A sketch of the family home by Consalvo Romeo del Castello, circa early 1900s.

A Special Offering from Etna: Fattorie Romeo del Castello

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Chiara Vigo always knew that she would come back to her family home after her studies, to find a way to tell the story of her ancestors and honor her roots. Having written a doctoral thesis on the connections between art and wine, focused on the history of wine label artwork, it seems it may have been inevitable that she would end up in the field, or vineyard in this case. What she created after returning home was the Romeo del Castello winery, with the help of mentor Salvo Foti (who we credit for reviving quality winemaking on Mount Etna over the course of the last 40 years), and through her own instinct, experience and passion. Pulling from her study of art and wine, Chiara used her labels to celebrate the history of her ancestors, and of the family home that dates back to the end of the 18th Century. A collaboration between Chiara and a Genoese artist named Luca Vitone began in tandem with the winery and has become an inspiring story parallel to that of the winery and Chiara's excellent wines. 

 

Through the use of old postcards, sketches (all original art by Chiara's grandfather), and family photos, labels for the Vigorosa Rosato were born.

Original postcards (and a sketch) for the short-lived Coppa di Etna, a race around Mt. Etna that took place in 1925-1928, and a photo of the artist, avid racer and pilot (and Chiara's grandfather), Baron Consalvo Romeo del Castello, aka Romeo.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking collaboration is the series called Wallpaper, which each year created a wine label using the art-deco wallpaper from rooms throughout Chiara's family homestead. Through these labels, the Allegrecore wine became a sort of living history of Chiara's ancestral home.

Wallpaper from the family's ancestral home, notice any patterns from the Allegracore labels?

On the Romeo del Castello website, there is a text about artist Luca Vitone, which led me to reflect on theme of this whole writeup, which is essentially the fleeting nature of memory and wine. Here is what they write (translated roughly):  "Luca Vitone's artistic practice that began in the second half of the 1980s focuses on the idea of place and invites us to re-know something we already know, challenging the conventions of fleeting and faded memory, which characterizes the present time. His work explores how places identify themselves through cultural production: art, cartography, music, food, architecture, political associations and ethnic minorities. He resolves the gap between the sense of loss of place that accompanies the postmodern and the ways in which the feeling of belonging arises from the intersection of personal and collective memory."

This got me thinking about wine as a type of art - even more fleeting than arcitecture or local and regional visual art - which tells a story of a place and can give a sense of belonging and connection in a somewhat disconnected world.

By now you're probably wondering why we're rambling like this. No, we haven't picked a random Monday to become philosophical about wine, this is our gentle way of telling you that we may need to cherish the memories that we have of the wines of Romeo del Castello. Earlier this year we learned that the winery would be going through changes, namely that they would not be producing wine anymore. We have been practicing disbelief (which is why we're calling it a change and not the end), but the time has come to accept that there is no forseeable future for the wines, though we are huge fans of Chiara and of Romeo del Castello. Here are some words from Louis/Dressner Selections, longtime importer of the wines.

Chiara Vigo (photo: Massimiliano Vacatello)

"In 2005/2006 mother and daughter, Rosanna Romeo del Castello & Chiara Vigo, revitalized the estate of Rosanna’s family that included a historic vineyard over 100 years old of Nerello Mascalese that was very nearly destroyed by the Etna lava flows of 1981. Semi-abandoned, the vines were rehabilitated with the help of the I VIgneri team of workers and the counsel of Salvo Foti. Since that time, they have been making the wine called Vigo, from these old vines and the wines Allegracore and Vigorosa, from a more recently planted vineyard that lies close to the Alacantara river, at a facility rented to them by the Benanti family. The pandemic, the sale of the Benanti winery and the subsequent material shortages and rising costs have left them without a place to make their wine. In 2020 they were forced to sell the grapes, rather than vinify them, out of economic necessity. Until such time as they can find another affordable and suitable place to vinify, they have decided to forgo producing any of the wines as the economic hurdle of renovating their existing palmento dating to the very early 1800s is very, very high. As a result, Rosanna and Chiara have decided to release wines from the historical cellar."

