WWC23 – Viviana Malafarina, by Anna Spooner

Photograph of Viviana Malafarina in a vineyard

This entry to our 2023 wine writing competition sees the return of Anna Spooner, whose essay on Tablas Creek was placed third in our 2022 wine writing competition's readers' choice poll. Here, she writes about Viviana Malafarina, one of Basilicata's trailblazing winemakers. See the guide to this year's competition for more.

Anna Spooner writes Anna Spooner is a tastings and communication freelancer who is currently juggling a relocation to the Southern Rhone with studying for her Stage 2 Master of Wine exams. Her work with The Wine Society for the past five years, where she developed and lead the online events programme, has won the Decanter Online Experience Award in Retail 2021 and 2022, and has also seen her shortlisted for the IWSC Emerging Talent in Wine Communication for two years running.

Viviana Malafarina: Finding light in the black of Basilicata

‘I’m a frontier person’. Those were some of the first words that I ever heard Viviana Malafarina say when I met her at the gates of her winery, Basilisco, at the Old Vines Conference in Italy in April this year. 

‘A frontier person’. The words fell through me to my stomach, then bounced right back up and fizzed behind my eyes whilst I digested them. She had chosen them so carefully, not ‘I’m a leader’ (although spending the afternoon with her assured me that she’s a brilliant one) and not ‘I’m a ground breaker’ (although she’s clearly that too). Instead she’d defined herself by the ability to drive forward, to affect change and to break down barriers all with a quiet confidence that moved me. I knew instantly that she was an extraordinary person.

Viviana’s winery is based in Basilicata, the most mountainous region in Southern Italy. Ancient soils run black through the vineyards, laying bare the aftermath of the eruptions of Mount Vulture, and local attitudes can feel as old as the soils. In the village of Barile, where we stood, I considered what a seismic shock a woman like Viviana arriving must have been to its 800 inhabitants. Born in Genoa, she moved to Kyiv to be a teacher, armed with a degree in Slavic languages and a can-do attitude. After that, with her passion for languages, she joined the team at the Orient Express as a guide where she met the Chairman of Feudi di San Gregorio, Antonio Capaldo. And in 2011, having experienced her palpable magic, Antonio chose to entrust his new project to the novice Viviana and installed her as General Manager. But what takes you from General Manager to ‘frontier person’?

Firstly, she explained how women in the village hadn’t had access to the same education she’d had. ‘There was no bookshop’ she said frankly, there was nowhere to buy books or borrow them and as such, many people - especially women - hadn’t ever read one. She spoke candidly about lending a middle-aged newly found friend a copy of  Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, sharing that it was the first book that the lady had ever read. I wondered why she had chosen that book, was Viviana admitting to finding the laws of her new jungle hard to get to grips with? But it wasn’t just the lack of education opportunities that she sought to change, many women had never had jobs and had not been encouraged to have them. She started employing women to work in the vineyards and in the winery, fostering a small community of like-minded people prepared to learn new skills

Next, she encouraged; or maybe more accurately insisted, that Antonio renovate the old sixteenth century caves inside which the wine cellars sit, and which had been dug out of the tufo rock by Albanian refugees. There was no Government support available for the restoration but she strove on, understanding that it was the right thing to do. Her attention to detail prevailed and no expense was spared in thoughtfully restoring the site and breathing life back into it. What can be seen now across the vast, green valley to the village is a beautifully restored but faithfully traditional looking series of eight caves, and understated buildings with all the modern technologies needed to produce her excellent wines.

Once in the winery, we tried samples straight from tanks of individually vinified plots, even though we were already running late to visit the vineyards. ‘One more’ she said, ‘oh just another’, she’s impossible to say no to. In the tasting room, she presented her wines with humility. She’s the first to admit that she had to learn winemaking from scratch, behaving ‘like a sponge’ for many years under the guidance of the likes of Lorenzo Landi and Denis Dubourdieu who consulted and guided her. 

But, despite being in charge of winemaking since 2013, she talks about the wines as though they produced themselves. She does not ask for validation or glory in their creation, just how little differences she noticed in each plot have shaped the way that she, in turn, shapes the wine.

Finally, we were told we were going to the Storico vineyard, an old plot that she co-manages with Pierpaolo Sirch and which he refers to as ‘the open air museum’. Viviana explained that the vines were at least 80 years old (although nobody knows exactly how old) and trellised using an ancient three cane technique called Capanno. But I confess, I wasn’t prepared for what came next, I’ve never stepped foot in a vineyard like it.

We pulled up, climbed off the bus and time seemed to stand still. As we walked slowly down the slope it shone with colour and sang with scents of wild mint and lemon balm. Oddly, it didn’t feel like a vineyard at all, it was Viviana’s secret Eden and she led from the front, in silence, letting nature speak more clearly than any person ever could. 

This serenity has come to be my understanding of Viviana, a woman who, whilst clearly a born leader, is not looking for attention. She’s more interested in guiding you towards the things that matter, calmly and quietly so that you might learn to appreciate them for yourself. 

Unlike the village of Barile, or the transformed wines of Basilisco, Viviana has not made a mark on this vineyard. Instead, she has become the guardian of these beautiful vines, respecting the centuries of local knowledge that led them to be planted and grown this way. Alongside Pierpaolo, the pair work tirelessly to preserve the status-quo, giving huge amounts of their time to do something which some might describe as ‘standing still’.

So, that makes me think that Viviana is more than a ‘frontier person’. On the one hand, she challenges traditions where they are no longer helpful but on the other hand she respects what tradition can bring, and, in the case of beautiful craftsmanship or treasured old vines, works endlessly to protect them.

I appreciate that it might seem strange to write about Viviana as my favourite person in wine. We’ve spent a handful of hours together in-person and, although we’ve kept in touch over email since, our relationship is a brief one. However, working in wine communication, I often muse on my own shortcomings that I don’t really ‘make’ anything. Viviana has an incredible gift that, through endurance, compassion and candour, has allowed her to make both beautiful wines and a meaningful difference to all she touches. And meeting Viviana has reminded me that sometimes making wine can be about more than actually making wine. For that, I feel inspired and incredibly grateful.

The photograph is the author's own.