In 2006, Joe and Kevin fell in love with the wines of an unassuming 24 year old showing her first vintage at an Italian wine fair. Today, Arianna Occhipinti has become a seminal figure for a new generation of wine lovers. Her rise to prominence has been meteoric, and rightfully so: anyone who has met Ari will instantly vouch that her charming personality and positive attitude are contagious.
Arianna is the niece of Giusto Occhpinti, whose COS wines are undisputedly amongst the very best of Sicily. In 1998, Giusto invited her to help him out at Vinitaly for four days. Arianna was 16 at the time and knew nothing about wine, but the experience was such a good one that she decided to study viticulture and oenology in university. This quickly proved counter-intuitive, since everything she had learned from her uncle (organic viticulture, hand-harvesting, native yeast fermentations) clashed with what she was being taught in school.
Undeterred, Arianna started making her own wine with just 1 hectare of abandoned vines in the commune of Vittoria. Over the years, she has progressively expanded the estate by replanting 10 hectares of the region's indigenous Frappato and Nero D'Avola in selection massale. A few years later, she was able to start renting 50 year old Frappato and 45 year old Nero D'Avola vines, both independently bottled as single varietal/vineyard cuvées. In 2012, an additional 7 hectares of 19 year old vines were acquired, which for the time being will be used to produce more SP-68.
Continually pushing things forward, Arianna built herself a new cellar in 2014, a huge step up from the cramped, chaotic space she used to work in. Besides the obvious advantage of having more space, it has permitted Arianna to start a new regiment of concrete fermentation and aging for both SP68's, which used to to be produced in stainless steel and fiberglass. Some of the tanks are glass lined, some aren't. They are all 2mx2m, and with the way they are set up, the juice can be worked by gravity.
This interview with Arianna Occhipinti took place in Fornovo, Italy during the Vini di Vigniaoli fair in October, 2011.
Tell us about about your estate.
I started making my own wine in 2004, right after I'd graduated from university. Everything started with my uncle (note: Giusto Occhipinti, the O of the COS wines) when I was 16; he invited me to come help him out at Vinitaly, and I thought to myself: "I can miss 4 days of school!", so I quickly agreed to come with him.
I knew nothing about wine, but it was a fantastic experience. I met a lot of people and was immediately drawn to it. I decided to study it, and while I was in university, I started learning more about agricultural and oenological practices, which ultimately led me to focus on natural winemaking.
So again I started in 2004, with just 1 hectare. Now I'm working with 12 hectares of Frappato and Nero D'Avola. 6 years ago, I planted a vineyard of whites, which are Albanello and Muscat. These are all grapes local to my area, especially Albanello which really isn't produced much anymore.
My farm is in organic agriculture and I'm certified.
I like to make wine, and I like to make wine from where I come from. My region is a fresh area in the South-East of Sicily, between the mountains and the sea. We receive fresh winds from the mountains, and it's important to me to capture this in the wines. The result is fresh and elegant, with nice acidity.
Making wine connects me to my homeland and lets me bond with my roots. It's a wonderful job, and I'm very lucky.
Can you elaborate on the growth of your estate from 1 to 12 hectares? Do you own everything?
I own 10 hectares, and have been renting 2 hectares of 55 year old vines for 6 years now.
What about that first hectare?
My parents had bought a country house while I was in university, and there was an hectare of vines attached to the property. I rented it from them the first year; the vineyard was abandoned, which was really good because a) it had never been exposed to chemicals and b) I had to work it back into shape, which taught me a lot.
With this I made 2000 bottles of Frappato and 2000 bottles of Nero D'Avola. After that, I progressively planted around the first hectare: the 10 hectares are all in one place, and the 2 hectares of old vines are 500 meters away from the farm.
You've never worked with chemicals then?
No. I was lucky because i was surrounded by natural winemakers at the very beginning of my journey. My mind was set, and I was even getting into fights with my teachers at university about it. They wanted to teach a recipe to make wine, but thanks to a many outside influences, I knew that this wasn't the way I wanted to work. I've been working naturally since the first vintage.
I was a little afraid at the beginning, because I'd conceptualized everything I wanted to do in my mind, but it was all theory and no practice. I made my first vintage when I was 21; I had the book knowledge, but my real education was in the vineyards.
