Graci: energy, emotion and Mount Etna
Author: Hannah Crosbie
Alberto Graci of Graci and Davy Żyw, our Italy Buyer, discuss the latest vintage, volcanic terroir and the mysteries of Etna.
Where children born into winemaking families are concerned, there is always a question of destiny. Many leave the coop to pursue different lines of work – many return. One such person is Alberto Graci, who sat down with Davy Żyw during his whistle-stop visit to our historic home at St James’s. He tells us how he left his family home in Sicily to pursue an altogether different line of work – one involving considerably less manual labour.
“I went to Rome to study economics, and then I went to Milan to work at an investment bank,” Alberto reveals. “But there was always a history of agriculture in my family.” His grandfather was the winemaker, but after his passing, Alberto returned to his roots. “In 2004, I decided to restart my life in a new place – a place with a great potential.”
PLAYING WITH FIRE
But why Etna? Making wine on an active volcano might deter a risk-averse vigneron, but not Alberto. To him, Etna is not only a place of familiarity, it’s also one of promise. “I felt inspired by the great classical wines. I just knew that Etna could join Barolo and Barbaresco as one of Italy’s finest.”
He gestures to the table as if a full glass of his wine has been poured before him. “Everything you need is in there: complexity, vibrancy, pleasure, beauty. All this is influenced by the cultures and civilisations that have lived in Sicily over 2,000 years.”
Good wine aside, it’s difficult to overlook the very real problems posed by a super-active volcano. When asked how Alberto manages this, he’s – perhaps unsurprisingly – pretty laid back about it.
“We have 50 or 60 eruptions every year, but we live in a world of risks,” he swats away the question with his hand. “There are farmers all over the world. The challenge of Etna that I care about is the extreme climate. We’re on a mountain but we’re connected to the African climate – the storms, the heat. The question is, how do you manage that?”
THE INSTINCT OF AN ARTIST
His answer is simple: by involving himself in every part of the winemaking process. There is no room for error here. “I take care of every aspect of the work – I always believe an artisan should involve themselves in every aspect of the process. In this way, the product is good, but it is also the result of the ideas, sensibilities and instincts of the artist.”
I ask whether those sensibilities include his decision to work with only indigenous varieties; his answer isn’t what I expect. “I don’t work with Nerello Mascalese and Carricante because they’re ‘indigenous’. I use them because they work so well with the terroir and because of their late maturation, they withstand the heat of the African sun. They’re able to express the purity of its Mediterranean beauty.”
Expressing purity is a recurring theme throughout our conversation. Indeed, it’s what initially drew Davy to the wines of Graci. “It’s such a privilege to represent Alberto’s wines. The unique terroir of Etna has such emotion and energy from an extreme environment. It needs a very a careful hand to channel all of this into a single glass.”
A PATCHWORK OF CONTRADE
So what is so special about Graci’s terroir? Firstly, his “contrade” – a word used to denote Sicilian vineyards – includes several old vineyards that survived phylloxera due to their sandy soils. “Or, perhaps, the pest was scared of the volcano,” Alberto laughs.
The geographical make-up of his contrade varies significantly. The volcano is the reason for this: ancient lava flow from different millennia has affected the soil composition greatly. As the vineyards climb the volcano, there is also extreme variation in altitude – from 500 to 1,000 metres above sea level.
Alberto’s interest in exactly how these minutiae affect his wines verges on obsession. “This is what I love about wine, it’s a pleasure to discover the differences and the pure expressions of each plot,” Alberto notes.
It’s apparent he gets a great deal of joy from understanding his contrade scientifically, but he also acknowledges that there are some things that microscopes and refractometers can’t explain.
“How can I explain why my wines smell of blood oranges? Something magical happens in the vineyard and we will never know why. We can study for 1,000 years but there is also a mystery – I want to represent this without overthinking the technique.”
SUSTAINABILITY: AS SOLID AS A ROCK
One thing that Alberto does pay close attention to, however, is the biodiversity and sustainability of Graci. The estate is certified organic and is farmed in a way that honours Alberto’s quest for purity.
“The choice to be sustainable should be as sure and solid as a rock,” Alberto insists. “It’s possible to be sustainable anywhere in the world. Lucky for us, Etna is a place of great natural potential. For example, we have a six-hectare vineyard called Barbabecchi, only two hectares of which is vines – the rest is woodland.”
Alberto continues to emphasise the importance of biodiversity: birds that live in the woodlands eat parasites; he claims he will never chop down a tree. “It’s something that makes the landscape beautiful, but also makes beautiful wine.”
Speaking of beautiful wine, Davy has just ordered some of Alberto’s latest releases. So what can we expect? Davy jumps at the chance to explain Graci’s upcoming cuvées.
“To start, we have the Etna Rosso, Bianco and Rosato – these wines give you a real taste of that Graci purity we’ve been talking about. “We’re also lucky to be getting some of his single vineyards including Muganazzi, Arcurìa and Feudo di Mezzo, they are brooding and alive.”
“They encapsulate such a unique style that not many customers will be familiar with. These wines are some of the finest expressions in the world, let alone in Italy, Sicily, or Etna.”
Browse our complete selection of Graci, plus the new vintages, here.