The Italian writer Andrea Camilleri once remarked that “Sicily has suffered 13 foreign dominations from which she has taken both the best and the worst. The sequence of different cultures has made Sicily a fascinating place, quite unlike any other.” Whether navigating the throngs of Palermo’s Mercato Ballaro or hoovering a plate of pasta alla norma in Catania, when you visit Sicily you are the latest in a long line of foreigners that have been seduced by Sicily’s delights. The largest island of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is separated from mainland Italy by the narrow Strait of Messina, kicked by the toe of the Italian boot. Known as the Trinacria for it’s triangular shape, it is largely hilly, mountainous, and hugely abundant. Sicily has been, often to its detriment, the breadbasket of great empires. It has near perfect growing conditions, especially for the cultivation of vitis vinifera, a fact not lost on a new generation of Sicilian winemakers and admiring wine-drinkers.
You cannot talk about Sicilian wine without talking about Occhipinti. Helmed by the extraordinary Arianna Occhipinti, this winery has drawn a spotlight to Vittoria in southeastern Sicily. The niece of Giusto Occhipinti, who cofounded nearby COS winery, she released her first wine when she was only 22! Beginning with a mere one hectare of abandoned vines, today Arianna has 18 hectares of vineyards. Her adherence to organic and biodynamic viticulture, and deft touch with native grape varieties such as Frappato, result in wines of intense clarity and typicity. Her flagship SP68 wines, named after the road that passes the winery, are keenly sought after by sommeliers around the world. The red is a blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola (the classic combination for Cerasuolo di Vittoria, but with less ageing), while the white is a blend of Moscato d'Alessandria (also called Zibibbo) and Albanello. Additionally she produces two wines made from 100% Nero d’Avola and 100% Frappato that have been aged longer in concrete tank. Unlike many conventional producers, Arianna avoids the seasoning of new oak barrels.
Comparatively, her uncle Giusto uniquely employs clay amphora’s for fermenting and ageing for some of the wines at COS. Recently Arianna introduced a Cerasuolo di Vittoria (the only DOCG in Sicily) labelled 'Grotte Alte', and a series of single-parcel Frappato’s. First produced in 2016, Arianna decided to bottle each parcel separately when she noted the marked differences between the three contrada of Bombolieri, Pettineo and Fosso di Lupo. Talking with Arianna, you are immediately struck by the authenticity and strength of her convictions. Although she is already widely recognized as one of Italy’s greatest winemakers, she is intensely reflective of how she can better steward her patch of bella Sicilia.
“I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have seen in Art or Nature was quite so sublime.” Poetic words by Paul Theroux about the giant of Sicily. Mount Etna towers over the Sicilian landscape. Its looming silhouette visible from hundreds of kilometres away. Its slopes strewn with volcanic boulders the size of Fiat’s. It’s smouldering peak puffs clouds of smoke, magma and ash.
The ancient Greeks believed that it was home to the forge of Hephaestus and where Zeus buried the serpentine monster Typhon. The mythology of Etna continues thanks to the superiority of its wines. Many have compared the wines of Etna to the noble wines of Burgundy and Barolo. Pietradolce, located on the northern slopes of the mountain in Castiglione di Sicilia, have some of Etna’s highest and oldest vines. Their “Barbagalli” plot in Contrada Rampante, planted to century old pre-phylloxera Nerello Mascalese vines, is so high up the mountain that it cannot legally be labelled as an Etna Rosso.
Bush trained in the traditional alberello style, these vines can only be tended by hand. Grapes from their younger vines, planted close to the winery itself, are used for their introductory level Etna Rosso, Etna Rosato and Etna Bianco, which is made from Carricante. These wines represent the elegance and brightness of Etna at a very accessible price point. Walking through the vines at Pietradolce you can fully appreciate how unique the terroir of Etna is. Like Sicily itself, there really is nowhere quite like it.