Maletto, Sicily (Etna), Italy
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Gustinella is situated in Maletto, a village on the north-west side of Mount Etna, Sicily. The scenery is dominated by the volcano’s summit; its snow-capped peak bright against the black slopes of lava beneath. Maletto lies at 960 metres: one of the highest villages in Sicily, and the highest on Etna.
Sonia Gambino was born in Milan, but her family are from Maletto. Her grandfather, Gustinello, ran the local ‘palmento’ here: a place where locals brought their grapes to make wine for their own consumption. Her parents left Maletto for Milan in their early twenties, returning for holidays and to work on the house that Sonia’s father had started to build as an 18 year old, before they moved to the city.
As a young adult, Sonia studied at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Polezzo and later specialised in viticulture and oenology in Montpellier. Despite the richness of knowledge gained from her studies, she found herself missing a connection with the hands-on side of wine growing and making, and decided to go to Marsala in Sicily to work with winemaker Nino Barraco.
Three months in, the pandemic hit and, without warning, Sonia found herself in her family house in Maletto, next to a small train station with a view of the valley to the north-west. With no trace of a plan but unexpected time on her hands, she started to work on the house and to grow vegetables. In her words she just ‘followed the line that was there for her’; a path that would quickly lead to winemaking.
The train tracks that run alongside the garden were empty, with transport halted by the pandemic. One of the village elders took his daily walk here, watching the vegetables come to life as Sonia tended to them. From these small rituals, conversation slowly began and one day the man, Don Vincenzo, mentioned that he had a garden himself which he could no longer visit; restricted by his years and unable to drive.
Sonia agreed to take him to his garden in her car. She discovered a diverse paradise of grapes and other fruit, dotted with spring flowers, and fell immediately in love with the place. The vines stayed in her mind, and she asked Don Vincenzo if she could make wine with his grapes – which he had done himself in the past. The answer was yes, with one condition: 365 bottles per year would be for his own enjoyment, because he drinks one bottle a day.
The news spread and soon other locals from the older generation came to Sonia, asking if she could do the same with their vines. Today, she has different agreements with many people from the village; some plots she rents, some she farms and purchases the grapes, and others receive wine as part of the exchange. Without it ever having been her intention, Sonia has found herself working and living in the same community as her grandfather, Gustinello.
Unlike the neighbouring village of Randazzo and others on the north side of Etna, Maletto is not part of the Etna DOC, known instead for the cultivation of strawberries. The combination of altitude and local climate are unfavourable for well-known Etna varieties like Nerello Mascalese, resulting in a mix of grapes that differs from the north and east. In the early 19th century Horatio Nelson, a British naval commander and Duke, tried to establish the area as a winemaking region, planting varieties that can handle the local conditions better, such as Grenache and many others.
The diversity of grapes that Sonia works with shows traces of this history. She works with 12 different parcels across 2 hectares, which include varieties such as Grenache, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet and Grecanico Dorato. There are also many others, some of which she has yet to identify; sometimes she separates these grapes at harvest and studies them, slowly learning their qualities and characteristics. The vines are trained using the traditional ‘albarello’ (gobelet) method of Etna and the different varieties grow intermingled, mixed also with fruit trees, wild herbs and vegetables. The majority of the plots are at a high altitude, at around 1100 metres above sea level.
As is the case all over Etna, there has always been plenty of small-scale winemaking for personal consumption and the vineyards are incredibly healthy, damaged little or not at all by the chemicals and machinery that come along with large scale production. There is a plethora of knowledge and experience of farming the land here, harboured in the minds of the older generation, that is now being passed to newer winemakers like Sonia. This is a stark contrast to Germany and many winemaking regions, where, in addition to often being treated with scepticism and suspicion by previous generations, natural winemakers have to labour hard to regenerate their soils.
The production is growing slowly, but remains small. Sonia’s first harvest was in 2020, 2021 saw 3600 bottles made, with 6–7000 in 2022. We couldn’t be happier to represent Sonia and her wines in Germany.