship. This minuscule kitchen hardly looks big enough for making a cup of tea, but Francesco deftly prepared a superlative lunch…

Fileting a local fish that had been resting in the stone sink (right)…

 

Tossing it with garlic, vegetables and pasta in the pan…

And serving it to Gabriella and me with his Altura “Ansonaco dell’Isola di Giglio” Toscana IGT 2016. 

This is one of the most drinkable “skin contact” or “orange wines” I’ve ever tried. In the three days that I was out on the island, I admit to drinking volumes of it. Francesca and Gabriella poured it for meals but also for a beautiful aperitivo one night at sunset. The sun’s rays seemed to have materialized in the glasses.

The Ansonica (called Ansonia grape variety is low in acid but the acidic and very rocky, granite soil along with the salt air give the wine structure and a mineral “edge”. Giglio is probably the most perfect spot for this heat and drought resistant variety that is also grown in Sicily and known there as Inzolia. (Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Ian D’Agata, p. 180)

After a few days contact with the skin, the grapes are left to ferment spontaneously with native yeasts in stainless steel containers. There is no hurry. Francesco and I stood quietly in the cellar to listen to the Ansonica 2015, which was still fermenting(!!!) while the 2016 had already finished.

On the first day that I was there, Francesco was transferring the 2016 off the spent lees. He uses no wood and does no filtration or clarification, adding just a touch of sulfites. The wine can be drunk right away (as we did…out of pitchers filled directly from the vats in the cellar) or later (I tried the 2012, which had mellowed but still had lots of vitality and acidity.)

Going down to the cellar involves going out the front door…

And downstairs….

Through another living area, outside and around the corner into the cellar…

Another Altura wine, which quickly became my favorite this summer, is Altura Isola Del Giglio “Rossetto di Sangiovese” Toscana IGT. The Sangiovese grapes ferment with the skins for just three days. Francesco says, “This wine is actually whiter than my white.” And it is. It has lots of bright, fresh acidity both from the grape variety, the soil, and the salt air but very light structure (12,5% alcohol). It is best served chilled like a white.

It was a perfect compliment to these fried anchovies, freshly caught on the island. I bought a case to take home and serve as an aperitivo and also with just about any light, summer food I was serving during the torridly hot weather we had in July and August.

Francesco’s third wine,  Altura Isola Del Giglio “Rosso Da Uve Miste” Toscana IGT,  (which translates to “Red from a Mix of Grapes”) is mostly Sangiovese with a little Grenache and a few other native varieties tossed in. It is a rich, complex with structureacidity, minerality and nice tannins (14% alcohol). A perfect pairing for the aged pecorino cheese and wild boar salami I had brought from Pienza.

Before I left Giglio, Francesco showed me a shelf of wines given to him by close friends/ionic natural winegrowers:
Tenuta Di Valgiano (Laura Collobiano and Saverio Petrelli), La Stoppa (Elena Pantaleoni), Radikon (Stanko Radikon, who passed away in 2016. Francesco was making some of his Ansonaco wine as a dedication to Stank.), Giuseppe Rinaldi,

Each of these winegrowers produces distinctive wines that express a clear “identity” and “personality”. All have been courageous pioneers in natural grape growing and winemaking. They share Francesco’s “zen” trust in the land, the grapes and in the path that they are on. For them, “Wine is life.” in the broadest sense.

Francesco’s small production makes it fairly difficult to find his wines, which typically sell for $30-40. Try looking on Wine Searcher or contact Francesco directly for info on where to buy his wines.

 

Francesco Carfagna
Località Mulinaccio 58012
Isola del Giglio, Toscana
Italia
Tel: +39 0564 806041
altura@arcobalena.net

August, 2017

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Comments

    • Jeff Nedeau
    • September 1, 2017
    Reply

    Great story Eleanor. Very inspiring!

      • Eleanor Shannon
      • September 4, 2017
      Reply

      Thanks, Jeff. Yes, it really is quite a story, and the wine is such a true expression of the place and the man.

  1. Reply

    Eleanor,

    Amazing thanks for the info

      • Eleanor Shannon
      • September 4, 2017
      Reply

      So glad you enjoyed the article!

  2. Pingback: Pardini’s Hermitage: Escape to a Magical Hideaway on the Island of Giglio – Uncorked In Italy Italian Natural Wine

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