Although we didn’t know it at the time of our winery tour, Gulfi is an Arab word that translates to a pleasurable place. Gulfi Winery takes its name from the nearby town of Chiaramonte Gulfi which was established in the 6th century B.C. by Greeks who left Syracuse. Akrillay was the original name of the settlement, but its name has changed over the centuries as it was overrun by the Arabs and then the French. In 1693 the city was destroyed, along with much of eastern Sicily, by a severe earthquake. Not so pleasurable. The views from the city are described as stunning, hence the reference to a pleasurable place.
Gulfi was a visual pleasure even before we stepped out of the car. The hills of the southeastern corner of Sicily are crisscrossed with striking dry-stone walls. The light colors of the walls stand in contrast to the variable color of the earth. These beautiful dry-stone walls define the entrance and outline the driveway to the winery. A few ancient olive trees dot the property and the entrance is graced by an enormous old olive press.
Gulfi’s history begins in 1996 when, after his father’s death, Vito Catania inherited his father’s property. The younger Catania returned to Sicily from northern Italy where he built a successful career in manufacturing. He purchased additional vineyards, hired consulting winemaker Salvo Foti for his expertise in the winery and in the vineyard and built a winery.
The first vintage was 1999 and production started in 2006 at the facility we toured. The winery utilizes temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, has about 600 French oak barrels and some large-format casks made of Slavonian oak. The length of oak aging varies by the style of wine, from 6 months to 2 years in duration.
We visited Gulfi near the end of September. Harvest had already begun and would continue through October. Vineyards are located in three areas of eastern Sicily. About 30 hectares are located near the winery at an elevation of 600 meters above sea level. Several vineyard blocks are visible from the back of winery which provides a panorama of buildings, vineyards and olive groves. Nero d’Avola produced here was described by our guide and hospitality manager, Giorgio, as a fruity style meant to be drunk young.
Pachino, located near the ocean almost at the southernmost point of Sicily, comprises another 30 hectares of vines. This is the focus of winemaking at Gulfi. The Pachino vineyards produce Nero d’Avola with strength and structure. Four distinct vineyards are vinified and bottled separately.
About 7 hectares of vineyards near Randazzo, north of Mt. Etna where Nerello Mascalese is king, comprise the remainder of Gulfi’s vineyards. All grapes are taken to the winery at Chiaramonte Gulfi for vinification.
Importantly, to me at least, Gulfi farms all of their vineyards organically and all wines are certified organic. In addition, the vineyards are dry-farmed, meaning the vines are not irrigated. They must survive on rainfall alone.
Current production is in the 300,000-bottle range, which is just the size Gulfi wants to remain. About 70% of production is exported; the U.S., Japan and Germany are the largest markets.
Along with the winemaking facility, Gulfi has accommodations for overnight stays (like an agriturismo) and a restaurant, together called Locanda Gulfi. It’s perfect, really, winery tours are available to guests (you needn’t stay overnight to tour the winery or dine in the restaurant) and the restaurant makes food and wine tastings possible.
Our winery tour was followed by lunch and wine. It was one of the highlights of our trip to Sicily. We began lunch with estate olive oil and fresh-baked bread. Giorgio poured 2014 Gulfi Valcanzjria, a Chardonnay-Carricante blend to accompany the olive oil and bread. The wine was crisp, fruity and refreshing. A nice accompaniment to the fruity, bright olive oil.
The next wine, 2011 Gulfi Carjcanti, is a blend of Carricante and Albanello, two white varieties indigenous to eastern Sicily. A portion of the wine is aged in French oak which gives the wine a bit of weight and adds a hint of spice. It is only vaguely floral, exhibiting mostly an interesting stoney minerality. It was a delightful pairing with our first course.
Reimagined eggplant parmigiana is the only way I know how to describe our first course. An inventive dish, prepared by chef Antonio Colombo, each component of the dish was prepared separately and presented together. Parts of the dish were crunchy (freeze-dried tomato, egg and bread) and others were light and airy (parmesan and eggplant). The dish was weightless unlike the traditional version.
Midway through our eggplant parmigiana, Giorgio poured the 2014 Gulfi Cerasuolo di Vittoria. The blend of 50% Nero d’Avola and 50% Frappato was light, fruity and smooth thanks in part to carbonic maceration and the all stainless steel vinification. The Frappato in the blend also contributes significantly to the fruity flavors of the wine so characteristic of good Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Drink this wine slightly chilled any time of year, but it would be especially enjoyable on a warm summer day.
Once again, right on cue, Giorgio presented the 2010 Gulfi Nerojbleo. This wine is a blend of 20% younger (about 10 yrs old) Nero d’Avola grown near the winery and 80% older vines from Pachino. This wine gives a hint of the complexity of the Nero d’Avola grape. The flavors include dark fruit, spice, earth and smoke. Tannins are significant along with bright acidity. It is a beautiful wine with only 13.5% abv.
Our next course was described to us as pumpkin dumplings in a light butter and parmesan sauce. It made us both very happy. Pete’s smile says it all! The pasta was tender, the pumpkin filling rich and the sauce not too heavy, but very flavorful.
The final wine, 2007 Gulfi Nerosanloré, is 100% Nero d’Avola from the San Lorenzo vineyard in Pachino. The 2.5-hectare vineyard is only 700 meters from the ocean. The vines are trained in the alberello style (head trained or bush vine) and are over 40 years old. Flavors are richer and more evolved in this wine with aged dark fruit flavors, earth, licorice and grippy tannins. A delightful, flavorful wine without being too heavy. It was beautiful with the pumpkin dumplings and, surprisingly, the dessert which followed.
We were full nearly to bursting by the time the dessert course arrived. We were even more stuffed at the end, because neither of us left one morsel on our plates. Cannolo filled with fluffy ricotta along with a creamy pistachio sauce and lemon granita was our final dish. Chef Colombo added the creamy pistachio sauce to each of our dishes at the table. The cannolo was crispy, the filling light and creamy and the pistachio cream was rich with the flavor of pistachios. The bright lemony granita was the perfect contrast to the cannolo. It was a perfect version of Sicily’s famous dessert.
Every winery visit is unique. Always a reflection of the region, the grape varieties, style of wine and, of course, the proprietors. On display in the dining room where we enjoyed our lunch is a tribute to Raffaele Catania, Vito Catania’s father. During a particularly difficult financial time for the family, Raffaele made the difficult decision to leave Sicily for Paris to seek financial opportunity. In order to pay for transportation, it was necessary for him to sell his beloved Agusta motorcycle. Raffaele built a successful career as an architect in Paris which enabled him to return to the land, the vines and olive trees he loved.
After Raffaele’s death and Vito’s subsequent establishment of Gulfi, Vito was able to find and buy his father’s Agusta. It stands, fully restored, beneath a portrait of Raffaele. Carved into the picture frame is the Eiffel tower, his architect’s tools along with the grapevines and dry-stone walls characteristic of the region. The picture frame tells the story of the family and indirectly the winery.
Gulfi: a pleasurable place. Certainly that was our experience at Gulfi. We came for the organic viticulture, but discovered so much more about Gulfi. The setting and winery are stunningly beautiful, the wines are thoughtful and the food was delicious and elegantly presented. It is a magical place of great pleasures and is not to be missed.
Below is a slide show of our visit to Gulfi. Please enjoy.