Perhaps because of its connection to Nelson and a handful of English entrepreneurs, the story of wine-making in Marsala is well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world. On the other hand, the story of wine-making in Milazzo is virtually unknown. But perhaps it is all the more interesting…
Scroll through the online catalogues of Sicilian wine and you will find plenty of vintages from the West of the island – Trapani and Marsala. The numerous wines from Mt Etna, and from the island’s fertile southern plain around Vittoria will tempt you. There will be sumptuous reds and sparkling whites from the region around Noto and dessert wines from Pantelleria. But the north-east of Sicily will seem strangely under-represented in this parade.
The province of Messina which makes up the north-east of the island, is dominated by the dorsal spine of the Peloritani mountains – geologically, the very last breaths of the Apennines before they smoulder out beneath the massif of Mount Etna. But these wild, and at times remote mountains eclipse at least two beacons of distinguished wine-making. One of these is Capo Faro (or Capo Peloro) – where once upon a time, the sandy soils gave root to some delicious zibbibo wines. The other, is at Capo Milazzo – that finger of land that points out to the Aeolian islands.
With its origins stretching back to at least the Bronze Age, it is little wonder we find historical references linking Milazzo and wine.
Milazzo was a significant town during Roman times. There was a tuna-fishing industry as well as one of the earliest Roman naval shipyards. And in 260BC, the Roman fleet under the command of Caius Duillio defeated the Phoenician navy off the cape of Milazzo in the first Roman sea victory.
In those days, the local vineyards produced a wine known as “Mamertino” – its name derived from the mercenary warriors who arrived from the Campania region of Italy, who fought for the Romans and who subsequently settled in the area of the north-east of Sicily.
Mamertino wine was reputedly a favourite of Julius Caesar and consequently chosen by him as one of four wines to celebrate the feast of his third consulship. Caesar was known as a connoisseur of wine, not least because he championed the production of wine as a motivation for keeping men to work the land.
What made this Mamertino wine so illustrious? Quite how it tasted, we are only able to guess, but part of the answer must surely lie in the unique geography of Milazzo.
The plain of the River Mela
The river Mela tumbles from the northern slopes of the Peloritani Mountains and flows out into the sea some five kilometres west of Milazzo. During the last three kilometres of its journey it traverses a flood plain extending between the northern flanges of the mountains and the coast. And it is this flood plain from which the river takes its name: Mela deriving from an old Greek word meaning “a river that occasionally overflows”.
For much of the year, the Mela is little more than a trickle of water in a wide river bed, but anyone who has witnessed some of the torrential downpours that occur when the warm damp air carried in the maestrale winds collides with the Peloritani will know well the wrath with which the water destroys everything in its path to the sea. Every few years, the untamed melee of the water wreaks havoc on the town of Milazzo, even today.
Until the Middle Ages however, the Pianura di Milazzo was a wide delta, through which the course of the river meandered, its main artery disgorging its waters some eight kilometres to the east of the present estuary.
Enriched by the sediments and minerals washed down from the Peloritani, the soil of its delta is abundant and loamy. In the Roman period, as well as vineyards, we can imagine it as a place for the cultivation of grains, whilst it is documented that in the Middle Ages, the northern flanks of the Peloritani were favoured for growing mulberries – the leaves of which were fed to silkworms to support the burgeoning Sicilian silk industry.
Today however, looking down on the plain from the hills above Santa Lucia, you will see that as the river emerges from the valley, its course takes a seemingly inexplicable sharp turn left.
During the 14th century, while Sicily was under the rule of the Aragonese, the river’s course was diverted. Ostensibly, this might have been to avert the frequent flooding, but more plausibly it was to protect the properties on the plain belonging to wealthy landowners.
Vino da taglio
This unique terroir propelled Milazzo to become one of the principle producers of “vino da taglio” in Italy from the nineteenth century through to the end of the second world war. “Vino da taglio” was wine produced almost exclusively for the purpose of being shipped to northern Italy and, in particular France, for the purpose of mixing with northern wines to increase their alcohol content and enrich their colour.
The vine grown on the Pianura di Milazzo in those days was almost exclusively the Nocera – a grape relatively unknown beyond the local area. Its origins are uncertain but it is possible it was brought to the north-east of Sicily by the Greeks. It is noted for its high sugar content whilst retaining a high acidity and the wine produced from it is so dark that it is known locally as simply “black” wine.
This “black”, Nocera wine was conveyed the few kilometres to the port of Milazzo by horse-drawn carriage where it was stored in warehouses on the quayside before being loaded onto ships destined for Genova and Marseille. The convenience of the nearby port was a distinct advantage for these wine producers, though in later years, the wine was also carried in huge vats by train from the stations at Barcellona and Milazzo.
As well as this strong “vino da taglio” destined for export, for more local consumption and for the Sicilian taste, the vintners of the Pianura also produced a lighter table wine from the same grape.
