You know that image you have in mind of the way people used to make wine? There's a vat full of whole grape clusters, and in the vat with the grapes is a small group of Sicilians, men and women, occasionally a child, smiling, laughing, their pants rolled up to their thighs, their feet and ankles and calves all stained red with the juice of the grapes underfoot. They can barely keep their balance, they hold on to one another, grab each other's arms to steady the uncertain weight of their bodies, lift their knees and bring their heels down into the mush. Grape skins slide between their toes. Slowly, what was solid becomes liquid, the vat brims with new life. These people are having the time of their lives.
It's an old image, nostalgic, calling on a bygone era. Now wineries tend to look more like laboratories, sterilized and stainless for maximum control.
Except there are a few renegades who believe the old image is more than just an image, more than a sentimental view of the past. It is a way of making wine that preserves all that is most essential, the elements of the process, the vineyard, the breeze, the smoldering cone of Mt. Etna. This approach to making wine holds that wine itself is memory. A record of the time and place in which the grapes were grown, a full expression of the land, the people, the climate, the events of that season, the moment it is shared among friends.
Anna Martens grew up in Australia, and like so many of the greats, has walked a crooked path to arrive on her perch, in this case high above the Sicilian coast.
Long story short, after years in Australia and Tuscany, Martens found herself buying up old-favorite but out-of-favor plots of land around Etna and reviving the style of winemaking that had existed in that same land for centuries before the technological explosion that defined late-Twentieth Century wine.
That includes the palmento, a multi-tier structure for making wine that starts with stomping grapes and ends with a final pressing under straw mat and rustic wood beam. It's not just for show, either, because this process speaks through the wine itself. Nor is Martens a luddite: she employs several methods for her winemaking, many of them up to date, but none of which intervenes in the wine more than necessary. In other words, she takes the best of what's old and mixes it up with the best of what's new, searching for ways to allow each wine to speak in its most honest voice.
Recently we brought on a couple of her wines. The white undergoes several days of skin maceration (in modern, stainless steel), meaning the wine has a little color in the end, the coppery gold of wildflower honey. It's made with Grecanico, Riesling and Carricate, as well as a field blend of other native grapes. A touch floral, aromatic, lemony, with a savory note and a firm core of acidity; lean muscle on solid bones.
The red is light in color and weight, a lot of juicy fresh cherry tang balanced by this dark earthy bit that speaks in dialect. It's made first under the palmento, the foot-press thing of historical method. Then it's aged in barrels for a spell. It's 90% Nerello Mascalese, the most widely planted grape in this small volcanic part of Sicily where the sun is hot and the soils decomposed and richly distinct.
These wines are conversation pieces, special in their methodology but more than that, special in their ability to recall and express a piece of land, a history, a moment. Anna Martens is to thank for that. Her vision is clear, her path to achieve it as dark as any other, her elaborations in the bottle delicious and heartfelt in a way only few can muster. It takes courage. And an awareness that the past can teach us, even as we hurtle into the future, that creating something original means listening with keen ears to the language of the little postage stamp we might call home.