The Shadow Underneath The Volcano

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We begin with a path- worn by merchants that are bringing goods to and from the port. It's a path that slaves and villagers alike have traveled on the way home from working in the fields, growing everything from Olive Oil to Oranges. Long before this path was started, the indigenous people of Sicily were known as Sicels, known to the Ancient Greeks and the sea-faring Phoenicians, who established settlements there on the way to founding Carthage in North Africa.  The Greeks colonized the area in the 8th century BC, founding Syracuse in 734 BC and maintained control over the east end of the island, while Carthage maintained presence in the west in the settlement of Lilybaeum (now known as Marsala). After the Second Punic War, The Roman Republic would rule over Sicily for the next 600 years,. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Sicily changed hands from the Vandals to the Byzantine Roman Empire to Islamic Rule until the Normans conquest of Sicily between 1063-1091, which was arguably the starting match of the Crusades.  It became the country of Sicily in 1071, and proceeded to become the Kingdom of Sicily in 1130, which it would remain until 1816, when it united with the Kingdom of Naples to become the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, a title that would stand until Italian unification in 1861. 

You see, Sicily has a rich history - it may not be as convoluted as mainland Italy, but it's pretty close.

Sicily is the largest island in all of the Mediterranean.  In the northeast, Mount Etna looms over the nearby villages, its 10,991 feet capped at the top with snowfall. Thousands of years have passed, and it still erupts from time to time, enriching the nearby land with fertile volcanic soil. Long only known for its production of Marsala, the transformation of Sicily's reputation has been profound.  Soil types are all the rage right now, and there's no soil type hotter (hah!) than volcanic.  These are the same soils that made the Canary Islands become a wine destination as well. But the wines of Etna, and that of the nerello mascalese grape are a story for another day.  We begin our journey in the old town of Bastonaca, some 134 kilometers southwest of Etna.

 Azienda Agricola COS.

Azienda Agricola COS.

 

In 1980, a trio of winemakers, then the youngest in all of Italy, decided to partner together to make wines that were reflective of the land and heritage of Sicily.   Giambattista (Titta) Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Cirino (Rino) Strano purchased an old 36 hectare vineyard plot from Giambattista's father, Giuseppe in the historic town of Bastonaca. They produced 1,470 bottles on their first harvest, but have dedicated their vineyards to old traditional methods of biodynamic practices, harvesting by hand with little intervention in the winemaking process.  

It was on a trip to Georgia in 2007 that Giusto Occhipinit noticed the old practice of qvevri, large format amphorae that would be buried up to the bottleneck while fermenting wine to maintain a stable temperature. He was so fascinated with the results of this process that he replaced all of the old oak barrels that they had used with clay amphorae that COS uses to make their most prized wines in the Pithos line.  

Bastonaca doesn't have the looming shadow of Mount Etna nearby, but still has rolling hills with elevation around 200 meters. On a clear day, you can see the coast of North Africa, and you can see the similar terrain here, with the sloping hills dotted with ochre, yellow, and reddish hues from the ferrous oxide and clay top soils that cover the terrain.  

 The city of Vittoria, Sicily.

The city of Vittoria, Sicily.

 

Nearby Vittoria is the namesake of the wine region here, and this part of Sicily is home to their one DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a principal blend of Nero D'Avola, and Frappato. Nero D'Avola, also known as Calabrese, often produces a more fruit forward and structured wine, while Frappato is more lithe and floral. But only when the two varietals are combined is the wine allowed to be considered part of the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG. Either on their own become what's known as an I.G.T. ( Indicazione Geografica Tipica). Thanks to the complexities of Italian wine regulations, I.G.T. isn't an indicator of quality alone, though some can be rather pedestrian, but this case reflects the passion of winemakers that want to allow varietals to stand alone.

Frappato was first recorded on the island of Sicily in 1760, when it was known by one of its varients, Frappato di Vittoria, since that was where it was believed to have originated.  But Frappato was grown for centuries little noticed, or drank, save for those who drank their own local wine, and the few who didn't even know it was in the make up of Northern Italian blends that brought in grapes from Sicily to bolster otherwise anemic wines. 

Nero D'Avola managed to receive notice in the 1990s, when its heavy footed fruit forward profile that went hand in hand with the heavily oaked big red wines that grew in fame under the influence of Robert Parker.  This allowed some Sicilian wine makers to avoid ripping up their native rootstocks in order to plant the more in demand international varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.  But Frappato's revitalization is a 21st century wine phenomenon, part of a larger movement that's seen curiosity for the marginalized and often little known grape varietals and wine regions to take their place in the global market.  COS didn't even reach the United States market until 2000, when it was starting to break away from the Parker influence of using new oak. 