The use of sulphur
One of the winemaker’s chief enemies is powdery mildew. This fungal disease which affects a wide range of plants causes powdery white spots to appear on the leaves of the plants. It thrives in humid climates, making Sicilian vines growing in this particularly damp atmosphere particularly vulnerable.
It was first identified in Europe in 1846, but by 1850, the vintners of Milazzo had already found a remedy: sulphur. Between 24 and 35 degrees, sulphur vaporises and proves lethal to mildew.
Quite probably the Milazzo vintners were the first, anywhere, to resort to this antidote. And it should come as little surprise. The nearby island of Vulcano was a ready source of the mineral and the islanders had no doubt been using it to deter mildew from their tomatoes for decades. Incidentally, the Scottish industrialist James Stevenson was to become one of the biggest importers of sulphur from Vulcano, an activity he continued from 1870 until the catastrophic eruption of the volcano in 1888.
But whilst powdery mildew was an annoyance, the next disaster to befall the wine-industry was potentially catastrophic.
The response to Phylloxera
The rise of Milazzo’s success an exporter of vino da taglio are contemporary with its heroic role in the Risorgimento of Italy. On the 21st July 1861, Giuseppe Garibaldi, at the command of his thousand volunteers forced the surrender of the Bourbons troops garrisoned in Milazzo Castle. It was the battle that spelt the eventual end of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the birth of the Italian nation state.
Most of the battle was fought, not beneath the walls of the citadel but in the open countryside beyond the city’s outskirts, on the land that was fuelling the birth of Milazzo’s illustrious wine trade. It is tempting perhaps, to imagine the red shirts of Garibaldi’s volunteers as somehow symbolic of the thousands of hectolitres of wine that would henceforth be gushing from the barrels of the local wineries.
By 1870 1,800 hectares of the Pianura di Milazzo were planted with vines – or the equivalent area of about 1500 football pitches.
For a further thirty years, the wine trade flourished. We have ledgers filled with four figure numbers of the barrels of wine loaded onto schooners at the port of Milazzo bound for the north. Families grew rich and landowners built impressive villas in the countryside. But disaster was upon them. No doubt they had seen it coming but perhaps they hoped they would be spared. Maybe they speculated that the maestrale wind would protect them.
Phylloxera had first appeared in Sicily in 1880 and at first the Pianura of Milazzo was spared. Then in 1892 this microscopic, aphid-like insect wormed its way into the vines of the estates of Milazzo.
The phylloxera attacks the vine’s roots, cutting off the upward flow of sap to the leaves until eventually the plant withers and dies. It must have brought despair to the families at long last lifting themselves from the economic doom of the previous centuries. It was one of Milazzo’s own citizens who rescued them.
The son of Stefano Zirilli (1812 – 1884) – an Italian patriot and one of Garibaldi’s colonels – Giuseppe Zirilli (1844 – 1907) was a local landowner and wine-producer, and no-doubt facing certain ruin from this wretched aphid. Compelled into action, Zirilli took the matter into his own hands.
He ordered a consignment of Richter-110 vine rootstocks from Montpellier in France and applied for ministerial clearance to import the plants into Italy. The consignment was delivered to Marseille where they were to be loaded onto a steamer of the recently founded Navigazione General Italiana bound for Palermo. In what might be considered with hindsight as an act of ruthless suicide, at the last minute, the Italian ministry refused to issue the permit to import them. Many would have given up in despair, but Zirilli resorted to his Sicilian cunning. He somehow sourced eight barrels of cement and hid his precious rootstocks inside them. The innocent-seeming barrels were given clearance to board and a few days later arrived Milazzo.
No doubt the first in Sicily to do so, Zirilli pioneered the technique of grafting the local Nocera vine onto the rootstock of the American vine. The American vines, whilst not producing good quality wine, have evolved rootstocks which are resistant to phylloxera.
Giuseppe Zirilli inspired a whole industry of grafting on the Pianura. The uptake was massive and soon Milazzo became the biggest producer of rooted cuttings – in Italian the word is “barbatelle” (deriving from its similar look to a beard) – to Italy and the rest of Sicily. At the start of the twentieth century, there wasn’t a single farm-worker on the Pianura of Milazzo who wasn’t involved in some way or another in the grafting industry.
Thus, Zirilli’s cavaliering not only saved the viticulture industry of Italy but in turn spawned a huge new horticulture industry on the Pianura of Milazzo.
But Zirilli’s entrepreneurial spirit didn’t just stop with the pioneering work of grafting. He was also instrumental in introducing table grapes to be grown in Milazzo – including the variety Chasselas, which in Milazzo ripened in the second week in July – meaning it could be harvested, packed into wicker baskets, put on refrigerated train carriages and could arrive in Germany before the grapes from Algeria.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Milazzo was exporting wine, table grapes and root cuttings in vast quantities to the north of Italy and France. It was a remarkable success story for such a small town. And still today, the visitor to Milazzo is struck by the intensity of the horticulture in the Pianura of Milazzo.
