Peter Ranscombe visits I Ciacca winery in Italy’s Comino valley to find out how a local grape and a local village are being brought back to life.
WALK down most Scottish high streets and it’s hard not to spot the influence that Italian families have had on their new homes.
From Janetta in St Andrews and Luca in Musselburgh through to Morganti in Nairn and Nardini in Largs, generations of Italians have been welcomed into local communities, along with their ice creams, their fish and chips, and their cheeky smiles.
Cesidio and Selina Di Ciacca and their children, Sofia and Giovanni, are turning that story of Scots-Italians on its head.
In 2012, they opened Sotto Le Stelle, a high-end “albergo diffuso” hotel spread across sites in the village of Picinisco in the Comino valley in Italy’s Abruzzi mountains – an area that’s home to the ancestors of Peter and Lewis Capaldi, and the Contini restaurant dynasty – and the nearby hamlet of I Ciacca.
Their hotel cleverly preserves the old structures, while adding modern fixtures and fittings, reminiscent of Chris Stewart’s Old Town Chambers development on Edinburgh’s Advocates Close.
Some of the most effective touches include how the inside and outside spaces flow into one another, with covered stairways between the suites of rooms opening up onto terraces and courtyards.
Sotto Le Stelle has acted as a catalyst for further regeneration in the village, with the reopening of an older hotel to offer bed and breakfast, the building of a “Go Ape”-style adventure playpark, and the unveiling of plans by English chef Ben Hirst and his partner, Gaynor Moynihan, to turn the Villa Inglese residence into a restaurant with rooms.
Now, the Di Ciacca family is taking the next step in its project by launching a winery.
The cantina is built on a farm in the hamlet of I Ciacca where the family has lived for 500 years, with Cesidio spending nine months painstakingly buying 220 parcels of land from more than 140 members of 11 families to stitch the site back together.
Eight years of clearing the land and planting the vines has now yielded the family’s first wines, which are on sale online and in Edinburgh at Valvona & Crolla, Scotland’s oldest Italian delicatessen and wine merchant, and at restaurants in Edinburgh and Glasgow, including Nico’s and Contini.
Along the way, the family has also been producing Sofia’s Olive Oil, which is cold pressed instead of being stone milled.
The next step will be the opening of a cookery school at the cantina, breathing fresh life into more of the buildings that the family has painstakingly restored to a very high quality.
Just as Sotto Le Stelle has saved a forgotten part of Picinisco, so too has Cesidio concentrated his winemaking efforts on a forgotten grape – maturano.
Italy is full of more than 1,000 varieties, with the Comino valley being the traditional home of maturano.
The Di Ciaccas have been joined on their journey by consultant winemaker Alberto Antonini, who was introduced to Cesidio eight years ago by Philip Contini, chair of Valvona & Crolla.
“I said to Philip that I was off on this mad adventure because I wanted to recapture something of history and I’m looking for someone to help me make wine,” Cesidio explains with a smile.
“Alberto makes wines that speak of the land, which are old but fresh.”
Antonini clearly shares Cesidio’s passion for the small four-hectare vineyard, praising its limestone soil for adding freshness to the wine.
“When I got here, I was excited by several things that are very exciting for making interesting wine,” says Antonini.
“I describe myself as a wine-grower, not a winemaker, because for me it’s all about understanding the potential of a place.
“What I look at is the soil, and here I was very impressed that it had plenty of limestone, which makes some of the best wines in the world, like in Tuscany and Piemonte, Burgundy and Champagne, Rioja and the Uco Valley in Argentina – it’s a great asset.
“I also like the climate, especially the altitude, because that gives a big difference between daytime and night-time temperatures, which gives ripe flavours and retains acidity and aromatics.
“Finally, I liked the biodiversity surrounding the vineyards – I don’t like to see vines and nothing else.”
Laboratory analysis of the vines showed that two clones of maturano – one with larger bunches of greener, more sour grapes and another with smaller, yellower and sweeter grapes – are present on the site.
The fruit of Antonini and the Di Ciaccas’ work is the maiden 2017 vintage, which consists of three white wines.
I Ciacca Nostalgia 2017 (Valvona & Crolla, £19.99) is packed full of warm aromas of pear, lemon rind and a lifted floral note, with the pear and lemon rind flavours being joined by red apple skins on the palate.
There’s a creamy mouthfeel from leaving the wine on its lees – the dead yeast cells left over from the fermentation that turns grape sugars into alcohol – and plenty of fresh acidity for balance.
When introducing I Ciacca Sotto Le Stelle 2017, Antonini and Cesidio explained that they believed their top wine needed longer to age in the bottle, and I’m inclined to agree, with less pronounced flavours on the nose and a tightness to the wine.
Yet that didn’t detract from the red apple and apricot flavours, nor from the oilier and more buttery mouthfeel, built up through the juice being left in contact with the grape skins.
The Sotto Le Stelle is made from the grapes harvested from the best plots in the vineyard and will become the company’s flagship wine when it’s ready to go on sale.
Sitting partway between the Nostalgia and the Sotto Le Stelle is the I Ciacca Matrimonio 2017, which is a blend of the free-run juice used to make Nostalgia and the skin-contact Sotto Le Stelle.
The result is peach, apricot and a touch of tropical lychee on the nose, which is much richer and warmer than the Nostalgia.
On the palate, it’s got a richer and more buttery texture, with extra fruitiness, spreading across pear and lemon rind through to peach and more of the lychee, while still retaining its freshness.
Reviving maturano feels like an allegory for reviving the hamlet of I Ciacca and how the family is playing a role in stimulating activity in the wider Picinisco area.
For more stories from Peter Ranscombe’s The Grape & The Grain drinks blog visit https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/category/grapegrain/