The Wine Viking at Home in Sicily

Peter Vinding-Diers has left his mark from Bordeaux to South America to Hungary. He’s writing his last chapter in Italy’s deep south

The Wine Viking at Home in Sicily
After exploring many of the world's classic and emerging wine regions, Peter Vinding-Diers is now focusing on bush-trained Syrah in the southeastern area of Sicily. (Robert Camuto)
Jan 5, 2023

Peter Vinding-Diers’ love affair with winemaking began in the early 1960s when he was a French lit student at the Sorbonne in Paris. A friend offered him a lift to the south of France in a factory-fresh Triumph TR4. Zipping through Burgundy’s bush-trained vineyards, Vinding-Diers had a revelation.

He loved wine and working in nature. So, what if he combined the two passions and became a vigneron?

At 79, Vinding-Diers has led one of wine’s most notably peripatetic and romantic careers on three continents, journeying from South Africa and Bordeaux to South America and Eastern Europe. He pioneered the return to using native yeasts in Bordeaux in the early 1980s, and helped lead a renaissance of sweet Tokaji in post-Communist Hungary with his then-business partner, the British wine author Hugh Johnson. Vinding-Diers has also inspired a new generation of like-minded Danes, including his sons Anders and Hans (the latter of Argentina’s Bodega Noemía de Patagonia) and his nephew Peter Sisseck, founder of Spain’s Dominio de Pingus.

His latest chapter is unfolding on a remote hilltop in southeastern Sicily, where he lives and makes Syrah with his wife, Susie.

“I was dying to get my hands dirty again,” says Vinding-Diers of his arrival in Sicily about 20 years ago, followed by the planting of his Vinding Montecarrubo estate in 2010.

“I didn’t have a penny then, and I still don’t have a penny,” he says with a laugh, bouncing through vineyards in his dusty Land Rover Defender. “Everything goes into the farm.”

 Peter Vinding-Diers stands in his library in front of shelves of books and a portrait of his father
Peter Vinding-Diers still maintains some trappings of an aristocratic life, even in the remote Sicilian countryside, setting up an extensive library with a portrait of his father, actor and writer Ole Vinding. (Robert Camuto)

He may not be that broke. This Old World aristocrat has typically figured out a way to live in style, carting with him his family oil paintings and heirlooms, his 10,000-volume book collection and his grandmother’s piano. His recent autobiography, Viking in the Vineyard (Academie du Vin Library), reveals a free spirit with a passion for viticulture and adventure.

His small-production Montecarrubo wines aren’t available in the United States—yet—but his book is. His life is a reminder of just how freewheeling the wine world could be, even at its conservative epicenter of Bordeaux.

“The wine world—a lot of it—has become soulless,” Vinding-Diers laments. “There’s a lot of foreign money floating around and speculation, and there are a lot of fine wines that will never be drunk by young people because the prices are so high.”

The winemaker was born into a creative and patrician family in Copenhagen; his father was the writer and actor Ole Vinding. After his parents divorced and his mother remarried, his stepfather’s family name, Diers, was added to his own.

“My stepfather bought a barrel of Lynch-Bages every year and had it bottled, so we had wine every day,” he recalls.

After dropping out of university in the mid-1960s, Vinding-Diers traveled the world and worked briefly as a war correspondent in Africa and Vietnam. In 1968, he married Susie, a nurse born in Britain, and the couple set off for South Africa, where his first job as a vineyard hand was accompanied by pig-tending duties. By the time he left South Africa five years later, he’d worked his way up to assistant winemaker at Rustenberg in the prime Stellenbosch area.

After moving to Bordeaux to take another wine job, Vinding-Diers was in his element—between stodginess and modernity. He built up renown running a series of white wine-focused châteaus over 25 years, including Château Rahoul and Château de Landiras in Graves, where he championed indigenous yeasts and minimal filtering.

Ahead of his time, Vinding-Diers believed that native yeasts from different vineyards put their unique stamp on wine. To prove his hunch, in 1985, he fermented three batches of Sémillon from Rahoul using indigenous yeasts from Rahoul, Lynch-Bages and another château.

The following spring, he led a convincing tasting of his experiment for Bordeaux wine and education establishments, resulting in his election to the prestigious Académie du Vin de Bordeaux.

That,” Vinding-Diers says, “was the greatest observation of my career.”

Being the dreamer that he is, much of his career has involved juggling investors and loans and trying to keep hungry bankers at bay. In the 1990s, he became a "flying winemaker"—a consultant shuttling among Bordeaux, Budapest, Bulgaria and Brazil—and ultimately landed in Rome. He yearned to settle into his own estate and, for a while, tried living in Tuscany, but didn’t find inspiration there.

 Peter Vinding-Diers and his wife, Susie, stand in the small barrel room of Vinding Montecarrubo
Peter and his wife, Susie, operate a small winery on their estate, aging their wines in a mix of 225-liter Bordeaux barrels and 600-liter demi-muids, also sourced from Bordeaux. (Robert Camuto)

In 2000, Vinding-Diers accompanied his friend and former protégé Andrea Franchetti of Tuscany’s Tenuta di Trinoro to Mount Etna. The two scouted and planted vineyards for what was to become Franchetti’s Passopisciaro winery.

In 2003, Vinding-Diers left Etna and headed south toward Siracusa, where he found a fellow wine lover in the Marquis Giuseppe Paternò Castello di San Giuliano, who wanted to make wine on his more than 600-acre olive and citrus estate in Melilli.

“We planted all sorts of things,” says Vinding-Diers, adding that southeastern Sicily’s workhorse red, Nero d’Avola, didn’t ripen in that particular, cooler microclimate. Syrah, he says, was the star of their experiments.

After buying Montecarrubo, an old carob and olive estate, Vinding-Diers had a home built from his own drawing. He then planted bush-trained Syrah and a bit of the white Sicilian variety Grillo. A small but tidy winery followed.

“We’re at the edge of an old volcano that exploded two million years ago,” Vinding-Diers enthuses as he walks the vineyard. “When I saw the place and saw the soils, I had to have it.”

Though Syrah had been in Sicily for centuries, Vinding-Diers found local biotypes bitter tasting, so he looked to France’s Hermitage appellation for massal selection vine stock.

“In Sicily, Syrah has evolved into other things,” he says. “So I wanted to go to France to get the real McCoy.”

 Map of Sicily's key wine regions and towns

His flagship Vinding Montecarrubo wines are a pair of single-vineyard estate Syrahs, of which he makes about 800 cases a year. His Vigna Grande cuvée is austerely French, and his Vignolo (from vines planted in an ancient seabed) is full of eucalyptus and spices.

Vinding-Diers also makes a series of wines from purchased grapes, including Nerello Mascalese from Mount Etna as well as Syrah, Grillo and Bordeaux varieties from farther south in Noto.

Despite setbacks—such as having some barrels stolen and losing his entire 2021 estate crop to smoke damage, stemming from a vine-singeing fire set by a local shepherd—Vinding-Diers says Sicily is his final move.

“I love the wildness here and the people,” he says. “They are hard workers, honest—most of them—and happy. It reminds me of my childhood in Denmark.”

People Red Wines Syrah / Shiraz sicily Italy

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