A grapevine growing technique handed down through centuries of generations on the island of Pantelleria after it was settled by the Phoenicians has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

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Bush vines on Pantelleria. Image credit: Italian Ministry of Agriculture

Around 30 growers cultivate grapes from ‘vite ad alberello’ – translated as ‘head-trained bush vines’ – on the island of Pantelleria, 85km off the southern coast of mainland Italy and 70km from Tunisia.

It’s a technique that is believed to have been first developed by the Phoenicians, who arrived on the island more than 2,500 years ago. The method is mainly used to produce Passito di Pantelleria, a sweet wine made from dried ‘Zibibbo‘ grapes, also known as Muscat of Alexandria.

Last week, Pantelleria’s practice of terraced bush vine planting was formally listed as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, following a UNESCO meeting in Paris.

It joins several wine representatives on the United Nations’ body’s list, including St Emilion, Barolo vineyards and Georgia‘s traditional method of fermenting grapes in earthenware qvevri.

‘We have been working towards this result for many years,’ said Jose Rallo, owner of wine producer Donnafugata, which cultivates 68 hectares of vines on the remote island and makes Ben Rye Passito di Pantelleria. She estimated there were around 500ha in total.

‘This listing will sustain not just this form of traditional viticulture but also preseve the local environment and the landscape,’ Rallo told Decanter.com during the inaugural Decanter Shanghai Fine Wine Encounter last weekend.

She said the cost of maintaining the vines on Pantelleria is three times that of cultivating vines in her company’s native Sicily.

Technique

According to the UNESCO application, the ‘vite ad alberello’ cultivation has three main phases. First, growers must dig a hollow, or ‘conca’, in the soil and plant the vine in the middle so that it is only a few centimetres above ground level.

Growers must then prune the vine to produce six branches, while reshaping the hollow to keep the vine in the centre. Thirdly, the grapes must be harvested by hand, beginning at the end of July. Both young and older growers must take part to ensure the tradition is passed on.

Winemaking

Both Passito di Pantelleria and Moscato di Pantelleria have DOC status in Italy.

To produce Passito di Pantelleria, Rallo said that grapes are dried for 20 days on open-air racks and mats. They are then placed in greenhouses, and the bunches are turned daily to keep them dry. Fermentation takes between 30 and 40 days, she said.

Typically, it takes 4kg of grapes to make one bottle of Passito di Pantelleria, which generally has residual sugar of around 200g per litre and is around 14.5% abv.

Rallo said Moscato di Pantelleria is typically 100g of residual sugar and around 12% abv. Her company also produces a dry white wine from the bush vines.

(Additional reporting by John Stimpfig)

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Written by Chris Mercer