Hot properties where organic vines thrive

ArticlesRegional & Country FocusesSponsored content

Stefano Girelli comes from the far north of Italy but has been captivated by Sicily, where he now concentrates his winemaking efforts. He invited The Wine Merchant, and a group of independents, to visit his Santa Tresa and Azienda Agricola Cortese estates to see for ourselves just why he’s convinced it’s the best place to make world-beating organic wines.


It’s slightly surprising to hear Stefano Girelli tell a story from Norway to help explain his approach to winemaking. But after he’s told it, it’s hard not to buy into what he’s trying to achieve with his Sicilian estates.

It goes like this. A Norwegian family volunteered for a medical experiment and it transpired that parents and children alike all had quantities of pesticides in their bodies. For a month, the family was restricted to a diet of purely organic foods. When they were tested again, the pesticides were out of their systems.

Stefano is not from Sicily. He’s from Trento, way up north in Trentino Alto Adige, which is still his main home. He represents the third generation of a proud Italian winemaking family which once had interests all across the country. These have been divested as Stefano has become convinced that Sicily is where he will make his best wines. They are all organic.

Santa Tresa, a south eastern estate dating back to 1697, was acquired in 2001. Nearby Azienda Agricola Cortese followed in 2016.

“In 2001, when I came down here, I just fell in love with the area,” Stefano tells us. “I realised that Sicily has incredible potential for organic production and it’s probably the perfect place to grow organic grapes.

“Obviously we’re in an area where we have extreme weather conditions and we have a lot of challenges. We’ve learnt a lot and we’re still learning.

“Our idea is to focus on indigenous grapes. We have some Viognier, but this is the only grape not typical to Sicily that we’re still growing.

“Our object is to make wines that we love to drink. Something we can be proud of.”



Stefano’s love of Sicily, and what it has to offer, seems to radiate from him. He speaks enthusiastically about the island’s wealth of indigenous varieties – “more than the rest of Italy combined” – and the trend away from boring bulk wines and a dependence on ubiquitous varieties like Cabernet, Syrah and Chardonnay.

Yet he still regards himself as an outsider in Sicily and is open about the challenges he faces. Some of these might be cultural; others are down to Sicily’s scorching but increasingly unpredictable climate.

The island experienced its hottest ever July this year, and the dry conditions are creating problems for growers. And yet May and June were exceptionally wet by Sicilian standards.

“We had an incredible attack of mildew,” Stefano reports. “There are some growers who are literally not picking the grapes. We’re lucky if we’re even going to pick 50% of our grapes. Welcome to the organic world. But whatever we pick is going to be of really good quality.”

Stefano jokes that he’s a “pain in the neck” for the growers that he works with, but is happy to pay extra to guarantee organic grapes that reach his exacting standards. After eleven and a half months of vineyard toil, he says he wants to work as little as possible in the winery.

“If we ask them to grow organically, we have to reward them,” he says. “A sustainable chain of production allows everyone to survive.”


From left: Mark Bedford, Caviste, Hampshire; Geraint Davies, ND John, Swansea; Bridget Hoult, Hoults, Huddersfield; Chloe Malone, Champion Wines, Chislehurst; Stefano Girelli; Toby Peirce, Quaff, Brighton; Jean Carlos Grega, Cambridge Wine Merchants


It’s tempting to think of Sicily as an island of volcanic soils but it’s really only Etna that has this kind of geology. The vineyards at Santa Tresa are terra rossa, with a sandy topsoil that gives our shoes a red dusting as we explore them. Underneath that there is a clay seam of up to three metres. Vines need to send their roots down beneath this layer to reach the trapped water below, sometimes as deep as seven metres.

Although Azienda Agricola Cortese is only 8km away, the terroir is surprisingly different. It’s always been an organic estate, but the soil is more compact and the weeds and insects that thrive there are not the same as you find at Santa Tresa. “We quickly realised that we had totally different Nero d’Avola and totally different Frappato so we thought, let’s keep the two estates separate,” Stefano says.

The Santa Tresa vineyard is now irrigated with the help of a 17km pipeline connecting it to the local reservoir. It’s one of four officially-designated experimental vineyards in Sicily, and it’s home to a wide variety of obscure clones and little-known indigenous grapes.

We taste berries from two types of Muscat, and they could almost be different varieties. We also come across Orisi, an almost extinct variety thought to derive from Sangiovese and Montonico Bianco. Stefano’s team have just over 1,500 Orisi vines and their progress is being watched with interest, as the variety is “phenomenal in a heatwave”, he explains.

It’s a grape we look forward to tasting in its vinified form sometime soon. In the meantime, there is more than enough going on in the portfolio to keep us entertained.


• A full-length version of this article, including comments from merchants, appears in the November 2023 edition of The Wine Merchant.

Published in association with North South Wines.

Stefano Girelli is also owner of The Wine People, the commercial arm of his business interests, which distributes wines from Santa Tresa, Azienda Agricola Cortese and partners on the Italian mainland.

He is also one of the shareholders in North South Wines, which represents the wines in the UK market.

Visit for more information or call 020 3871 9210.

Related Articles