Sunday, June 19, 2016

Etna’s little (and formidable) sister, Vittoria

It would be too easy for casual wine trekkers to bypass the area south of Etna. After all, the wines of Etna are among the current darlings of the wine world. And for good reason. But if one were to step off the mountain and head in the direction of Ragusa, you would find a whole 'nother world there. It would take a good GPS (along with some good old-fashioned analog directions), a sturdy car and time.

Time, because the area is spread out, not as concentrated as the Etna wine region. It’s flatter, warmer, not as sexy, and a bit more entrenched in the daily business of winemaking. As I have written elsewhere, Etna’s Golden Age is long gone, in terms of the influence and swath it once had in the western wine world. Not that we’re setting up funereal march, a “second line,” for Etna. Far from it. But the glory days of old are just that.

The area centered on Vittoria, where Sicily’s only DOCG is from, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, couldn’t be more different. Starting with the diet. Fish and food from the sea are readily available, and does that influence the kind of wine that is made to go with it? Perhaps. That is an evolving situation, even after so many thousands of years. The weather, not as influenced by the pernicious whims of the volcano, feels more like an African dominated climate. Already in early June the winds were whipping up, and at midday it was hard to be out in the vineyards walking the rows. It was warm, and that coming from one who lives in Texas where already the relentless heat of summer is upon us.

But there is an energy that emanates from the wine region of Vittoria that feels new and unblemished. Or rather I should say, without the cynicism one often finds in the larger production areas of western Sicily, where quantity is still a huge factor. I asked one winemaker after another about their production range and the most I came up with was one who said they made 400,000 bottles. Not cases. We’re in boutique production country, according to anywhere else in the world. Wines that we see plastered across Instagram and Delectable from the area are often made in such small lots that it is hard to understand how the producer will be able to satisfy the thirst of the somm-hipster crowd, let alone the rest of us. I went into my local Italian food shop here at home, looking for Arianna Occhipinti’s SP68, the white wine, only to be told the local distributor was out. Perhaps the wine is in the middle of a vintage change (it is) but it still denotes a certain rarity, even for a wine that is ever so affordable and one that I could happily consume as my daily house white.

In a way, the battle has already been won. Winemakers like Occhipinti and nearby COS sell out. The larger Valle dell’ Acate winery, which has chosen to plod a middle road in terms of wine style and pricing, offers readily available wine from the region in places like Kansas City and Nashville, not just catering to style centers like New York and San Francisco. And there are smaller producers who dole out their wines to a smattering of cities in the US, their availability spotty but sought after.

What really caught my attention, though, was the level of sophistication with the global wine market that many of these producers have, large and small. I really shouldn’t be surprised though. After all, isn’t it Sicily where a myriad of cultures have made their cultural imprint? The flat, long plain can be rustic and in some ways, lost in time, but the confluence of those imprints combined with our 21st century connectivity (i.e. the internets) creates a rhythm and a continuum that seems natural.

And while wineries like Valle dell’ Acate and Cos, and even to a certain degree, Planeta, have been championing the wines of Vittoria for some time, in my opinion, the face of the region is Arianna Occhipinti.

I’d read lots about Arianna; saw her picture on so many social media sites. I began to wonder if she was what everyone was talking about or if there was just a tiny, little bit of hype. Call me skeptical. Yes, I’ve enjoyed her wines, from New York to Dallas to Los Angeles. But I had never come face to face with her.

Well, that was all it took. Instantly I understood why Arianna is the poster child of this place. For one, she in an incredibly compassionate person. Simpatica. And there is the level of energy she has, which being in her early 30’s, is understandable. But one needs to understand this area is not ground zero in the battle for gender equality. Arianna has had to direct and lead many men, some old enough to be her father, even her grandfather’s age. From the little I saw, she seems to have found a way to upend age-old prejudices about the role of men and women in today’s world. Perhaps something could be said for the energy of Astarte and Demeter, Pomona and Gaia, coming through in souls like Arianna. The matrilineal energy in southern Italy, from Aphrodite to Mary, is a strong current that runs through the society, regardless of Man and his motives. It feels like a better balance, and Vittoria draws wine lovers to them. I see why, they are delicious. Nero d’Avola, so often the butt of a vinous joke elsewhere on the island, merges with Frappato, and transforms one from a hot dusty, dangerous, sun-burnt plain, to a cool arena in the shade, after a victory. Put a little chill on it, and one forgets about the Morgon of La Pierre, for the time being.

There are those spirits who are brought into this world at a time in which the world needs them. Without sounding too overly gushy (which I’m sure that’s a shore I long crossed over), the exuberance and the passion, the commitment and the engagement of Arianna Occhipinti is something one witnesses all too rarely. I love everything she makes, even her experimental pét-nat. Her passito from Nero d’Avola, Passo Nero, recalls to me why Sicily is such a great area for “wine of meditation.” And her lineup of dry still wines from the SP68 red and white to the Il Frappato, the Siccagno and the Grotte Alte, are wines I want to drink, and some which I want to put in my little wine closet for another time in ten or so years. These wines excite me, not just for this one producer, and not just for the area, which would be enough. But they also complement the wines of their seething sibling up the hill, Etna. It would be wise for wine lovers to look down off the mountain, take the dangerous trek down the various strade provinciali and see for themselves. Vittoria and her enclave offer a compelling counterpunch - a friendly and formidable flag hoisted towards its sibling on the fiery mountaintop.

more information:
Strada del Vino del Cerasuolo di Vittoria
Consorzio Cerasuolo di Vittoria

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