by Musetta Joyce © 2013
In Sicily, November 11th, the Festa di San Martino, is traditionally the day to celebrate the new wine for, as their saying goes, it's when 'Entra l'acqua, esce il vino!' (In with the water, out with the wine!), as the Indian summer fades and the rain begins. And this year it comes with a vengeance, as six months rain falls in twenty-four hours in Sardinia, killing 16 and causing vast damage. Just three years ago the sudden rainfall in the suburbs of Messina killed 39 people and left many homeless. Along the north coast of Sicily, riverbeds that have been dry for years suddenly become seething torrents, sweeping everything and everyone in their path into the sea.
But, to get back to the wine. By now the grape juice that has been fermenting since mid September should be ready to taste. The day is also known as the Feast of the cornuti, (cuckolds) when, while their husbands get drunk, their wives make love to who, presumably, resist the temptation of Bacchus. However, there must be women who prefer the vino, for a popular local proverb declares that 'Non si puo avere la botte pieno e la moglie ubriaca!' (You can't have a full barrel and a drunken wife!). 'Does that mean you like to have your wife drunk?' I've asked several men, but if they do they won't admit it, for Sicilian women consider it unladylike to drink alcohol in public, and when in a bar, they generally drink coffee or soft drinks. There are in fact lots of non-alcoholic aperitifs for the faint hearted. However, in the central piazza in Marsala, the town on the west coast that produces many dessert wines like its namesake (used for making the delicious egg-nog dessert Zabaglione) there is a huge statue/fountain of a very happy woman draining a barrel, with water gushing lewdly out of her every orifice. In a restaurant nearby, curiously enough, while I ordered a small carafe of white wine to accompany my cannelloni for lunch, I noted that all the other diners were drinking Coca Cola or beer.
Local wine in Sicily can often be rough and very acid. The house wine provided in restaurants is usually referred to as either red or white, without any indication of what kind of wine. The white is often dark urine yellow and very strong; while the red is usually pale ruby and very dry. Only recently have wineries begun planting the darker varieties of grapes to yield the mellower Cabernet and Nero d'Avola. The best Sicilian wines like the white Donnafugata ('Runaway woman') or the lovely dessert wine Zibibbo from the Aeolian Islands are not easy to find in Ireland. It's a pity, for Zibibbo is perfect for dunking biscotti after a special dinner.
This year is forecast to be a good year for wines and we decide to make our own. We were hoping to buy the darkest grape juice from a nearby organic vineyard. Unfortunately, it had been already harvested so we have had to make do with a medium-bodied blend.
It's been many years since we sold our old country cottage which was ideal for keeping barrels cool in the summer months. There, we used to experiment with wine-making, fermenting the grape juice with varying results, sometimes leaving us with dozens of litres of nasty vinegar. But now our neighbour, Cicero, has persuaded us to try again, following his advice as to how to get the best effects. Cicero is one who believes in living the Good Life, being almost totally self-sufficient, with fruits trees that ripen in varying seasons so that he has lemons and figs longer than anyone else.
So, with the intentions of following his guidance, we ordered 200 litres of musto (grape juice) from our friends who grow organically, and a large wooden barrel.
First we had to get the barrel ready. This involved boiling a few pounds of carobs and lemon leaves for about half an hour in ten litres of water, rinsing out the barrel while rolling it to one another along a ladder (while singing you know what) and leaving it overnight to infuse. Then, having drained all this liquid, we left the barrel to dry in the sun. Next we have to light a piece of sulphur attached to a wire and insert it inside the barrel. If the flame goes out it means the barrel isn't ready. As it happens the sulphur ash falls into the barrel, so we light another, and then another until the blue flame, with the cork tap closed, continues to burn. The following morning we haul out the Hoover to extract the fallen bits of sulphur ash.
Now we are ready for the musto. When we get to the winery it isn't ready yet as, having been harvested the previous day, the juice has to stay with the skins soaking overnight and then filtered. We have to wait around for an hour or so while the huge steel machine does the job.
We wander uphill above the vineyard to investigate the archaeological findings the owner made after purchasing the land, and we are dumbfounded. There, in the midst of gentle slopes waiting to be cultivated, a rock surface has been sculpted to make a basin for pressing the grapes by foot, with a small hole leading onto a lower basin to collect the juice. Over two centuries ago people grew grapes here, harvested them and made wine just as we are doing now!
Back at the winery I spot a row of beautiful trees, similar to weeping willows, and on closer examination I find there are millions of clusters of tiny rose-coloured balls. Pink peppercorns! I pick a couple of dozen to take home.
At last the grape juice is ready and we take it away in large plastic containers, and pour into our barrel, except for 20 litres that we pour into a cauldron on the already lighting barbeque, where it starts to boil. We add more carobs, leaves from lemon and orange trees, a fistful of dried sour cherries and a pound of raisins. I consider adding the pink peppercorns, but decide against the idea. While himself takes the borrowed containers back to the winery I keep an eye on the fire, pushing more wood beneath the pot to keep it on the boil. After an hour or so it has reduced to half and we drain the syrupy liquid and, once cool, add it to the barrel. Immediately the grape juice begins to hiss. And hiss it will for several weeks, while it ferments. We put a small net over the hole on the top to allow the musto to breath while keeping any insects out. Only when it ceases to hiss will we cork it, and leave it to mature.
By the time it is first ready, however, we are far away, and it will be springtime before we will be able to taste our new wine.
Wine in Sicily is very cheap, particularly when you buy it sfuso (on tap) from a grocery with a few barrels or, these days, steel vats full of a few different kinds of wine, distinguished by their place of origin and not the variety of grape used. This year a litre costs under two euros.
Bars don't generally serve wine at all, for people only drink it at mealtimes. The only exception is Prosecco, which has become fashionable as an aperitif. The fizzy white wine that originated in the townland of the same name is drier than spumante and an economical alternative to champagne.
There are the traditional rustic betoli 'that serve wine to men only. They are usually working class men, who meet up after work to gossip and play cards.
Suddenly last summer, for the first time a new kind of bar has appeared at the airports in Palermo and Catania, calling themselves with the English term: 'Wine Bars'. For 6 euros they serve wine by the glass from standard size bottles of decent quality wine. I have even spotted the odd Sicilian signora perch on a high stool, clutching her long stemmed glass of Cabernet with a certain touch of class. So, if this fashion takes off, perhaps Sicilian women will start to appreciate wine at last for, as a wise writer once said: 'A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine!'