Expressing Terroir with Marilena Barbera
“I wanted to practice spontaneous winemaking,” said Marilena Barbera. “When I told my mother she said I was crazy. She was afraid to waste a vintage. But the wines were better. Not because of me, but they were more loyal to the terroir.” It was 2006, and Marilena’s father had recently passed away. While working with the consulting winemaker that they had hired, Marilena studied. “When I tasted wines,” she said, “the wines I liked best were natural. Even if they were imbalanced, they were interesting. It was clear that my direction was different than his.” And so, for a while she and he maintained separate projects, until the winery became too small to support them both. Marilena then took over the winery with her mother, and in 2011 she became responsible for all work in the vineyards and cellar. Now, she makes 10-11 different wines a year, all single vineyard bottlings of the indigenous fruit that grows in her grandfather’s vineyards.
Farming 30ha in Sicily, just southwest of Menfi and just a half of a mile from the ocean, Marilena organically farms the Inzolia that her grandfather planted in the 1920’s, just as she attends to the native varietals that were planted 1992-2007. With diurnal temperatures that range between 20-25ºC, which is similar to Alto Adige, the fruit gains concentrations in its acidity and aromas during the night, with optimal ripening during the day, yielding wines with great tension.
“It’s very easy in Sicily to be organic,” she said. “The soil is rich. 80% of the days are sunny. It’s crazy that people in Sicily aren’t [farming] organic. Maybe it’s safer. They’re more comfortable. But with the climate, it’s so easy. No mildew. No infection. Very few bad vintages. This year, northern Italy saw a lot of problems, but in Sicily, it was one of the best.”
Old vine Inzolia
Benefiting from its proximity to the ocean, which Marilena compares to standing in front of an open refrigerator door, her vineyards yield wines that are fresh and bright, and naturally lower in alcohol than wines produced in the mountains. Even at 3-4km inland, her vines are cooled by the ocean, and with a river that runs alongside the west border of her vines, there’s a canyon that carries the winds north to south. “In Sicily, there are only 4 to 5 producers who have vineyards on the water,” she said. But the temperature is hardly the only benefit. “Salinity is very important for white wines. 70% of Inzolias are flabby with no structure because they’re so far from the ocean.” Not only does salinity help protect against bacteria, but it also helps preserve flavors and aromas. “It keeps the fermentation clean,” she added. “That’s why it’s easier to be organic. You have protection against bacteria at the beginning of the fermentation.”
Growing fava beans between rows as cover crops, Marilena only defoliates around the bunches to allow for better air circulation, but she maintains the canopy to protect bunches from the sun. With fertile soils, she doesn’t irrigate, and a portion of her plots have fresh water located two to three meters below the soil, encouraging deep roots.
In the cellar, all fermentations are spontaneous; to the wines she adds only vitamin C and a small amount of sulfites. None of the wines are fined and only her white wines are filtered lightly. If the yield from a vineyard is small, Marilena prefers not to blend its fruit, but to make 500 bottles from a single batch of grapes.
“I feel this is the real meaning of my life, to express my terroir,” she said. “The goal of winemaking is not to make a wine but to let the wine express itself…A winemaker is a translator. Grapes speak a certain language that most people can’t understand. And a winemaker should translate [fruit] to wine, so most people can understand.”
Cantine Barbera Inzolia DOC 2012
Fresh and rich with chalky salinity, light citrus, anise, green herbs and white pepper on the finish. Planted in 2007 to calcareous soils with limestone, the vines here are massal selection from the ‘Dietro le Case’ vineyard, which was massal selection from the family’s older vineyards. “So the genetic selection has always been there,” she said. “Inzolia, more than other varietals is sensitive to clonal selection. If you let the vines cross-pollinate and change, it allows for more complexity.”
Cantine Barbera “Dietro” Inzolia DOC 2012
More savory than fruity with notes of rosemary and sage, rich in body with lots of saltiness and balancing acidity. From 45-year-old vines that were massal selection from her grandfather’s plantings, and planted to calcareous soil enriched by clay and limestone, “Dietro” Inzolia sees 12-36 hours skin contact, depending on the thickness of the skin. To keep the yeast alive during harvest, she creates a pied de cuve.
Cantine Barbera Nero d’Avola IGT 2012
Fresh with bay leaf aromas on the nose, berry fruit and savory shrub herbs on the palate with soft tannins. “There’s not much fruitiness in all of my wines, but there’s consistent salinity in the reds and whites,” said Marilena. Planted in 1992 to alluvial soil consisting of clay banks, the fruit is macerated for ten days and aged for three months in the bottle.
Cantine Barbera “Microcosmo” Rosso IGT 2010
Floral aromas of clay and a hint of Middle-Eastern spices, the palate is savory and powerful but balanced with ripe fruit, fresh acidity and gentle tannins. A field blend that’s predominately Perricone with a touch of Nerello Mascalese, planted to dark soils made by clay banks. At the end of the 1960’s, Sicily was planted to 34,000ha of Perricone and now there are only 204ha. “Nero d’Avola was perceived as the new funky thing from Italy,” she said. “And because the market asked for it, winemakers planted it. Now only 12 producers in Sicily produce Perricone, but for western Sicily, this is a signature grape. The depth of the clay soils and the freshness of the oceans. Nero d’Avola will never reach that potential in western Sicily because it’s not indigenous to western Sicily but southeast. Everywhere people are curious to taste something different, this wine has been successful.”
For more on the wines of Cantine Barbera, read here.