People: Battista Belvisi
Place: Sicily, Italy
Grapes: Cataratto, Grillo, Zibibbo, Nerello Mascalese, Pignatello
Farming: Organic, Biodynamic
Production: 30.000 bottles

Nestled gracefully amidst the azure expanse of the Mediterranean Sea, the enchanting island of Pantelleria emerges as a veritable gem. With its rich tapestry of jet-black volcanic soil, this celestial haven bestows upon its inhabitants a remarkable gift — an abundance of agricultural wonders. Thankfully, the heavens smile upon us, for Battista Belivisi, a native son of Pantelleria, is nurtured amidst the island's verdant embrace, diligently honing his craft alongside his revered forebears.

Battista Belvisi

“I grew up alongside my father, who not only cultivated vineyards but also raised dairy and beef cattle, and we also had backyard animals. What many local winegrowers considered vineyard weeds, which they would eliminate with chemical weed killers, for us were fodder for the animals. We fertilized our own land and family vineyards with manure to increase the quantity of herbaceous plants that grew, often in association with the vineyard, which we would then mow when the vines began to bud. We practiced what is now called circular agriculture in modern terms, which created a complex and diverse system in great ecological balance. Even back then, the wines we made solely for family consumption were rich, flavorful and very tasty.”

Wanting to follow his father’s footsteps, Battista decided to pursue a degree in the esteemed Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Palermo. He wanted to stay in Pantelleria, devoted to agricultural practices in a land where the vineyards occupy a remarkable 95% of the area.

“Having a profound understanding of fermentation, plant physiology, the complex interplay of physicochemical and microbiological phenomena within the soil, and the broader principles of ecology allows you to give the right meaning to every operation carried out in the vineyard and the cellar. This knowledge enables you to choose accordingly which practices to prefer and which to abandon.”

Cultivating vineyards on the volcanic island, positioned closer to Tunisia than Sicily and bearing resemblances to the Tunisian wine regions of Kélibia and Mornag, presents its fair share of challenges. Pantelleria experiences an exceptionally scorching growing season, as one would anticipate in such southern latitudes. Moreover, the island is frequently subjected to robust and warm winds emanating from the North African coastline.

“The island of Pantelleria is the summit of a huge underwater volcano and its territory is scattered with volcanic vents and old calderas, which have, in some cases, given rise to very fertile plateaus. Over the centuries, the ancient people of Pantelleria have transformed a rugged and challenging terrain into a lush garden filled with Zibibbo vineyards, caper bushes, and olive groves. The soil is generally loose with a decent presence of gravel, and in some cases, especially in coastal areas, you can even see the underlying rock emerging.”

The majority of the land is arranged in terraces, with the retaining walls also acting as protection against the wind and boundaries.

“The grapevines are trained in the ‘alberello pantesco’ system, which has been recognized as intangible cultural heritage. They grow in circular holes several tens of centimeters deep. This system creates a microenvironment that can store as much water as possible during the winter and spring months, harmonize the amount of light intercepted by the plants within the vineyard, and limit the damage caused by prevailing winds.”

Battista possesses encyclopaedic knowledge of viticulture and the area where he grows his grapes. The practices he uses are exactly how we envision minimum intervention.

“I let the plants grow freely until early spring, then I plow the soil and periodically weed it to limit evaporation. I prune according to the favorable moon phases. Harvesting is done by hand and I replant the vine rows at least twice a year. I don't use chemical fertilizers or apply any chemical treatments to the vines.”

Having these kind of practices costs more, but at the end of the day, generic wine styles are avoided and wine consumption increases. What is more important, however, is the preservation of the environment.

“In our region, the cost of vineyards is medium to high. Cultivating organically or biodynamically costs, on average, 30% more. However, this additional fee is well accepted by both producers and consumers who benefit from more flavorful and genuine wines. Over the years, I have witnessed the growing number of people who regularly consume natural wine and who are constantly seeking out small-scale winemakers and wines that are as terroir-driven as possible. The encouraging fact is that these people are quite young and there are certain countries where the consumption of natural wines is very high.”

The Wines

After 11 years of dedicated work as head winemaker at the world-renowned Gabrio Bini estate, Battista unveiled a remarkable achievement in 2016 — the inaugural vintage of Abbazia San Giorgio. The winery now has approximately 3 hectares, comprising numerous micro-parcels, predominantly cultivated with Zibibbo grapes, complemented by Pignatello, Grillo, Catarratto, and Nerello Mascalese.

“Zibibbo is the grape variety with which I have been working the longest, even when I was making wine just for personal use at home. Since then, I have gained more experience, but my approach has remained the same: organic viticulture, spontaneous fermentation and no filtration. Nowadays, I approach the harvest with more serenity, and I enjoy experimenting with different maceration times for various grape varieties and making pet-nat wines with the second fruit of Zibibbo.”

Battista’s wine that has a special place in our hearts is the beautiful Orange, made from 100% Zibibbo and coming from 60-year-old vines planted on volcanic soils.
“The wine that represents the winery and also my work is Orange, a pure macerated wine made from Zibibbo. When processed similarly to a red wine, it showcases all its potential, which includes a great richness and complexity of aromas, easy drinkability, and a long finish. Orange, besides being one of the first three wines I made, fully embodies Pantelleria, as it contains the scents of the island's Mediterranean scrub, the salty sea breeze, and the fruits that grow near the stone walls of the terraced vineyards. Orange is a wine that captures your heart from the first sip and can be enjoyed on its own, but it also pairs well with aperitifs, raw seafood, shellfish, couscous, and rich cheeses.”
Battista, driven by a steadfast commitment to his craft, doesn't pursue certifications (organic or biodynamic). However, rest assured that his practices align with the principles of organic and biodynamic farming. He meticulously employs solely natural wild yeast, shunning the reliance on artificial additives, which he judiciously restricts.

“Nature is perfect, and I strive to understand natural processes and interfere with them as little as possible. That's why I don't use any products in the vineyard or in the cellar. I limit my interventions to the bare minimum necessary to allow the grape variety to express itself best in its environment. That's why I always respect the ampelographic composition of the territory where I work, and my production is based on Sicilian native grape varieties, particularly white grapes. Every year, I experiment with new blends using both white and red grapes. When I have available land, I enjoy introducing small quantities of interesting grape varieties, such as Nerello Mascalese or Alicante.”

Battista's wines, his passionately crafted creations, transcend their maker and assume an independent existence. They possess a vivacious spontaneity, deeply rooted in their terroir, exuding a vibrant vitality that can only be described as untamable. These superb, low-intervention wines are charged with an exuberant energy that ignites the senses and evokes a sense of joyful liberation.

[Originally published in May 2023]

Aleksandar Draganic