Posted by Keith Wallace

Hot, dry winegrowing seasons and low altitudes define the tart, sometimes heavy, wines around the small town of Vittoria in Sicily. Nestled in the island’s southeastern corner, far from the preeminent region of Mt. Etna to the north, Vittoria is known for growing tomatoes and oranges just above sea level—making it an unlikely place for the resurrection of extinct grapes to fight climate change.1 Here, Stefano Girelli, owner of the Santa Tresa vineyard, has embarked on an experiment to grow and commercialize a long-lost grape called Orisi, which results in a spicy and deep-colored red wine, able to withstand warming temperatures.

A third-generation winemaker in his fifties, Girelli draws on the thrilling hardship of rock climbing to inspire his winemaking techniques. He spends his free time ascending the world’s most challenging cliffs, such as Yosemite Park’s El Capitan—a three-day journey that requires the climber to sleep on the walls, resulting in about one person a year falling to their death. Girelli’s strategy: seeking out newly discovered grape varietals untested on the market and, like the unfortunate souls who don’t ascend El Capitan, could die brutally.

“One big lesson was how to deal with the extreme temperatures and manage the vineyards to bring the grapes to ideal ripeness,” Girelli explains. “There is so much to learn in terms of production, culture, and tradition – it is a continual process.”

With a starting plot of 16 vines more than a decade ago, Girelli has repeatedly failed, and finally succeeded, at vintning the Orisi grape in 2020, expanding his budding plot to more than 1500 vines this year. His flagship wine, “O,” a high-acidity, tannic red wine, is the Orisi grape’s modern embodiment—enhanced with genetic engineering—that local winemakers peddle as resistant to climate change.

According to wine critic Jancis Robinson, the Orisi grape is the latest unknown varietal to reemerge in Sicily—Italy’s second most important wine region behind Veneto, which is reputed worldwide for its abundant biodiversity once a culinary entrepot for the seafaring empires of ancient Greece, Rome, and Phoenicia, Sicily teems with diverse varietals that were lost to history.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the struggling growers of the impoverished island, one of Italy’s poorest regions, took advantage of cheap land prices and opted to copy the latest trends from Australia, which produced bold, fruit-forward wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel—all at a far lower cost and for America’s buyer market.

While these business decisions scaled up local winemakers such as Planeta, they also stamped Sicily as a copycat clone.6 Ever since the 2000s, the government, taking advantage of European Union grants, has started rescuing extinct grapes such as Nocera and Nerello Mascalese, “opting for quality over quantity,” Robinson writes.7 Beginning in 2003, Sicily’s Department of Agriculture entrusted two teams of university researchers with gathering seeds and tissues from six of Sicily’s “relic vines,” as they are called. Housed in a nursery in Marsala on Sicily’s west coast, these six varietals consisted of four red grapes and two white ones: Orisi, Inzolia Nera, Lucignola, Usirioto, Vitrarolo, and Recunu.

Within a few months, geneticists, to their surprise, were able to identify more than a thousand variants of the six cultivated vines, along with fifty grape varieties never documented, explains Attilio Scienza, an oenologist from the research project.8 The hope lies in evolutionary genetics to fight climate change. Because Orisi survived intense heat waves for thousands of years, its formidable genes allow it to survive southern Sicily’s long, scorching summers—a trait built further with the genetic engineering from the university project.

In 2018 and 2019, the Italian National Register of Grape Varieties added Orisi and the five other resurrected grapes to the 545 registered varietals in Italy.9 The Italian government believes Orisi is an ancient natural cross between Sangiovese and Montonico Bianco, but Girelli hopes to dispel what he believes in the myth of its parenthood. “Sangiovese doesn’t have that kind of color and tannin, and Montonico is a white grape,” he tells local media. “So that [cross] might just be a legend.”

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