Giuseppe Zirilli died in 1907 and his winery continued to produce wine for another twenty years.
By the late 1920s Milazzo was producing 42,000 hectolitres of wine per year, most of it destined for the north of Italy and France. The warehouses at the port contained barrels with a capacity of up to 30,000 litres each. But calamity was just around the corner.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 caused a consequent collapse of the price of wine. It was impossible for the Milazzo vintners to turn a profit from the depleting incomes of their sales. One by one, they looked for alternatives, the vineyard workers were laid off, the barrels ran dry and the bunches of grapes were left unpicked.
Furthermore, in the 1920s the cost of freight with the nationalised shipping companies had become prohibitive. It no longer made commercial sense for wine makers in France to source vino da taglio from Sicily and inevitably they started to look elsewhere. Many of the wineries in the Pianura were forced to close. Others of them diversified their products. One of them – the Cantina Sperimentale di Milazzo, began making a liqueur wine, which, from what I understand was made with the natural sweetness of the grapes and without added liqueur. But it was evidently not a success. By the 1980s, apart from the odd private family, there was hardly anyone producing wine in Milazzo. The great wine dream had evaporated.
The horticulture, however, survived. What once had been vineyards, now became the market gardens supplying olive trees, bougainvillea, palms and ornamentals in their thousand to the markets in the north in Italy.
But the vineyards had almost completely disappeared. It seemed that the story of winemaking in Milazzo had reached its end. Until, that is, the arrival of Planeta.
The Planeta story… Baronia Lucifero
Until the middle of the twentieth century, much of the land at Capo Milazzo made up the Feudal Barony of San Nicolò owned by the Baron Giuseppe Lucifero – descendant of an aristocratic family who resided most of the year in Bari. Especially during the grape harvest however, the Baron would come to stay at the Capo Milazzo with his family and during these visits was instrumental in the planting of vineyards and olive groves. On his death the Barony passed to his only daughter Maria.
Baronessa Maria died without an heir in Bari in December 1956 and stipulated in her will for the creation of a foundation that would take over the ownership of the Villa at Capo Milazzo, whilst the land should be used for the enjoyment and education of the children of the cape town. A further condition was that the land would never be sold and would never be built on.
Thanks to the foresight and generosity of the Baroness Maria, many of the children of Milazzo are able to enjoy their long summer holidays playing in the gardens of the villa and taking part in the activities organised by the charity Gigliopoli. And there is also a football pitch which hosts matches between rival teams of local children. As my son was growing up, I too spent many hours on the touchline cheering their team.
In the 1980s Berlusconi postured to buy the Capo Milazzo with the intention of developing it into a holiday camp for himself and his jet-set chums, arrogantly believing his lawyers would easily be able to overturn the Baronessa’s will. Fortunately they failed and the Foundation has remained to this day.
But whilst the children of Milazzo enjoyed the gardens of the villa, the olive groves and vineyards planted by Baron Lucifero quietly fell into disarray. In 2011 however, the largest and one of the most respected wine companies in Sicily stepped in to save the vineyards from abandon – Planeta, already the owners of half a dozen highly-acclaimed vineyards in other parts of Sicily. Of course, in accordance with the Baronessa’s will, they are the tenants rather than the owners of the Baronia vineyard, but the status of their tenure is irrelevant to the wine they produce.
With just eight hectares of vines, planted with Nocera and Nero d’Avola grapes, the Baronia is Planeta’s smallest vineyard and tiny in comparison to some of the ancient feudal estates in central Sicily.
Situated on the cuff of the narrow promontory of Capo Milazzo, sixty metres above the cobalt waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea and surrounded by twenty hectares of centenarian olive trees, and with views out over to Stromboli, the vineyard is one Sicily’s loveliest. Scattered pine trees, sculpted by the maestrale, and interspersed with lentisc, artemisia, wild sage and euphorbia border the seaward edge. And in Springtime, the whole is fringed with carpets of oxalis. The trellised rows of vines draw lines through the burnt almond coloured soil. A gentle breeze carries the smell of salt from the sea.
The first experimental vintage was produced in in 2013, and then the following year the first bottles of Nocera and Nero d’Avola were released onto the market. As might be expected from a small vineyard, the quantities of wine produced are not vast, but the quality is exceptional.
The Mamertino wine – a blend of 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Nocera – has an alcohol content of 13% and can be drunk as a young wine or aged for up to three years. With a deep ruby colour and little tannin, the rich, almost explosive taste recalls the heady maquis of the Capo.
With their Mamertino wine, it is clear that Planeta are opening a new chapter in the story of wine-making in Milazzo that promises to be every bit as illustrious as the long preceding narrative. May this only be the start of the story…
Many thanks to the Museum Domenico Ryolo for the inspiration for much of this article.
Esplora specialise in tours to Sicily and run a Wine Tour each year. For further details see: https://www.esplora.co.uk/sicily/cultural-tours/wine-food-tour/
Some further reading: