In less than 10 years, Arianna Occhipinti, 31, has achieved a cult following for her wines from Sicily. Working organically and with minimal intervention, Occhipinti crafts structured, complex wines from native grapes in the Vittoria region. You can find them on the trendiest wine lists from San Francisco to Brooklyn.
Recently, Occhipinti was in New York, where her importer, Louis Dressner Selections, hosted a 10-year retrospective of her Frappato Sicilia to a packed room at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. We tasted a barrel sample of the 2013 and all the vintages back to her first, 2004.
"You have in your glasses the story of my production," said Occhipinti, introducing the tasting. "I wasn't sure of the future, but encouraged by the early vintages," she added.
The Frappato grape is native to the Vittoria area, characterized by small berries and thick skins. It's known for freshness and elegance and, other than the 2005, which was showing some dryness on the finish, all the wines revealed vibrant structures and a mix of cherry, floral, spice and mineral flavors. Eighty-five percent of Occhipinti's 25 acres of vines are 50 years old, the remainder young vines.
Over the years, Occhipinti has tinkered with the fermentation and maceration times. The 2013 was fermented in a new cellar in concrete vats; all the others were made in stainless steel. She ages the wines in 2,500-liter Slavonian oak cases, with the exception of the first harvest, 2004, which matured in 500-liter barrels. All the wines are bottled unfiltered.
Macerations on the skins have been as long as 50 days, however, since the 2009 vintage Occhipinti has settled on 25 days maceration for extraction. One exception was the 2007, where 30 percent of the wine was macerated on the skins in stainless steel for six months. "There was little alcohol and the skins were thin, so I allowed a long maceration," explained Occhipinti.
The 2007 was one of my favorite wines of the tasting, revealing a warm nose of macerated cherry, mulled spice and anise. It was still juicy and focused, with dried cherry and berry notes and a long, mineral-tinged finish. The growing season was marked by an attack of mildew, forcing a strict selection and thus a small harvest.
My other top wine of the flight was the 2006. A controversial wine, it seemed to divide the group. Cloudy in appearance, with a funky, fragrant bouquet of cherry, licorice and spice, it tasted rich yet firm, with a mineral streak persisting through the finish. Occhipinti chose a "natural" approach with the '06, the product of a warm year, eschewing sulfur additions. It's a strategy she would not choose today, although she keeps SO2 additions to a minimum.
The 2011 and 2010 also showed well, but differently. The '11 was elegant, revealing rose, mint and cherry aromas and flavors, picking up a licorice note and salinity on the finish. Austere, dense and powerful, the '10 remained tight, displaying cherry and woodsy mushroom flavors.
These were my highlights from a flight that demonstrated Occhipinti's evolution. One of Sicily's many rising stars, she has found her voice through the land and grapes with which she grew up.