Farming Practices At Tenuta di Aglaea – A discussion with Anne-Louise Mikkelsen (Etna, Sicily)

On April 22nd, 2020 we chatted with Anne-Louise Mikkelsen (virtually) owner, operator of Tenuta Di Aglaea in Etna, Sicily to discuss farming practices in their vineyards.

Right now, you can find five of Anne-Louise Mikkelsen's wines at Mercantile & Co:

Anne-Louise has been making wines in Italy for many years now.  Trained in Burgundy but a fully converted fan of Italian wine varietals, she brings a grace to winemaking that few can replicate.  Funny enough, this seems appropriate given the name she gave her winery, "Tenuta di Aglaea" Aglaea is the youngest of the Three Graces or Charities as they were also known, the three sisters, and daughters of the God Zeus. Aglaea was the goddess of beauty, splendor, glory, magnificence and adornment. At times she acted as messenger for Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Aglaea is significant with all our sentiments for Etna; with what our wines try to express, and how they do so.

If you've ever been to Sicily and specifically Etna, you'll know that Aglaea is an apt name given the region.  Despite so many challenges -  the people, the culture the feel is nothing short of vibrant and graceful.  As the world spins along at top speed outside of Etna, here you feel fully in tune with the wild and nature.  You cannot escape it, so you simply fall for it and become enveloped with its grace and beauty.

Merc&Co: Anne-Louise, thank you for taking some time to talk about your approach to farming and vineyard management.  Let’s talk about cover cropping – do you support this practice?   What is your system currently?  I remember the last time we visited; the vineyards appeared quite “wild”.

Anne-Louise: I don't use cover crops per se - what grows is simply native to the region. In Etna we are blessed with a very fertile soil and seemingly the nutrient balance is the way it should be. We're not trying to add anything back to build soil content as others might need.  I say this because all, except one, of my parcels are older vineyards.

Merc&Co:  How old is old?

Anne-Louise:  I have plants that I reckon are some 80-100 years old - they twist left and right but still stand, and they still produce grapes. Other plants are in their fifties.  But again, they're healthy.  The soil quality is incredibly fertile and grows just about anything.

I recognize that most of my vines have been planted in the beginning and mid of last century.  They have managed to grow old despite what was then much less and quite a bit different attention than what they are given now.

Merc&Co:  How is it different than before you purchased the vineyards and started managing them.

Anne-Louise:  Basically, I find that they have done perfectly well without too much human interferences (and their technologies) already.  They are already in equilibrium with their ecosystem.  The soil they grow in is already as it is a good environment for the plants as they can have and what’s more - they have grown accustomed to each other. I don't want to interfere in that balance.

Merc&Co:  So, what you’re saying is, it's a combination of things.  Given where you’re at, the soils afforded you, cover crops aren’t quite necessary, and the vines need very little in the way of support.

Anne-Louise:  Yes, had we been talking about a new vineyard somewhere in the middle Umbria that had never seen a vine before in its life. Then, yes, I would, (probably after soil analysis), plant some cover crops to help build up the soil and get the right nutrients to the plants. On a previous project I was involved in in Tuscany we had planted fava beans as cover crops because it was necessary.  We're just wild here as you say.

Merc&Co:  Composting – do you do this as well?

Anne-Louise:  We have made a pile of grape skins and stalks (leftovers from harvest) on one field but not yet used any of it.

Merc&Co:  Again, not necessary at this time?

Anne-Louise:  Right, just other things that need attention currently but there if we need it.

Merc&Co:  What about tilling?  Many organic farmers are looking to limit tilling more and more.  What are your thoughts?

Anne-Louise:  What we've done is to wait until we were done pruning. During pruning we leave all the branches that we cut off in the middle of the row. When the Fresa (tractor) passes (see picture w. the tractor below) it blends the shoots down into the soil surface – some 5 or so inches.

Our tractor looks like a little tractor from the 50’s, so basic.  Forget everything you know about John Deere; it comes back with another instrument that kind of moves back the soil that has been ´pushed´ out up against the vines. Then we hoe by hand in between the individual plants. The tiller is good but you have to be careful that it doesn't cut the roots of the plants at newly planted vineyards where the root system is still only starting to unfold. And you have to choose carefully when to use it – if you break up the soil deep at the wrong time all the moister evaporates and there is nothing to hold on to the water.  The soil in Etna typically has very good drainage, very fine soil, and no clay, so there is for instance not the same need to break up the lower parts as there may be other places. It is much a question of timing and what you want to gain from it.

In other of our vineyards,  where trained Alberello (the vines stand like small individual trees), we plow with a machine in between the plants - breaking up the surface and removing weeds - and we do so manually around each plant also trying to make a little bowl around them, so they collect water more easily. At the vineyards Nave, Santo Spirito, and Chiusa Politi this is the practice.

We do all of this in March and we’re done by mid-late April. And then again in July or September, we sometimes may have to go and cut the grass in certain places because it grows very high and during summer gets extremely dry and poses a fire-risk. Later on, growing again it becomes a risk for the grapes because it retains water (after a rainfall for instance), and creates much humidity and hence increases the risk of diseases and rot.

Merc&Co:  Let’s talk about fertilizers – what are you using?  How is this managed?

Anne-Louise:  I have never used fertilizers before because the soils are so fertile.  First time I have, was this year because of a younger vineyard (we replanted Passo Cannone) was suffering over the past year or so, likely due to drought.  So, we'll see if this can help a little bit.  Also, we changed pruning to a double spurred to divide the nutrients better and get more even ripening of the bunches.

Merc&Co: Do you have to do any spraying?

Anne-Louise: We spray a couple of times a year with Sulphur and Copper.

Preferably only once but we have had years that were very humid and difficult and then we have sprayed a second time to avoid rot and fungi.

Merc&Co:  Do you stress the need for growing a polyculture?  I know you grow olives, but do you focus on any other food/plant/tree systems in and around the vineyards systematically or strategically?  I’ll never forget the last time we visited, you kept coming across tomato and melon plants your team had planted in the vineyard.  So funny!

Anne-Louise:  Nothing systematic, just trying to get the grapes right at this point - I like keeping up the past generations idea of the vineyard being a big green garden due to the availability of extremely fertile soil. I have pruned the different apple, cherry, fig, pear and prune trees, and left aside the tomatoes, salvia, cabbage, tomato and zucchini along the ancient walls where they like to be. We'll see what comes up of the soil this year.  My neighbor (85 years old) at Chiusa Politi brought me an old hat full of great potatoes in the beginning of March!