I remember when I pruned for the first time, I asked two locals to help me out. We started in different rows, and after 50 meters, one of them looked at me and said: "Ari! You are taking pictures of the vineyard! You need to get to work!" They talked about how I probably wanted to get it over with as soon as possible to get back to the city, and that there son had left the country a year prior.
But even back then, I knew I wanted to stay and make wine from this place. It's important that Sicilian people remain at home. We have the possibility to start something important: our territory is ready for a fresh new start.
I want to be an example for young people who leave Sicily in search of something better or more important than the country. I want to show them the importance of tradition and the beauty of being attached to a sense of place.
What's the work in the vineyards and in the cellar?
I'm certified organic, but don't put it on my labels because I feel the law for organic certification is a bit convoluted. In Sicily, it is easy to work naturally thanks to the weather, specifically the wind. I use copper and sulfur in the vineyards. I let grass grow. I don't work the soil in the winter and do so only two times a year, both in the summer.
As far as the cellar, the most important thing is to have the highest quality grapes coming into it. If you have good grapes, the cellar work is easy. All you do is follow the evolution into wine. It's very important for me to use the natural yeasts from the grapes to start fermentation, because this is the grape expressing itself. If I really need to, I'll add a tiny bit of sulfur at bottling; never before.
Of course every producer will have his own interpretation of the wines they are making. I like making long macerations: 1 month for the SP 68 and the reds, 10 days for the white. I do a lot of punchdowns during fermentation, let it macerate a few more days and then I press.
Some wines are aged in big and old Slovenian barrels that I bought from Piedmont. I've had those since the beginning. The rest stays in stainless steel.
Can you tell us about the Tami project?
The Tami project was an idea that came to me a few years ago, and that was to prove that it's possible to make good, simple, natural wine in Sicily. Tami is something I've started with some friends who own some vineyards in Contrada, a district close to mine. Three years ago, we agreed we would convert their vineyards to organic viticulture. In 09, we made the first "all grape" vinification. The goal was to take good grapes and make a simple, every day wine. There is a white, and two reds.
The vineyards are about 10 years old. The wine is made with a short maceration (1 week) and then six months in stainless steel. We do filter it because it's very young.
A big part of this project is also to give younger people an opportunity to try a simple but delicious wine, something that can introduce them to the pleasures of wine.
How do you feel about the term "natural wine"?
I make natural wine, but this is a term I'm beginning to be less and less comfortable with, because its implications are very complicated. I really want to stress that my main goal is to make a good wine that reflects where it comes from, and for me the only way to successfully do this is to make the wine naturally.
When I first started, people were just starting to talk about natural wine. It was very important to me to think about all these issues , and in those early years I definitely had a more militant attitude about it. Making natural wine was a mission, something worth fighting for.
Now that I've grown up a little bit, the mission is making wine of terroir. You have to respect the vineyards, and nature in general. When I wake up in the morning, I want to feel free. Making this wine is my opportunity to feel free.
So again, my goal is not to make natural wine, Working this way is a process to make good wine.
Anything to add?
I'm very happy with the current situation in the U.S, which I consider to be a very important place for natural wine right now. I feel comfortable with the people who drink wine there. I feel that there is a really good interpretation of natural wine there.
It's simple: people drink the wine, and if they like it, they buy it. In most other places, the idea of natural wine is difficult because people think too much; in the U.S, people are more open to new experiences and they are not afraid of tasting something new.
Italy and France are the two biggest wine producing countries in the world, so we consider ourselves to have the most "knowledge" about wine. Yet we always follow the trends of the market. This has destroyed traditional winemaking. I know that natural wine is fashionable right now, but I also know that people really believe in these wines: they drink them because they like them, not because these are the wines of the moment.
The difference in the U.S is that people have less prejudices about how the wine should be made, and they react to what they like rather than what is trendy. We reflect too much: we should drink more and speak less!
This visit to Arianna Occhipinti's took place in May, 2014.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Maya Pedersen, Josefa Concannon and David Norris.
Before visiting Arianna in her native Vittoria, we spent a night in the lovely town of San Leone. Serious sunset vibes.
The main reason we stayed there was because of this legendary seafood spot that was a pure joy.
Check out this before and after jam:
This whole octopus were pretty stellar as well:
On a much stranger note, our hotel was adorned with seriously bizarre artwork, including crying clowns and this police brutality portrait:
Way to set the mood...
