Federico Graziani’s ‘Coups de Foudre’: A Review

By | 14 February 2024

Margaret Rand meets the Etna winemaker.


Margaret Rand

How did Federico Graziani, the child of an accountant and a shopkeeper, become a champion sommelier and a star Etna winemaker? Margaret Rand finds out.

A butcher walked into a bar… This should be the start of a joke. What would the punchline be? “And the barman said, ‘Why the hatchet face?’” A joke, however, it is not. (Not even an unfunny one.) It is a milestone on the journey of Federico Graziani—from teenage sommelier, to fully fledged producer on the slopes of Mount Etna. We’ll catch up with the butcher later–being a teenage sommelier is enough to start with.

Graziani’s life had not always revolved around wine. Raised in Ravenna, his mother owned a store, while his father worked as an accountant. At 14, he felt the call to attend hotel school, specifically for a sommelier course. His parents, however, were not thrilled about the idea of their underage son drinking alcohol, though they gave him their permission nonetheless. They had envisioned him as a pilot, not a restaurant worker who would be working during holidays. Despite his parents’ concerns, Graziani’s passion for the hospitality industry was profound. He was particularly drawn to the world of wine, which he has been involved in since he was 15. By 19, he was serving as a professional sommelier in one- and two-star restaurants, leading him to move to and work in multiple Italian restaurants in London starting 1997.

Despite not knowing English when he first set foot in London, Graziani persevered and, after three and a half years of gaining valuable experience and knowledge about a variety of wines, he won the title of Best Italian Sommelier at the Italian Association of Sommeliers contest in 1998. The next year, he returned to Milan with established recognition in the field, securing opportunities that once seemed unattainable. At Cracco, he was given the chance to curate Milan’s finest wine list. Included in his selection were 2,200 labels, one of which being 12 vintages of Petrus. His subsequent nine year stint at Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia, however, saw a more modest wine selection count in hundreds as opposed to thousands.

Graziani moved forth from there, diving into a four-year study of viticulture and winemaking at the University of Milan. It was here that the esteemed Attilio Scienza sparked his fascination with vineyards. Despite disagreeing with the technical orientation that dominated the winemaking aspect of his course, Graziani remained ardent, and focused on the craft as it had been in the 1980s.

Graziani’s journey as a sommelier has revealed to him the importance of drinkability in wine. He has always sought out wines that can be enjoyed without the need for extensive contemplation, possessing hidden or overt complexity. Despite having had the chance to sample some of the world’s greatest wines, his preference lies in those that invite continued drinking. For instance, Masseto, one of Italy’s premiere wines, is something he could enjoy discussing and savoring for hours, though he would not necessarily drink an entire bottle. He found it interesting to note that he had never seen an entirely empty bottle of a particularly renowned wine, as there was always half remaining.

Moving forward a few years, Graziani was then studying for his MW and attended a Margaux tasting in London. The tasting consisted of ten wines from the past two decades, with one from 2005 and the other from 1985. The memorable remark from the cellar master that the harvest in the current year started 14 days later than in 1985 sparked a desire in Graziani to create wine reminiscent of the 1985 vintage, low in alcohol yet powerful.

Reverting to the past, in 2008, he had a overdue book to complete. Once he finished, his friend Salvo Foti, who is also a winemaker and founder of the I Vigneri consortium on Etna and beyond, lended him a small vineyard house on Etna for a couple of weeks so he could work uninterrupted. Once he completed his work and was back in the village bar sharing a drink with Foti, they encountered a butcher.

The butcher sought their advice on what to do about a small vineyard that he was thinking of uprooting. Upon visiting, they found the vineyard to be a real coup de foudre. The vineyard boasted ancient vines in relatively good health and had never been treated with chemicals. It was called La Piscina because it used to be filled with water just before harvest. The vineyard wasn’t overly expensive, priced at €80,000 to €90,000 per hectare, and it was half a hectare (approximately 1.2 acres). Graziani, who was not married at the time, found it a feasible venture.

Before purchasing his winery, Graziani had developed a deep affection for Etna. He likened the location to a power source. He noted the peak of Etna had risen by 115ft [35m] in the past two years. While intimidating, he found reassurance in an 800-year-old olive tree on his property, indicating no volcanic eruptions had occurred there for eight centuries.

Originally, Graziani’s 0.5ha vineyard was more of a pastime. Concurrently, he worked in eateries until his employment with Feudi di San Gregorio. He secured ownership of his winery in August 2008, with his first vintage being a challenging 2009 due to a rainy September. Fortunately, 2010 was a prosperous year.

In 2010, he produced 1,000 bottles. Through meticulous care, production rose to 1,500 bottles within a couple of years. As he sought to expand his winery, Feudi di San Gregorio offered financial and partnership support, taking 20 percent stake in the business. However, this mutually beneficial arrangement ended in 2020, when Feudi revamped their direction and chose to concentrate solely on their primary operations.

Prior to this period, Graziani’s winery was more of a weekend project. However, at the end of 2020, a defining moment marked the transition from hobby to full-time commitment as Graziani, rather than selling his new vintage to Feudi, had to repurchase the previous one from them.

“People saw me as a sommelier with a hobby, which I was not, but this was probably the perception,” he states. “I had a salary, so it was easier.” People’s perspective of him shifted; and his wines, had he continued as he was, would not be where they are today.

Graziani now operates a 6ha (15 acres) vineyard, all on the northern and northwestern faces of the mountain. On Etna, location plays a crucial role: “For white wines, the eastern face is believed to be superior, but my team wouldn’t be able to monitor the conditions there. Weather can vary drastically within a close range. For example, it might rain in Randazzo and not in Passopisciaro, and a vineyard merely 19 miles [30km] away experiences a completely different climate. In one area, it might see 35in [900mm] of rain, while another spot just miles away gathers 51in [1,300mm] of rain. A vineyard on the other side wouldn’t garner the same attention; and, the roads are winding and slow. It’s a climate that’s not easily identifiable. It’s just too disparate.”

The pioneer vineyard- the butcher’s 0.5ha, is anchored at 1,970ft (600m) on the northern side of Etna, in Passopisciaro, and it yields a wine named Profumo di Vulcano. Among the reds in this 0.5ha vineyard, which consist of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, along with Alicante and Francisi, are over 40 white grape varieties. Why Profumo di Vulcano? The name was inspired when Graziani handed a copy of his newly published book to a client at the restaurant where he worked. At another table was food critic Andy Hayler who, after glancing at the book, remarked, “If I made a wine, I’d call it Profumo di Vulcano.” Subsequently, Grainiani did exactly that. He branded his wine Profumo di Vulcano, a significant upgrade from possible names such as Black Queen. Hayler then introduced the wine to Gordon Ramsay, who then became Graziani’s first overseas client. “All my friends have very good positions in top restaurants. It’s like payback for 20 years of no Christmases, no New Year’s Eves. If I’d been working in a trattoria, I would never have met Andy,” Graziani recounts.

In addition to the several types of reds, Graziani makes an Etna Rosso (Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio) that sports a raspberry-like flavor, and is precise and vertical in profile. Graziani consistently seeks this verticality and picks his grapes early to secure it. He favors wines that age well, believing that an overemphasis on robustness could ruin the wine. He explains, “Many wines from the early 2000s remind me of broth, like they’ve been cooked or are overripe. Much depends on when you pick your grapes. Overripe grapes will give a marmalade-esque taste. If you desire the freshness of white fruit, not the ripeness of yellow fruit, in white wine, the grapes must be harvested earlier.”

Graziani recently treated himself to a case of La Conseillante 2015, which he surprisingly found it difficult to consume more than half of one bottle. “I had a whole case, but didn’t enjoy it in the slightest.”

The third red wine he describes, Rosso di Mezzo, is still “under development”. This wine offers a refreshing, well-defined, mildly tannic, savory taste. All of his red wines create an open, airy feeling, rather than richness—one might compare it to seeking shade in a cave on a hot day.

In contrast to his reds, Mareneve is Graziani’s single white wine. The vineyard is situated at an extreme altitude of almost 4,000ft (around 1,200m) in Milo. Graziani rents this location from Foti to test the vine’s altitude tolerance. The types of grapes used are Carricante, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chenin Blanc, and Grecanico. This is a diverse wine, mixing spice, body, and lots of acidity with Foti’s philosophy that wine is a living creature and a societal mirror.

Graziani adopted the notion that preserving a territory and rebuilding structures is more of a social endeavor than only wine production. He is slowly transitioning to organic farming methods, but expresses skepticism about biodynamics. “The theories fascinate me, and I’ve read Nicolas Joly’s book. While I concur with some points and aim to farm as cleanly as possible, I will not hesitate to use a systemic product to save the vintage, like in 2013”. Besides that, he only utilizes copper and sulfur. “The mountain feels alive to me. It’s almost like I can feel it and hear it. It’s distinctly unusual.”

The primary intention in Milo was to introduce an Etna Bianco Superiore. The Gewurztraminer was not initially Graziani’s preference, “but since it adds complexity, I’m glad it’s included. Serendipity played a role: I discovered these vines and do my best to vinify them according to my taste preferences.” He makes it a point to harvest the Gewurztraminer seven days before the rest of the vineyard to maintain the rose- and white-fruit scents instead of the usual papaya and tropical fruit aromas.

The cycle of new cultivation fields—some sown, others still not—can be quite disorienting, but they are all small and situated at high altitudes. There is, for instance, a new patch of land adjacent to the Mareneve plot but even chillier, with unseasonal frost in June; it’s too cold for local strains, according to him, and so, he is considering planting Riesling. “I planned to sow it now, but Salvo advised that I hold on until a proper boundary is established. The shepherds can be quite a nuisance there…” He has 0.8ha (2 acres) of former vineyard area in Montelaguardia, at a height of 3,100ft (950m), which is his first choice for planting, with Carricante, “to be somewhat more self-reliant.” Mareneve is coming along splendidly, which makes him content, “but it’s not an easy vineyard, absolutely not.”

There’s one more facet to add. In 2010, he crossed ways with a woman named Anna Maschio, belonging to a family that owns a distillery near Venice, Bonaventura Maschio. They bumped into each other twice on the same day. Graziani had published a wine-centric newspaper—on excellent quality paper. She had procured some copies of the second issue, upon which he decided to present her a copy of the first issue as well. Later, by sheer coincidence, she dined at his restaurant. They tied the knot a year later.

A lady walked into a restaurant… ▉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *