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As part of one of the world’s great movements against organised crime, a Sicilian social enterprise is breathing life (and wine) back into the land that was once brought to its knees by the Mafia. We're lucky enough to work with a winery that's reviving land retrieved from the grips of organised crime - here's an introduction to Centopassi: where it came from, and what this winemaker has been doing to secure its status as one of Sicily's most-respected producers.
In 2017, it was estimated that over €21.8bn in revenue was generated by organised criminal activity in agriculture. You might be thinking that this isn’t such a bad thing…better the mafia was making money from agriculture than extortion, no? Well Coldiretti, Italy’s largest agricultural association has no doubt that the sector would produce more if the businesses were left in the hands of their original owners and that the agricultural methods of organised gangs are far more detrimental to the planet. In 2021, Mafia operations are ubiquitous in Italy’s agricultural sector, with 98 out of 102 of the country’s regions showing signs of illegal activity in the space. Obtaining the land by force, gang members remove farm owners from their ancestral homes and replace historic, local crops with more productive and profitable materials, sucking life out of the land and harming biodiversity. With systemic influence over communities, businesses and supply chains stretching far beyond just agriculture, there are many who have dedicated their lives to fighting for commercial freedom from the Mafia and to liberating communities from its grasps. Libera Terra (free land) is one such organisation, a merging of two social cooperatives that revives communities, regenerates abandoned land, and reemploys individuals struggling for work – and it is part of something much bigger!
Libera - associazioni nomi e numeri contro le mafie (Libera – organisations, names, and numbers against the mafia) is one of the world’s shining lights penetrating the darkness of organised crime. An NGO founded in 1995 by priest and activist Luigi Ciotto, Libera’s aim was, and still is, to promote legal change to fight organised crime in Italy and around the world. Luigi, alongside colleague Nando dalla Chiesa, brought together disparate activist groups under one banner to help coordinate activities for more influential change, and influential change they swiftly made. Just one year after formation, Luigi coordinated over 1 million signatories to pass a law allowing goods confiscated from the mafia to be redistributed for educational purposes. By 2011, Libera counted over 1,500 groups across the world working under its umbrella, against organised crime and for positive change. Named as one of the world’s top 100 NGOs by The Global Journal, Libera is a household name in Italy as their tireless efforts to build back a better country from the grasps of organised criminals grow in support every year. Activities range from training centres for young people in ex-mafia buildings, to olive groves for oil production planted on reclaimed Mafia farmland. And it is on this reclaimed Mafia land in Western Sicily that our story takes place.
In 2008, with funding and support from the Libera movement, a coalescence of four social enterprises saw the creation of the Libera Terra organisation. Libera Terra’s mission is to give dignity back to territories where a strong mafia presence has dictated life for decades, through the creation of autonomous and cooperative farms that are organic, self-sufficient, and offer stable workplaces. Through these agricultural projects, the Libera Terra project wants to showcase the amazing produce that these beautiful lands can give birth to. Libera Terra sets out not only to reignite the passions that once farmed this land, it fervently pursues the production of excellent produce in ever strand of its activity, ‘this guides every decision that has to be taken’. One of the projects within Libera Terra whose excellence we’re excited to share with you is Centopassi – winemakers on the northwest coast of Sicily.
Belice Corleonese is a particularly beautiful corner of Western Sicily, foothills rise overlooking the city of Palermo, rivers meander towards the Tyrennhian sea, and breezes drift in from the exposed coastline just 40km to the north. It is undoubtedly one of the best suited areas for viticulture across this fertile isle. In was a no-brainer then, in 2005, when the Italian government confiscated a 100-hectare plot from the Cosa Nostra mafia and offered it to the Libera association. Understanding the potential of this piece of land, Libera called in the help of winemaker and consultant Maurizio Alongi who agreed to take on the project under the Libera Terra banner. In a country dominated by volume wine production for local and international consumption (with exceptions of course, we hear you Etna…), Alongi and the Libera Terra team set out to be a point of difference. They wanted to showcase the true potential of some of Sicily’s underrated, indigenous grape varieties (yes, just like the rest of Italy, Sicily is home to dozens of varieties only found in very small areas) and put quality winemaking in Western Sicily firmly on the map. Quickly the team converted the land into an organic certified site, staying true to Libera Terra’s mission, and they renamed the site Centopassi, after the famous story of Peppino Impastato who spent his life fighting the Sicilian Mafia (many of whom were family members) and eventually lost his life at the hands of the gang. Centopassi translates as ‘One Hundred Steps’ and it represents the number of paces between Peppino’s house and that of the Mafia boss he spent his life fighting.