Ok, on to the good stuff! Occhipinti time!
The big news is that Arianna has built a beautiful new cellar on the farm she acquired two years ago (read up on that in my first recap in 2012).
Besides the obvious advantage of having way more space, it has permitted Arianna to start a new regiment of concrete fermentation and aging for both SP68's (in the past everything was done in stainless steel and fiberglass). Some of the tanks are glass lined, some aren't. They are all 2mx2m, and with the way they are set up, the juice can be worked by gravity.
"We can smell and feel the grapes from the top, which is a huge step up from the old cellar."
From concrete tank, we tried both SP68 Bianco and Rosso. The Bianco is 40% Albanello and 60% Zibibbo this year, with no skin contact. SP68 Rosso is 70% Frapatto and 30% Nero d' Avola in 2013, with 30 days skin contact and 6 months aging in cement. For both blends, Arianna usually co-fermented the wines, though some years this is not possible.
We then tasted through the 2013's barrels of Frapatto, Siccagno and Cerusuelo.
Some 2012 Il Frapatto was also being bottled.
While tasting, Jill from Domaine LA asked Arianna for insight on why her wines are so elegant and light compared to most Sicilian wine. Besides the fact that Vittoria is located amongst many mountains that provide the vines with constant wind, Arianna had this to say:
"Not irrigating, harvesting late and not using fertilizers are the secret to making more elegant wines in the area. The freshness and minerality in my wines come from the subsoils. Any wine made from young vines or chemically grown vines feeding only off of the top soil will have the cooked, hot characteristics people associate with wine from warm regions."
After a great lunch where we tasted currently bottled offerings, Arianna showed us the old farm house she is currently renovating. More precisely, she showed us the Palmento, which pretty much a staple of nearly every farm-house in Sicily.
These Palmentos are extremely common, but also extremely abandoned. The reason is less that they were made illegal for "sanitary" reasons in the 1970's and more that there are simply a lot less people making wine on the island. Today only 600 hectare of vines are planted in the Vittoria region, and Arianna estimates it was 20 times as much in early 1900's.
We then took a coffee break, which served as an excellent moment for everyone to pet Arianna's dog Paco.
I decided to join the fun:
I then began fluffing him, which got Paco frisky.
Then, out of nowhere, he snatched my notebook!
Naturally, I panicked since all of my precious notes (including the ones used to write this) were in there! My reflex was to chase Paco around trying to get my book back:
This proved unsuccessful, but after some screaming on Arianna's part, Paco dropped the book. He was a bit bummed his mom wouldn't let him play anymore:
The book was more or less unscathed, but did suffer a bit of superficial damage.
After all that excitement, we walked over Arianna's new plantation of 3.5 hectares of Frapatto on red sand over limestone.
These were all grafted in place in massale. 19 000 plants will be re-grafted on the roots starting in August. Arianna will undertake this daunting task with the help of 3 local contadinos.
The visit ended with a quick tour of the bianco parcel, which is trained in Albarello.
While there, we were informed that Ari only performed 1 copper and sulfur treatment in 2014! That's crazy!
Walking back to the house, we were surrounded by a never ending amount of bright red poppies.
It was a great visit.
This visit with Arianna Occhipinti took place in April, 2012.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Lauren Feldman, Shawn Mead and Ian Becker.
After driving over to Siracusa, we started off with an aperitif at TAMI, Arianna's storefront.
I had always assumed that TAMI was just a wine shop, but it turns out they sell all types of food, beer, books, knick knacks (including a bananaguard), toys and gadgets. Jeff Vierra scored this sweet hat there.
After hanging out and drinking Coste Piane, we grabbed some bottles and head over to a new restaurant just a few blocks away, located in this teeny-tiny alley.
It was a good chance to practice my "SOMM" skills with Arianna.
This work of photoshopped "art" in the men's bathroom embodies what I assume all Americans immediately think of when you say "Italy" (other than Jersey Shore).
Notice the espresso.
After dinner, it quickly became a Radoar grappa, Tami Grillo and shitty Italian beer party on Jeff Vierra's rooftop terrace. A good time was had, and with the exception of Ian Becker and Robert Brownsen who went to a fist-pumping techno club, everyone went to bed to be ready for the first annual OCCHIPINTATHON.
