Reign of Terroir
At 31 and on the cusp of her tenth vintage, Sicily’s revolutionary winemaker Arianna Occhipinti has redefined the image of the modern vintner by returning to the island’s native roots.
by Robert Camuto
On a recent summer morning, Arianna Occhipinti is surrounded by teams working in the 100-degree Sicilian heat. They are finishing her latest project, a new, sleek winery on a 60-acre farm of vineyards, citrus and olive groves, wheat fields and a majestic 19th century baglio (Sicilian farmhouse) outside her native town, Vittoria, in the southeast corner of the island. The maverick winemaker, known for bucking trends and bringing a bright independent streak to her work, added her own challenge to the project: she wants it completed in time for her eponymous winery’s fall 2013 harvest.
Think of this year as the one that Occhipinti went big time. At 31, the Sicilian winemaker, one of the industry’s stars in Italy, is on her tenth vintage and rushed all summer to complete the new space, though on this morning, it’s still a concrete shell. Dressed in jeans, t-shirt and a pair of well-worn espadrilles, her hair pulled into a loose knot atop her head, she marches through the construction dust and over wood planks protecting wet cement.
Less than two years ago, in what she jokingly calls “a moment of craziness,” she jumped at the opportunity to buy the abandoned estate in the farm district of Contrada Bombolieri. But the move was also pragmatically urgent. Occhipinti had outgrown the cramped, homespun winery in a barn-like structure at her parents’ house where she launched her meteoric career.
When she was 22 and just out of enology school, her father, a local architect, gave her one hectare (about two and a half acres) of family vines around their house in Contrada Fossa di Lupo. Working with organic methods, she aimed to make more complex wines than the island’s typically big, high-alcohol style reds. “I wanted to show that Sicily could make more than just powerful wines,” she says. “To show that we could make wines with elegance, finesse, minerality.” Not only did she produce nero d’Avola—the brooding local red grape generally associated with a jammy, fruit-bomb style—with less heft and more fresh acidity than anyone else, but she also aimed to do something few dared: to produce a delicious, nuanced wine purely from the local second-string grape frappato, which is usually used for blends and rarely bottled on its own.
She released her first vintage in 2004. Though a mere 2,000 bottles of frappato from a single wood cask, it found a devoted group of fans, and in the years that followed, her charisma, combined with heightened international interest in artisanal and Sicilian wines, accelerated her career.
With astonishing speed, she has grown from a rebellious cult winemaker known for her “natural” rustic wines to a sought-after producer on fashionable restaurant wine lists. Demand for her wines is twice that of her 110,000-bottle annual production exported to 25 countries.
Occhipinti may be one of dozens of acclaimed young Italian wine producers on the scene today, but few have a higher public profile. Her success is amplified by the difficulty of its geographical odds. She did it, after all, in one of the poorest, change-resistant and macho parts of Italy. In Sicily, Occhipinti likes to say, a woman’s only role in winemaking was stomping grapes with her bare feet at harvest time.
Her new 14,000-square-foot winery is just a couple of miles away from the old one down country road SP68, which lends its name to Occhipinti’s most popular red wine. The new facility will have sprawling underground aging cellars for her large oak casks, a rooftop garden, and a glass-and-steel panoramic tasting room with views over the rolling hills of Bombolieri and the nearby Hyblaean Mountains. Next door she is restoring the farmhouse, down to its ornate ceiling frescoes, which will be her new home.
It’s a lot of growth in a short time for such a young, small-batch producer, but what has not changed, she says, is her focus on expressing the soil and climate of her corner of Sicily. “Wine should be a mirror of a place, not a mirror of our mistakes,” she concedes with self-deprecating humility. “My idea was always the same—to express this territory,” she says. Then, she chops the air in front of her resolutely with her hand and adds, “I will finish my life with the same idea.”
Occhipinti was inspired to become a winemaker working as a teenager for her uncle Giusto Occhipinti at COS, the leading-edge Sicilian winery in Vittoria that’s become known for its beyond-organic biodynamic agriculture and its use of clay amphorae in winemaking.
When she started out, Arianna joined COS and a few other Sicilian wineries aiming to make more complex wines than the island’s typical crop, and to rehabilitate its ailing viticulture. For years, the region was known for bulk reds that are exported or blended, and for vast low-quality vineyards.
Even before her first vintage was bottled, Occhipinti found fans in both Italian and American distributors who advocated organic growing methods along with minimal technology in the winery, and only trace amounts of added sulfites, a natural preservative used in winemaking. “Natural wine” had become a purist’s antidote to industrial wines in which a host of additives and techniques are used to chemically adjust acidity, tannins, texture and even alcohol levels.
Occhipinti and her philosophy were an instant hit. As she toured Europe and the U.S. to promote her wines, she ended up becoming a fresh face for the natural movement that was gaining ground among young consumers.
“Arianna has a lot of magnetism—this sort of rock star quality in the way she is and the way she carries herself,” says Shelley Lindgren of San Francisco’s A-16 restaurant, which for nine years has been an important showcase for southern Italy’s cuisines and its wines. “The way she stands up for what she believes really resonates with people.”
At home, Occhipinti began to plant new vineyards, and in 2008, when those vineyards produced fruit, she used them to make her first vintage of SP68. This blend of nero d’Avola and frappato was aged only in steel and bottle, and priced about 30 percent less than her single varietal wines at the time (about $25).
“SP68 was the wine that changed everything,” she says. The timing for the wine, released in 2009, was perfect. As European and American tastes were turning toward lighter, “food-friendly” wines, and the start of an economic crisis made consumers more frugal, SP68 hit a bulls-eye of affordability and drinkability (in The New York Times, Eric Asimov called it “fresh, juicy, and joyous”). Stocks of it quickly sold out, and Occhipinti more than doubled its production in the following years.
Around the same time, she released another blend of nero d’Avola and frappato, her first Cerasuolo di Vittoria. An exceptionally good 2006 vintage inspired her to make this limited edition wine by experimenting with longer aging from a selection of her ripest grapes. According to DOCG regulations, Cerasuolo di Vittoria (Sicily’s only wine to have Italy’s highest appellation status) must age at least one year in wood. But she felt her vintage needed more time. It would take an uncommon four years in oak casks, and the mellowing that comes from small exchanges of air through the pores of the wood, for her to be satisfied. The resulting 4,000 bottles of Grotte Alte 2006—Occhipinti calls it “my synthesis of Sicily”—is her most elegant, voluptuous, complex (and expensive) effort to date.
Despite the breadth of the new winery, Occhipinti says that she doesn’t want to grow her business any more than an additional 10 percent, that she wants to stay a small winemaker. She also insists that success hasn’t changed her. Though she is still the image of a girlish, nature-loving Sicilian with a temperament that can quickly turn from infectiously light-hearted to intense, both she and her winemaking have matured.
Today she is less dogmatic in her criticism of modern enology she once so vehemently vilified. Five years ago, she explained her hands-off approach to winemaking by saying, “You squeeze the fruit, let it ferment and basta.”
That purist approach, however, only took her so far, and some of her vintages were marred by unpleasant odors and vinegar taint. So, she modified her methods. She still presses the fruit and lets it ferment naturally, but now she also throws in a touch more enology to make wines that are more refined. “My wines are cleaner now,” she says. “I improved my winemaking.”
Nowadays, with Italy facing a grinding recession and high unemployment, her success is inspiring to young Italians—some of whom are leaving (or dream of leaving) cities to become agro-entrepreneurs like Occhipinti. “Arianna represents a big hope for young people,” says Elena Pantaleoni, who oversees Emilia-Romagna’s historic La Stoppa wine estate. “To be young and a woman and in Sicily, and to do the job she’s doing, is an injection of hope and enthusiasm in Italy.”
This year her face has been everywhere. In the spring, an Italian publisher seeking to capture some of her hopeful charisma released an Italian-language autobiography of Occhipinti’s short career called Natural Woman. At the same time, she was invited to speak onstage at Rome’s May 1 (Labor Day) concert, a nationally broadcast event that mixes pop music with social causes. Looking like she could belong to one of the bands that performed that day, she went on stage with her black hair flowing, wearing a fitted black leather jacket, and proclaimed, “I am a farmer and proud to be so.”
These days, she spends less time on a tractor—her five full-time workers do the work in the vineyards, using only organic treatments and natural fertilizers.
The new winery and her expanded acreage—she now has more than 46 acres under vine—will allow her to experiment with producing different single-vineyard cru wines from the same grape varietal, and added cellar capacity will allow her to coax more complexity out of her best wines by cask aging them longer before release, she says.
Occhipinti says she has no plans for other changes beyond “restoring the farm little by little.” That will ultimately mean an increase in the now miniscule production of olive oil she has pressed at a local mill. She also envisions replanting her wheat fields with heirloom Sicilian wheat varietals that might be sold to a pasta maker for a signature line.
Her winery regularly produces four wines. In addition to a pure nero d’Avola called Siccagno, a 100 percent frappato named “Il Frappato,” and the red SP68 blend, she makes white SP68 from a mix of floral-scented zibbibo and the local austere albanello grape. In good years, she produces the Grotte Alte Cerasuolo di Vittoria (the 2008 vintage was just released this fall) and Passo Nero, a sweet late-harvest passito made from dried grapes.
Though she still ferments her wines using only native yeasts, she now uses a bit of cooling during fermentation to avoid off odors that come with higher fermentation temperatures, and she adds a trace of sulfites to inhibit vinegar-forming bacteria. To some natural wine advocates, the gamy aromas and hints of vinegar in her early wines weren’t flaws, but marks of authenticity—like imperfections in hand-tossed pottery. To Occhipinti, however, they became distractions in her goal of making wines that served as ambassadors for her Sicily.
I don’t want people to taste my wine and say, ‘Oh, that is a natural wine,’” she says as she mock swirls and sniffs from an imaginary glass. “I want them to taste my wine and say, ‘Damn, that is good!’”
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