So, the scene is set, the land is reclaimed, and the team has been assembled, now the only thing left to do is to produce amazing wines…easy right? Not so easy as it turns out. Sicilian varieties like Grillo, Catarratto, Nero d’Avola, and Perricone are tough, especially when you’re trying to change the game. The two former are whites not known for expressive characteristics, they can be generic in flavour and are quick to lose acidity. The two latter, the reds, need incredible sunshine hours to ripen fully, and even with true ripeness the lack of flavour complexity in the grapes doesn’t lend itself well to quality wine production. Needless to say, the first few vintages for Centopassi were a bit of a struggle, a new winery finding its feet, determined to stand apart from it voluminous neighbours is no easy feat. Alongi and team played around with different vineyard sites, different blends, and different wine-making techniques, until 2009 when something clicked. Maurizio and his team of growers found the perfect combination of vineyard sites in the hills surrounding Berleone. They started to understand what each variety needed to thrive and began to harness the potential of these tricky grapes. Individuality between wines started to appear alongside an overarching freshness and poise unusual for wines in this part of the island - Centopassi started to gain recognition amongst some of Italy’s top wine guides and they’ve never looked back. Today, their range spans 10 wines and Centopassi is considered one of the most exciting producers in Sicily. They produce a combination of blends (something that Sicily has long been a champion of) and single varietal, single vineyard expressions, which are where the true beauty of this terroir really sings. We’re incredibly excited to offer you four of these stunning wines, the labels of which are adorned with artistic renditions of the vineyards themselves.
A blend of 50% Grillo and 50% Catarratto from the Giato area of Centopassi’s vineyards, this wine is the perfect introduction to the winery’s style. Atypical freshness and floral characteristics greet you in this glass, with fragrant notes of peach blossom, lemon zest and pear. Thanks to the 200m of altitude in these vineyards, the wine remains refreshing and moreish, despite all the Sicilian sunshine, and these often-bland native varieties are full of character, drinkability, and charm. Shop here.
Another blend, this time of Nero d’Avola and Perricone which have been combined to delicious results. The Nero d’Avola providing juicy red plum and black berry characteristics, with a lifted, aromatic edge, and the Perricone brings weight, tannin and acidity to the wine. Combined, this is an accomplished wine that offers attractive fruit qualities, spiciness, medium body, and brilliant balance. Cracking alongside some grilled red meat. Shop here.
Perhaps the best single varietal Grillo we’ve ever tasted. Not usually known for its personality, this single vineyard Grillo is multi-layered and oh so flavoursome. There is a Chablis-like minerality here, like wet stones, which accompanies white peach, apricot, green apple and jasmine notes. A medium body thanks to prolonged lees contact adds to this wine which is savoury, fruity, floral, and fresh all at the same time. The perfect pairing to some fried sardines or calamari. Shop here.
A variety that is much more commonly associated with the vineyards of Mount Etna, here, on vineyards at over 950m of altitude (trust us, that is very high), the Nerello Mascalese grape takes on a whole new personality. Savoury, salty, full-bodied and brimming with dark fruits, this has notes of stewing black cherries, liquorice, and black olive tapenade. Full but always fresh and alluring, thanks to this wonderful variety and some pretty smart winemaking, this single vineyard red is one to savour slowly, alongside some smoky aubergine, or slow-cooked meat in mushrooms. Shop here.
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