Wines from a Coral Reef on a Mountain

Visiting Peter Vinding-Diers’ Winery in Sicily


I have no idea how one of the great winemakers of the world found his way to this little hilltop farm in the middle of nowhere, Sicily.

Seriously, if I hadn’t been in a van with six other people, I would have turned back any number of times, convinced I’d gotten lost while winding ever-upward along steep dry slopes, some distance from the main road between the cities of Catania and Siracusa.

Winemaker Peter Vinding-Diers has established his Montecarrubo winery on the site of a former carob and olive farm. He explains that two million years ago, this plot of land was a coral reef in the sea. And it sits on top of a now-extinct volcano. Over time, this entire section was lifted high above the ocean floor to its present position, where vineyards now grow.

Throughout the wine world, each of Vinding-Diers’ Montecarrubo vintages is now eagerly awaited. And I think it’s fair to say he also has plenty of support right at home from his petite, welcoming wife Susan and his winemaker son Anders. (His other son, Hans, is a “flying winemaker” consultant based in Uruguay and Patagonia. And his nephew is the equally lauded Peter Sisseck, who makes exceptional wines in Spain.)

What was the appeal of this particular parcel of land for Danish-born Peter Vinding-Diers and his son Anders? The subtleties of terroir – which Peter is taking full advantage of, in his vine selection and wine production techniques.

At an age when most people are winding down their work load, Vinding-Diers chose to alight on this mountain in Sicily to create his next wine chapter. This, after a stellar career that included revolutionizing the world of natural yeasts in Bordeaux winemaking and producing top level Tokaji wines in Hungary – having initially honed his craft in Stellenbosch.

Peter Vinding-Diers began exploring Sicily in the early 2000s. When he finally settled at Montecarrubo, his first red wine vintage was in 2012. After experimenting with various grapes, he decided on syrah. “Syrah has been on Sicily for a couple hundred years,” he relates. “And it has mutated. I wanted something clean and precise.” Friends from the Hermitage region in France’s Northern Rhone area sent him a couple of massal selections to try. Both were “an instant success!” he enthuses. They make “very interesting wines…the taste reminding you [even] a little too much of France… with some wild herbs.”

He chose a very neutral yeast after he found “there was no [naturally-occurring] yeast on the vines or in these vineyards…It’s the DNA from these vines that gives the flavors.” Being Peter, he’s “dying to experiment with this on other grapes and vineyards.” He is getting new vines from the research institute in Marsala shortly.

Though the family has the ability to buy some grapes, the Montecarrubo venture hasn’t been without troubles. Their 2021 vintage was wiped out by smoke taint from an adjacent property where the vegetation underwent a traditional burn cycle by the old-fashioned owners. There was nothing Peter Vinding-Diers could do, except hope that, in the future, he can convince his neighbors to desist from this practice – at least when the winds are blowing in his direction.

At Montecarrubo, the first vintage of white wines was in 2022, when Peter Vinding-Diers was well into his 70s. On our recent visit, he welcomed us with his 2022 Vignolo Bianco. This is his debut wine made with Sicily’s indigenous grillo grape. The grapes are picked by hand and chilled overnight. The wine is refreshing, minerally and very nicely balanced.

Currently, in his own vineyards, instead of the traditional sulfur and copper sprays used to manage problems, he has started using a bacterial spray to counteract diseases that commonly afflict grapevines. This has been successful during the early growing season, at least until flowering. After that he’s found he must use a copper spray on downy mildew, but he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to find a bacterial solution for this problem too, so as not to add unnecessary metals and chemicals to the environment.

The Montecarrubo wines are low sulfur, not fined or filtered. Because of this, Peter and Anders weren’t able to get rid of all the clear (harmless) tartrate crystals that sometimes precipitate out of wine. Peter says they simply created a sticker for the bottles saying, “We couldn’t get it more natural.” They were able to because right now the bottles at Montecarrubo are hand-labeled. If the current vintage sells well, Peter says, “then we’ll get a labeling machine.”  I don’t think there’s much doubt about that, based on what I sampled during my recent visit.

Tasted as barrel samples, first came a 2023 Vignolo Rosso. A red blend made with syrah grapes from four hectares of vineyards near the Vinding-Diers home, as well as cabernet franc and merlot (usually). At this moment, the wood aromas and fruit are huge, moderated by notes of tobacco, by good acidity and extremely nice tannins. Half of this vintage will be sold en primeur to buyers around the world.

Second was the 2023 Vigna Grande cask sample, with earlier-ripening syrah from vineyards only 4 or 5 kilometers from the sea. Vinding-Diers says the sea “provides luminosity” which may aid in ripening. At this point in its development, this sample had more spices and wood than fruit, altogether a more elegant wine.

Among other wines, we also tasted the (now sold out) 2022 Vignolo IGT Terre Siciliana, syrah-based blend, which was naturally low-alcohol that year. And the 2022 Vigna Grande, with its silky texture and acidity, and fine tannins. Peter told us, “It should have been decanted yesterday” for the flavors to open and round out.

My top red wine of this tasting was the 2022 Vigna Grande “Special Edition” made from vineyards located on top of the former coral reef on the ancient volcano. This wine is only made in outstanding years, and it will only become better with age. Even now, it appears finely finished and well-balanced, with fruit, herbs, a note of balsamic and hints of the sea.

The day after my visit, Peter sent me a text: they just closed a deal to export Montecarrubo wines to the US!