Our very own Jamie Wolff visited in 2012 and wrote the following in our first article about Romeo del Castello in November of that year: "This is a recent project, but unlike many other Etna wineries, this one is owned and operated by natives. In the past all of the estate’s fruit was sold; in 2007 Chiara Vigo returned to the family farm, inspired by Salvo Foti who “made me understand that I had a treasure, something I wasn’t really conscious of.” There is a tranquil and charming house, but the real treasure is the vines, 70-100 years old, all Nerello Mascalese, and never treated with any chemicals, chemical fertilizer, or herbicides. Foti helped guide Chiara for her first two vintages [Vigo 2007 and 2008], and they produced beautiful and distinctive Etna Rosso.

Vines behind a wall of lava (louisdressner.com)

Now Chiara has added a second bottling called Allegracore; this is now the ‘basic’ wine, with the Vigo being reserved for the best vintages. These vines are next to the house at Romeo del Castello; at the end of the rows you can see a wall of lava, which is 20-30 feet high, and about 100 yards wide."

This particular wall of lava brings us back full circle to the artwork of the Romeo del Castello labels. Luca Vitone's label for the 2008 'Vigo' Etna Rosso was taken from a topographic lava flow map of the 1981 volcanic eruption of Mt. Etna, and explores what their website calls: "a progressive spatial approach to the Romeo del Castello farms through different forms of cartography, but without indications of place."

I vividly remember when Chiara was visiting Chambers Street Wines (most likely in 2012 or 2013) and showed me exactly where her family's vineyards were located in relation to the lava from the 1981 eruption. She transported me to a hillside north of the Alcantara River, where her and her family were in safety but distraught and devastated as they watched a torrent of lava head north, down Mt. Etna and straight towards their vineyards and groves just east of Randazzo.

Label for Vigo next to topographic lava flow map of Mt. Etna's 1981 eruption. The city of Randazzo and Romeo del Castello's oldest family vineyards are indicated on the map, along with the lava flow, which can be seen narrowly missing their vines.

By some miracle*, the lava made a detour, heading suddenly east and then north into the river, where it was extinguished. As Chiara describes in a 2019 interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica: "The oldest vineyard survived the 1981 eruption of Etna. The flow that was covering the vineyard and reaching our hamlet, which dates back to the end of the 18th century, made a curve and slid towards the Alcantara [river]. Inside this bend there is a kind of amphitheater that I define as an oasis, our magical place, where you can breathe a unique energy."

Chiara has long faced a dilemma of having this magical place that may be lost to time; a relic, and an architectural history of a past way of life, which is too expensie to renovate or modernize. As Chiara explained in a 2012 interview with Louis/Dressner Selections, "At the moment we don't have a cellar on the property, which is frustrating and something that needs to happen soon. We actually have a palmento [a stone site for pressing grapes, and fermenting and aging wine] dating back to the 1700's, and this is where the wine had always been made. Unfortunately, Italian law would never let us use it for security and hygiene reasons. I'm torn because I really need a cellar, but at the same time there is so much history there that I really want to renovate it and turn it into a museum."

Office at Fattorie Romeo del Castello

We really hope she does turn the estate into a museum, one that we can visit and drink Romeo del Castello wines in. Maybe she can even revive the old palmento for some on-premise-only winemaking! Just look at this picture Jamie took  of their office when he visited in 2012. It could be the entrance to the museum!

In the end, it may never happen, just as Chiara may never find a resolution to her particular conundrum, so we will likely have to accept that things pass, though we will do so reluctantly, because the wines are SO GOOD!!!

-Eben Lillie

* The lava's detour may have been related to the original flow of a volcano that predates Etna, which would have created a natural fault in the land that would lead Etna's lava around the vineyards instead of straight into them.

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On offer today are two bottlings, Allegracore and Vigo. Allegracore is from older and younger vines, some planted in the early 2000s, and is fermented and aged in stainless steel. Vigo is from their oldest vines (the ones that were nearly wiped out by lava in 1981!), and is fermented in stainless steel, aged for a year in neutral 225L barrels and released after short aging in bottle. We hope to get more wines, but as is the nature of the peculiarity of situation here, there may not be any more. If there are any questions or requests feel free to email office@chambersstwines.com

No Longer Available

Romeo del Castello 2010 Etna Rosso Allegracore

One of the first vintages of the Allegracore, which was in fact the original name of the wine that Chiara's family produced many generations before her. The word translates to "place of the happy heart." The 2010 is a light and pleasant 13% alc, and will likely be a wine that is charming immediately out of the bottle, with great acidity and pretty florals, but might not hold up in a decanter or on day two. Try it with fish or light summer salads, mezze, or anything Mediterranean!