COS Frappato is anything but heavy-handed, or even heavy at all.  Speaking about an earlier vintage, the wine critic Jancis Robinson said:

Sometimes you taste a wine and you want to do two things at once: (a) clear the room, sit down, and focus all your attention on the pleasure this wine gives and (b) invite all your friends round to share the pleasure with them. The colour is like a warm ruby, not especially dense but bright and truly red, without blue or purple tones, even though it is still a young wine. The aromas are charming: fragrant wild strawberries and the merest hint of candied orange peel and light spice, maybe nutmeg or cinnamon. The polished texture is silky but definite, with a fine balance of clear fruit and structure (tannins and acidity) to give it depth and length. It has that lovely sweetness of fruit that you get from the best examples of Pinot Noir (though it doesn't taste like Pinot) and the same apparent lightness and freshness even though it fills the mouth with flavour and scent, and just 12.5% alcohol. It is unoaked, complex and layered, juicy but not simple. Simply delicious

The only change here is that the COS 2016 Frappato is 11.5%, more fresh, light and vibrant.  The wine is fermented spontaneously with indigenous yeasts and sits in concrete vats, with no use of oak.  It's a lively, floral wine, with notes of ripe red berries and just a hint of cinnamon on the nose. One of those few reds that is appropriate at every season.

 Arianna Occhipinti

Arianna Occhipinti

 

While Giusto Occhipinti was hard at work transforming Sicily's reputation in the winemaking world, he took his niece under his tutelage in the fields. Arianna Occhipinti was drawn to the wine world after attending VinItaly with her uncle, and began learning his techniques for making natural, organic wines.  When she attended university to follow a degree in enology, she was frustrated with the concentration on chemical manipulation of the wines, rather than a focus on careful harvest of the land.  

She began her own operation, just a little over eight kilometers southeast of COS, off the SP68.  This was the path that Arianna fell in love with, the idea that something could express both forward progress and a call back to traditional ways.  We've carried her Frappato before, the wine that was the first to bring her international acclaim, but we're even more thrilled to have her SP68 series, her tribute to the tradition of Sicily, and the wines that have grown here for centuries.The SP68 Bianco is an intriguing blend of Zibbibo and Albanello. Both of these grapes have a long history in Sicily. Zibbibo is simply the local name for Muscat of Alexandria, one of the most ancient wine grapes in the world, while Albanello dates back to the 18th century, where it was most prominently found in a rare Marsala style wine called Ambrato di Corniso. Both of these grapes are profusely aromatic, and usually found in more sweet style wines, but Arianna ferments these wines dry using indigenous yeasts only and allows 15 days(!) of skin maceration.  The wine is then aged for 6 months in concrete vats before one mone aged in bottle without filtration. Every year, only a certain allotment of these wines make it to the United States and they always run out quickly. 

 Image Courtesy of the New York Times.

Image Courtesy of the New York Times.

 The vineyards at Terrasol.  Image Courtesy of Mucci Wine.

The vineyards at Terrasol. Image Courtesy of Mucci Wine.

Family and tradition make up a large part of Sicilian life, but there's a strong independent streak as well. That's what Giorgio Poidomani at Terrasol is all about. Located in Frigintini, just 34 kilometers east of our friends COS and Occhipinti. The land here is a jagged terrain divided by old white stone walls dating back centuries. Giorgio and his son Stefano make wines with minimal sulfites, and their Tracce line is dedicated to fresh expressions of native varietals. The name of the winery is a portmanteau of two Italian words Terra(land) and Sole (sun)- a fitting homage to the beating sun that gives Sicilian wine its character.  While Nero D'Avola is often characterized by its ripe fruit driven qualities, and often put in oak barrels, Giorgio and his son make a lighter expression, fermented in stainless steel with minimal sulfites before spending two months aging in the bottle. This is a Nero D'Avola worthy of the summertime, with lively fruit and fresh acidity. 

 Grapes at the vineyards at Terrasol.  Image courtesy of Mucci Wine.

Grapes at the vineyards at Terrasol. Image courtesy of Mucci Wine.

Mount Etna may be Sicily's most famous landmark. Syracuse might be its most famous city, but the wines of COS, Occhipinti, and Terrasol prove that there is a dynamic quality and character throughout the island, and that Sicily is no longer just an island for dessert wines. We invite you to try these wines, and see what fresh, well-made wines are all about. 

 

The Fine Print:

Azienda Agricola COS Frappato  ̶$̶3̶4̶.̶9̶9̶ $31.99

Arianna Occhipinti Sicilia SP68 Bianco -  ̶$̶2̶9̶.̶9̶9̶ $26.99

Terrasol Tracce Nero d'Avola -  ̶$̶1̶7̶.̶9̶9̶ $16.19

Further Reading:

Eric Asimov delves into what makes Frappato pop.

Jancis Robinson waxes poetic on an earlier vintage of COS Frappato

Arianna Occhipinti has a fantastic website