Wine notes

Tuesday, 19 January 2010


Charities which focus on the production of wines can expect to elicit the same reaction most organic wines have provoked: it is laudable but is the product any good? I must admit I had similar thoughts when I first heard of Centopassi, a Sicilian co-operative located in the heartland of the Cosa Nostra, Corleone. For most people, just hearing the village's name will conjure up all kinds of romantic if violent clichés, fed mostly by endless reruns of The Godfather, but from my own experience I remember Corleone as a sinister place. Sheltered, or hidden, depending on the point of view, by the rock mass of the Alto Belice Corleonese, it firmly turns its back on strangers attracted by its infamous reputation, as home of one of the Mafia's most feared bosses, Toto Riina.

Italy has several projects and/or co-operatives which try either to fight wrongdoing or to rehabilitate people gone off the tracks. That it can work is evidenced by San Patrignano in Emilia Romagna, a project helping severe addicts give up hard drugs while integrating them into work in the vineyard and cellar. Some pretty classy wines are turned out by the estate, which has Riccardo Cotarella, no less, as a consulting oenologist.

Centopassi is the viticultural and winemaking merger of two Co-operative Sociale, la Cooperativa Sociale Placido Rizzotto-Libera Terra and la Cooperativa Sociale Pio La Torre-Libera Terra in Sicily. Both co-operatives manage agricultural lands confiscated from Cosa Nostra bosses Brusca and Riina. Libera Terra, the association which runs the co-ops, is itself part of a much larger organisation, whose sole objective is to fight the mafia in all areas of Italian society, and is called Libera. Libera Terra came into being as the result of the so-called Rognoni-La Torre law, also known as law 109/96, which was drawn up in 1996 after more than a million farmers had signed a petition to allow for the confiscated land to be used for its original purpose. The law was the brainchild and dream of Pio La Torre, a fierce opponent of organised crime, who in the 1980s started to prepare the grounds for confiscation of mafia properties, and who, in 1982, literally paid for this with his life.

Libera Terra manages confiscated properties throughout southern Italy, with the majority (47%) in Sicily, as well as several properties in Calabria, Campania, Lazio, and, surprisingly, Lombardia. The co-ops produce all kinds of agricultural produce but Centopassi's wines have actually found the recognition of italy's leading wine guides, L'Espresso and Gambero Rosso. Or, to quote the journalist Luciano Pignataro, the worst thing you could do would be to regard Centopassi as a charity or some kind of reserve. The only way to make the mission successful is to produce something exceptional. And in order to do this, and get the attention of the market, you must simply have to keep up the morale and do things better than others.

And keeping up the morale may have been the single most important ingredient for Centopassi's success so far, judging by the experiences of Antonio Castro, Centopassi's agronomist. In a chilling account, he explains that there is a general fear of working the confiscated lands because one constantly meets members of the Mafia families in the streets. Either you stop caring, as Ascione has done, or you leave, unable to withstand the psychological pressure.

If that were not enough to make you buy the wines, it so happens that these are some of the most exciting wines currently coming from Sicily. The three wines described below are all crus, from single vineyards, and from some of Sicily's most promising grape varieties. The grapes are organically grown, as Centopassi believes that organic viticulture is part of the resistance against organised crime, which it wants literally to clear the soils. Or, to quote Don Luigi Ciotti, Libera Terra's founder: 'In Sicily a culture against Mafia has unfortunately grown on blood'.


Libera Terra manages some 400 ha (988 acres), of which 42 ha are vineyards. The land and the vineyards are managed organically and produce pasta, honey, dried vegetables and wine. A stone's throw away from the mafia stronghold Corleone, it also has several buildings formerly owned by the mafia, which have been turned into an agriturismo, Italy's answer to bed & breakfast.

The wines were presented during a seminar at Parlano I Vignaioli, the very first organic wine fair held in Ercolano, Naples, in November.

Centopassi, Terre Rosse di Giabbascio Catarratto 2008 IGT Sicilia 16 Drink 2010-13
Produced from 100% Catarratto, one of Sicily's most planted varieties, from a vineyard of about 20 years old, at 400 m. The name terre rosse stems for the fact that the 4 hectares of vineyard have been planted on reddish brown sand, a very rare soil type in this part of Sicily. Late harvested - for Sicily - in the second half of September, and without any irrigation. Owing to the elevation, there is a considerable difference between day and night temperatures.

The wine is dedicated to Pio La Torre, and his incessant fight for peace and justice, and whom Italy has to thank for the existence of the so called Rognoni-La Torre law in 1996, which regulated the confiscation of Mafia assets. La Torre was killed in 1982 by two masked men who openend fire at him while he was getting into his car. In 1992, a 'Mafioso pentito', a Mafioso turned informant, revealed that La Torre was killed on the order of Totò Riina, the boss of the Corleonesi branch, because of his proposed law regarding confiscation of mafia possessions.

Deep yellow. Beautiful ripe white fruit and orange marmelade and honeyed notes with a mineral streak, and camomile. Completely dry palate as a contrast, with a touch of malolactic creaminess. Fine acidity integrated in viscous mouthfeel. Lots of potential and could certainly do with another year in bottle. 13% (WS)

Centopassi, Rocce di Pietra Longa Grillo 2008 IGT Sicilia 17.5 Drink 2009-13
From a recently planted vineyard in the Contrada Pietra Longa in Monreale near Palermo at about 500 m above sea level. Because of the elevation, the vineyard is characterised by high diurnal temperature variations, with a general cooling effect. The soil is extremely rocky and poor, resulting in low yields (35 hl/ha) and accelerated fruit ripening (the rock content stores the heat). Harvest normally starts at the beginning of September.

This wine is dedicated to Nicolò Azoti, who was killed by the mafia in 1947. Azoti was the secretary of the chamber of commerce, and engaged in the foundation of an agricultural co-operative. His concept and design for a share-cropping law that would give 60% of agricultural produce to the farmers and 40% to the owner, clashed with the mafia interests, and he paid with his life. The case never made it to court, and the perpetrators remained unpunished.

Even deeper yellow than the Catarratto. Wild, opulent nose of flowers and honeycomb, minerally notes of stone, and almost metallic herbal hints, melon and apple, quince jelly and pear. Elegant and fragrant and at the same time restrained palate, leaving a beautiful taste of lemon and lemon peel and satsuma. Very fine, very unusual with lots of energy, the wine is characterised by an almost metallic minerality. Taut and impressive at the same time. 14% (WS)

Centopassi, Argille di Tagghia Via Nero d'Avola 2008 IGT Sicilia 17 Drink 2010-15
From a vineyard near Corleone, on calcareous, porous clay at 600 m above sea level. Low yields of around 40 hl/ha.

The wine is dedicated to Peppino Impastato. Descended from a mafia family himself, he broke with his father at an early stage in his life to become active in politics and the fight against the mafia. He led the resistance of the farmers whose land was to be confiscated in order to build a third runway for the airport of Palermo. In 1978 he ran as a candidate for the Democrazia Proletaria, the same year he was murdered. The cantina is named after the film portraying the life of Impastato, I Cento Passi (the hundred steps).

Very young looking, bluish violet garnet. Opens wild, with strawberry, pure cherry, raspberry and hints of spice. Very seductive. What has now become for me the Centopassi hallmark fragrant nose, without a trace of sweetness. On the palate, bitter, coating tannins and notes of tamarind and salted capers, with high acidity. Energetic. Strikes a very good balance, but unsettled tannins suggest further ageing required. This certainly has the 'wow' factor. Opens up further and becomes more perfumed with aeration. 14% (WS)