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Romeo del Castello 2011 Etna Rosso Allegracore

2011 seems like a very respected vintage, with good aromatics, acidity and structure. The 2011 was 13% alc, like the 2010, and captures the lightness and cooler side of Nerello Mascalese.

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Romeo del Castello 2012 Etna Rosso Allegracore

2012 was a hot and dry year in Sicily. The volcanic minerality and complexity is here, along with more boldness and power (this one is 14.5%), earth and concentration. Due to the rustic tannins of the vintage, this was considered a very good vintage for aging, so this bottle should be in a really nice place for drinking now, albeit with heartier fare, less fish and poultry, more meat and potatoes, or maybe roasted Sicilian eggplant !

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Romeo del Castello 2014 Etna Rosso Allegracore

2014 is generally considered an exceptional vintage, by some to be the best in the decade, with 2016 close behind. The wine does weigh in at 14.5% so it had power, but by all accounts the vintage had a little of everything, tannins, acidity, aromatics and concentration. We are the anti-point store, and we often celebrate overlooked vintages, so please take this all with a grain of salt!  You may find more enjoyment from the delicious and elegant 2018 than this more powerful 2014 vintage! To each their own, we'll just provide some info, since we haven't tasted these back vintages of Allegracore since they originally were released!

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Romeo del Castello 2015 Etna Rosso Allegracore

From a sleeper vintage, this 2015 Allegracore is a lovely wine, maybe overlooked due to 2014 and 2016 being more highly regarded. '15 was about selection, and though it was not an easy growing year, Chiara's happy place produced balanced fruit, with the wine coming in at 13.5%. A very pure expression of Etna, bright, aromatic with cherry, earth and lava, herbs and flowers.

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Romeo del Castello 2016 Etna Rosso Allegracore

2016 is considered perhaps the second best vintage of the decade in Sicily, after 2014. What does this all mean, best vintage for whom? The 2014 Allegracore is 14.5%, so if I was searching for lightness from my Etna Rosso, I might go for 2015 or 2018 which were both 13.5%. The 2016, for reference, is 14%, but now I feel like the alcohol is in some ways inconsequential, though it does matter for some. Usually vintage ratings are based on balance, aging potential, and the weather conditions of the year. The conditions in 2016 were ideal, sugars and acidity were just right, and concentration is well regarded, so this wine is probably drinking great right now.

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Romeo del Castello 2018 Etna Rosso Allegracore

The Allegracore bottling from Romeo del Castello is 100% Nerello Mascalese from the younger part of their vineyard, planted in 2004. The wine is fermented in 5000L stainless vats for 20 days.  The wine ages for a year afterwards, also in stainless.  An elegant and approachable Etna Rosso, it has been a Chambers Street favorite since the 2009 vintage! The nose on the 2018 is a fresh bouquet of pitted, ripe dark cherries and plums and violets. Attractive green aromas balance the flowers and fruit with swaths of spring grass and ferns. The juicy palate is full of cherry, raspberry and plum - all bolstered by an enticing minerality of dark stones. The finish is long, ending the wine on notes of dried red fruits and herbs. As stated above, we always love this wine, but the 2018 is a knock-out. You'll want this bottle during summer meals outside. David Hatzopoulos

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Romeo del Castello 2008 Etna Rosso Vigo

Vigo gets about 18 days of maceration in used wood, part barrique, and part larger tonneau. The wine is quite structured and serious, very mineral, with deep cherry fruit and a lot of stone, quite rich but also elegant. It was great to taste this here a couple of weeks ago: what was a brooding and reticent wine has really blossomed and is drinking beautifully. Aromatic, rich but racy and lively, with lovely dark fruit and terrific Etna minerality; Romeo del Castello is a great addition to the top ranks of Etna producers, and a must-try for Nerello afficianados.  

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