In the morning, we drove to Vittoria and immediately started our visit of the SP-68 vines, located right by her house and bordering the autostrada of the same name.
The SP-68 vines are 8-15 years old. The Frappato vines are 50 years old and the Nero D'Avola is 45. Arianna prefers the Guyot training system, especially for Frappato, because the first buds tend to not produce grapes when trained in Albarello. As you can see in the pictures, grass grows free between each row, and Ari plants fava beans in each other row for the SP-68 vineyards. The idea is to create biodiversity and stimulate the soil in one row while the other gets "a year off". She also uses paper tape, as opposed to plastic, to tie vines; this way she avoids plastic falling off and polluting the soil. We wrapped up our tour of the vines, then drove the 1,5 km to Arianna's new property and future home.
Last December, Arianna's lifelong dream came true when she purchased La Bomborieri, a 23 hectare farm with no neighbors. The entire site has been certified organic for 15 years and consists of 11 hectares of cereals, orange trees and cow stables (she doesn't have any yet, but plans to). There are also 7 hectares of 18 year old vines (Frappato and Nero D'Avola) on a mix of chalk, clay and red sands. The vines are equipped with an irrigation system Arianna has no intention of using and that she will eventually remove when she has the free time. I asked her if she might want to make a new, separate cuvée with these vines since the soil composition differs from the red sands the rest of her vines grow in, and she said "maybe". For now, these grapes will go into the SP-68. The house that came with the farm needs major renovation, but will eventually become her permanent residence. Francesco, who owns TAMI but is also an architect, will design and build a new cellar on the premises.
Surprising Varietal Factoid: Frappato actually has thicker skins than Nero D'Avola, which I never would have guessed.
After visiting the cellar, it was lunch time. Once seated, we began to talk about Vittoria as a wine region, and its recent rise to popularity almost entirely due to the quality, high profile work of Arianna and her uncle Giusto of COS. Arianna explained that Vittoria is a very agricultural place, but it's also very economy driven. Because it is a poor part of Sicily (which itself is one of the poorest parts of Italy), farmers are always looking to grow whatever crop will make them the most money. For most, grapes are worth next to nothing; it got so bad in 2009 that some of Arianna's friends where going to dispose of their entire harvest without making a penny. Instead, she decided to partner up with them and vinify those grapes, eventually leading to the TAMI wine project. The only reason Arianna is one of the only vigniaoli with old Frappato vines is because most farmers have torn theirs out over the years.
After lunch we tasted the current releases that will be be making it to the US soon. The 2011 SP-68 White is less potent and more elegant than the 10, most notably due to it being 100% albanello this year (last year's had Zibbibo). The SP-68 red is the bomb. The Frappato 10 had very structured, dark berry fruit and tannins, with pronounced acidity. It will age incredibly well.
As a special treat, Arianna pulled out magnums of the Frappato 04, her first vintage. Alex Miranda pointed out that the nose had notes similar to a Barbaresco. It had aged very elegantly, and was still full of life. It was then time to taste the 05 Nero D'Avola: it had structured fruit on the nose and palate, as well as nice tannic structure.
We then hung out and digested in the sun for a few hours before saying goodbye.
I.G.T "SP 68" Bianco
Soil: Red sand with chalk subsoil
Grapes: Frappato and Nero D'Avola
Training System: Guyot
Age of Vines: 10 years.
Altitude: 280 meters
Vinification: 30 days of skin maceration. Aged six months in stainless steel vats, 1 month in bottle. Unfiltered.
Soil: Red sand with chalk subsoil
Training System: Guyot, albarello
Age of Vines: 55 years
Altitude: 270 meters
Vinification: 50 days of skin maceration. Aged 14 months in 25hl Slovenian Oak barrels, 2 months in bottle. Unfiltered.
Soil: chalky sand
Grapes: Nero D'Avola
Training System: Albarello
Age of Vines: 35 years
Altitude: 270 meters
Vinification: 40 days of skin maceration. Aged 16 months in 25hl Slovenian Oak barrels, 6 months in bottle. Unfiltered.
Soil: chalky sand
Grapes: Frappato and Nero D'Avola
Training System: Guyot, albarello
Age of Vines: 40 years
Altitude: 270 meters
Vinification: 40 days of skin maceration. Aged 4 years in 25hl Slovenian Oak barrels, 6 months in bottle. Unfiltered.