THE PALMENTO OF MT. ETNA

Ancient traditional winemaking on Etna

On Mt. Etna, each vineyard was equipped with a building that includes the home for the owner’s family, and invariably the Palmento for the transformation of the grapes produced in the vineyard.

The agricultural landscape on Mt. Etna was once defined by thousands of winery-homes, called a Palmento.  Built in lava stone, they had different architecture, sizes and opulence, depending on whether it is owned by peasants, bourgeois or nobles. In the Etnean districts, or contrade, there were many wineries, up to the highest altitudes of the volcano, each with its own Palmento, with terraced vineyards, narrow roads, dry stone walls, all in lava stone and in surprising harmony with the surrounding environment .

A unique characteristic of the contruction of an Etnean Palmento, in addition to the use of lava stone, is that of being built in such a way as to use the force of gravity in winemaking, through appropriate channelling systems, without the use of any liquid lifting equipment. The natural slope and the rugged orography of the Etna area have been wisely exploited, becoming a resource for the circulation and transport of the product during the winemaking steps.

PALMENTO CASELLE contrada Caselle in Milo Etna est

Built around 1840, this Palmento continues to carry out its functions as the home of Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri, as well as the winery and cellar for ageing and storing wines. The wine I Vigneri it is still produced today with the ancient winemaking system.

Palmento Caselle

(from Etna I Vini del Vulcano (Mt. Etna. The Wines of the Volcano) by salvo foti Maimone Editore)

During the harvest, grapes were picked by teams of workers called “chiurme”. The workers, once they had filled their baskets with grapes, built with interwoven reeds, in dialect called “coffe”, “cufini” or “cruvecchi” (according to their type and size), they carried them to the palmento. Here, the workers walked up the steps and, through a window (or a pair of windows called “buttatoio”), they dumped the grapes onto the “pista”: wide and low basin covered in slabs of lava stone, well squared and chiselled, or with “battume” where there were some workers pressed the grapes barefoot or wearing heavy shoes or boots. Fittingly, the word pista also means dance floor in Italian.

(from Etna I Vini del Vulcano (Mt. Etna. The Wines of the Volcano) by salvo foti Maimone Editore)

Through narrow channels in the lava stone, called “bocche di cane” (dog mouths), the must drained into another basin below, built with slabs of lava stone, called the “tina”, in which, during the pressing, the bunches already pressed (skin and stalks) on the “pista”.  In the “tina” the first fermentation took place in contact with the skins and the stalks, lasting from a minimum of 24 hours to a maximum of a week, depending on the type of wine and the area in which the wine was being made.  The “tini” (plural for tina) were built under the arches that supported the “pista“ in order to exploit all space available inside the palmento. However, this also made them dangerous due to the accumulation of carbon dioxide produced during fermentation, which often caused fainting and workers sometimes drowned.

Tradition

(from Etna I Vini del Vulcano (Mt. Etna. The Wines of the Volcano) by salvo foti Maimone Editore)

With the drawing off, from the “tina”, again through a circuit of stone canals, the must in fermentation would flow into the “ricevituri”, another lava stone basin located below the “tina”, or directly in the barrels that were in another adjacent room and below the palmento which was lower than the winemaking area, usually about 3.5-4 meters, called the “ispensa”, meaning barrel room or simply wine cellar. In the large casks and barrels made in chestnut from Mt. Etna located in the “ispensa“, which traditionally had the floor in beaten earth and a height to the ceiling of 7 meters or more, the fermenting must would complete its transformation.  The chestnut barrels were of various sizes. The average capacity was 6 to 8000 litres.

(from Etna I Vini del Vulcano (Mt. Etna. The Wines of the Volcano) by salvo foti Maimone Editore)

The pomace, called “aspa“ remaining in the “tina“ after separation from the must in fermentation, was placed in another adjacent barrel, which was rectangular, smaller and at the same level as the ricevituri, where there was the press called a “conzo”. The use of the “conzo” required the presence of expert workers guided by the so-called “mastro di conzo”, or the master of the press, who directed this work and was responsible for all the pressing operations. The “conzo” is a fairly complex machine in which the pressing takes place through the use of a counterweight in lava stone.  It consists of three basic parts: a large beam made of oak, called “lignu i conzo” or “chianca”; a central fastening mechanism, called the “scala” [step] and, another system behind the beam, called “piedi” [feet]; a front counterweight in lava stone, called “petra di conzo”, on which a long rowan wood screw is set (called the “elica”).

“The real protagonists of wine are the winemakers who, with their sacrifices, day by day, know how to understand, interpret and dialogue with the vines.”

– Salvo Foti