Meet The 'Heroic' Vintners Conserving Italy's Violet Coast
A group of dedicated growers grapple with difficult terrain, scorching heat and the area's gradual population drain to produce a unique variety of wine called Armacìa.
BAGNARA CALABRA — Rosario Morello inspects the cultivated rows of Zibibbo, a white wine grape also known as Muscat of Alexandria.
In a few days' time, on these steep ridges connecting the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Aspromonte Mountains and spanning a roughly six-mile stretch between the coastal towns of Scilla and Bagnara Calabra in Southern Italy, the grape harvest will begin.
Morello is one of the very few remaining full-time grape-growers on the Violet Coast.
"Here we practice heroic viticulture," he says proudly.
It's not just a figure of speech. The term speaks to how harrowing it is to grow grapes in this rough, difficult-to-access terrain, with high-altitude ridges that in some places are practically vertical. The resulting wines, it is said, contain unique flavors attributed to the unusual conditions: a salty sea-breeze, a high-alkaline soil.
On either side of the scenic Strade Statale 18 highway running parallel to the coast, wild, chaotic vegetation sometimes burned to a crisp can be seen interspersed with tidily kept patches of terraced vineyards.
In addition to Zibibbo, Morello cultivates the Calabrian Nerello, the Prunesta and Malvasia grapes. Together they form the ingredients of Armacìa, a local red wine that the small group of Violet Coast vintners has been producing since 2006 as part of a cooperative they named Enopolis.
The wine's name is an homage to the Armacere, the dry stone walls running along some 12 miles of coast here, which for centuries have rendered agriculture possible. It's an extreme wine, the fruit of the labor of a the few remaining — and very fatigued — hero vintners.
Morello, president of Enopolis, was 10 years old when he began pruning the vines. At 13 he learned how to make grafts. At 20 he was building the dry stone walls. Now he is 55 years old.
He recalls that when he was little, the terraced vineyards reached all the way down to the sea. Back then it was mostly the women who harvested the grapes. They would scale the rough terrain, fill huge baskets with more than 100 pounds of grapes, then carry them balanced on their heads or shoulders back to the palmento, or cellar, to be crushed.
They would press the grapes in tanks with boards and let the must ferment.
"They worked night and day," Morello explains, beginning late September and even through Nov. 4 — a national holiday in Italy commemorating victory in World War I.
In 2004, there were 100 or so members. Today there are about 60.
A few years ago Giuseppe Modica and Salvatore Di Fazio, professors from the agronomy department at the University of Mediterranean Studies of Reggio Calabria, got together with researcher Salvatore Praticò, who did his doctoral thesis on the landscape of Violet Coast terraced vineyards, to do an estimate.
By comparing historical images to contemporary satellite photos, the team discovered that between 1955 and 2014, some 85% of the terraces were abandoned: from around 2,000 cultivated acres down to just 300. At the same time, the populations of Scilla and Bagnara Calabra have contracted and aged: from 20,000 inhabitants down to 15,000.
"It was a system that relied on the workforce of the whole family," Di Fazio explains. Also, it was usually carried out under long-term agricultural contracts, in which it was in the renter's interest to begin production as quickly as possible. Today that system is obsolete.
Morello has just finished repairing a section of stone wall. It took five workers and an entire day to dismantle and restock the layers of rock, which, in keeping with tradition, are laid without any binding material other than a bit of dry soil. It's an art form, recognized in late 2018 by UNESCO as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. But it also has a cost. Morello estimates it takes 10,000 euros to repair a hundred cubic meters (that's 130 cubic yards) of dry stone wall.
Costa Viola, province Calabria (Italy) — Photo: Francesco Rossetto/Instagram
His workday begins at 4 a.m., and sometimes runs until 10 p.m. if he has to prepare his produce to be sold at the market. In addition to the grapevines, Morello cultivates vegetables: tomatoes, aubergines, peppers. These last few days he has begun pruning the leaves on the vines. Up until now the heat hadn't allowed it — the sun would have burned the grapes.
"This year we've even worked in 45 °C heat 113 °F," he said.
In addition to his own land, Morello takes care of vines belonging to other members of the cooperative. In 2004 there were 100 or so members. Today there are about 60. Individual plots are small, around half an acre, and the number of full-time growers can be counted on two hands. In the middle of Morello's plots, for example, are those belonging to a family that has since moved to America. He offered to take care of them, but there was no way.
The problem, though, is that if the wine-walls are left to themselves, they can cause great damage. When they work properly, the terraced vineyards are a source of stability on the ridge: the stone walls keep the soil in place while the grapevines act as pumps, evacuating the water from the mountainside. If the vines are left to abandon, the natural pumping system stops working, and the risk of landslides increases.
In this case, cooperation has been the answer.
In the past three years Enopolis has recovered nearly 4,000 cubic yards of stone wall. It was agronomist Rosario Previtera's idea to launch Armacìa, a fruity red served at 55 °F, of which some 12,000 bottles are produced annually.
"You can taste the salinity," says Francesca Tramontana, who in addition to running a bed-and-breakfast in Scilla has a small wine bar dedicated exclusively to Calabrian wines. "The grape skin gets covered with the salt that evaporates off the seawater."
Tramontana's father has a family vineyard in Catona that is part of Enopolis. In addition to Armacìa, which won the gold medal for Extreme Wines in 2013 and 2019, the cooperative produces one other wine typical of the region (known in Italian as an IGT, or indicazione geografica tipica): a Chardonnay-Greco Bianco blend.
Not far from the Tracciolino trail that leads from Bagnara to Palmi, another vineyard is pushing to get the Zibibbo typical of the area officially recognized and certified by the government, in the hopes such a move could be the driving force behind a revival of the local viticultural industry.
Rosario Morello has already noticed a growing interest among the younger generation. He offers training to whoever shows interest in learning the trade. His daughters, for example, have no intention of abandoning the family business. One is currently pursuing a degree in agricultural science, while the other works the vines with her father.
Others, like Francesca Tramontana with her specialized wine bar, lend their support by promoting the local flavor and spirit. "I wouldn't ever want to leave here," she says. "We're doing everything to give this place the image it deserves."