Field Trip: 72 hours in Sicily


    What’s up winos,

    An extremely depressed Megan here, reporting back from bloody Blighty after the most magical three days in Sicily, courtesy of the wonderful wine importer Les Caves de Pyrene. It took me a while to organise my notes into some kind of coherent summary, mostly because they’re an eclectic mix of oenological facts and inane observations (example: ‘amphora left above ground this year to avoid taint from humidity. Sparkly inside!’).

    The trip started, as all wine trips seem to do, at the unholy hour of 4am on the night bus to Gatwick. After an extraordinarily dry pain au raisin (Costa is going to the dogs) and some bleary-eyed introductions to the other trip attendees, a motley crew hailing from all over London and Brighton, it was off to Catania. First stop: Arianna Occhipinti.

    Thanks to our lord and saviour Stanley Tucci, visits to Arianna’s estate have exploded in the past year. As they well should – the winery looks like something out of White Lotus, minus Jennifer Coolidge (sadly) and her murderous entourage (thankfully). 2023 is the twentieth anniversary of the estate, for which Arianna is plotting a new celebratory cuvée (watch this space and pray we get our grubby paws on some of them). The terroir here isn’t influenced by Mount Etna, it’s brown sand topsoil over limestone in an area of the island formerly covered by the sea. The limestone helps hold the water needed for the vines to live their best lives, meaning they manage to farm their 32 hectares without irrigation – no mean feat in this part of the world – and the brown sand helps give a little oomph to those floral, fruity aromas that discerning palates are after. In case you’re not up to speed on the latest in Italian harvest news, this year, in a word, sucked. There was an insane amount of rain (normally Sicily sees 120mm between March and October, but in this satanic year they had 250mm in May and June alone) meaning mildew was rampant, and Arianna had to treat the vineyards about three times more than she normally does just to keep it at bay. Even despite these efforts, they lost around 50% of their crop. Essentially means the ‘22s will be even more limited and priced accordingly, so bad news for everyone. But grapes aren’t the only thing they produce here – they also grow tomatoes (which I sampled – did you know it’s totally kosher to just pick stuff off the trees in vineyards and stuff your face with it? The other guys on the trip were filling their boots with any leftover grapes they could get their hands on, which seemed a touch insensitive given how few of them they had this year, but what do I know) and produce olive oil and flour with which they make bread, which I ate far too much of during the tasting when I was supposed to be paying attention to the wine. They also grow courgettes of sizes and shapes the likes of which I’ve never seen before, but which resembled those weird sculptures Sarah Lucas makes where she stuffs tights with things and makes them into terrifying humanoid beings sitting in office chairs – click here if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Was kind of hard to concentrate on the tour with those behemoth phalluses swaying gently in the breeze in my peripheral vision.

    Once I’d escaped the monster courgettes, we sat down to taste. My highlights were easily the SM, 100% Grillo, 50/50 fermented in concrete and barrel, insanely salty; the FL ’21, which comes from the first vineyard Arianna ever planted, and the Il Frappato, next to which I usefully wrote only ‘stunning’. Sorry guys, dropped the ball on the tasting notes there. My hands were too full of the homemade bread to type anything else. Arianna’s Frappatos were pretty revolutionary when they first hit the market – Frappato was historically used to make your classic trattoria wine, to be plonked on the table and thrown back without a second thought, but Arianna brought out a more serious, ageable version that made people sit up and take notice. Queen!

    Post-tasting, we were just slicing open (literally, she opened it with a butcher’s knife) a bottle of her sparkling Frappato, reserved for guests only (flex) when I saw someone I did Erasmus with in Siena ten years ago striding across the lawn. Turns out she’s doing vintage with Arianna this year before going for her Master of Wine next year. Damn. Nothing like running into someone from university to make you feel inferior. Whatever, I got to try the sparkling Frappato! Only me and Stanley Tucci can say that!

    After that blast from the past, we headed to Baglio Occhipinti, a palatial, stupidly beautiful restaurant and hotel run by Arianna’s sister, where Arianna herself takes care of the plants (which looked in excellent nick to me). We took a seat at the candlelit table and proceeded to demolish the tasting menu and several (hundred) bottles of Arianna’s finest, one of which, at Fionn’s request, I had her sign (see Insta post for proof). Unfortunately I had a minor lapse in concentration and didn’t notice that one of the waiters had cleared it away by the end of the dinner. They very kindly offered to root through the trash and fish it back out, but I wouldn’t wish that task on anyone, so, no bottle. Sorry Fionn. We staggered out of the restaurant and put away one more bottle of her rosato (produced only for her friends, which I guess we are now 😊) on the hotel terrace before collapsing into bed. Day one done.

    Day two started with a little stroll down the motorway (Sicily doesn’t believe in pavements, or pedestrians, apparently) for breakfast and then we were straight off to COS for our next visit. COS is run by Arianna’s uncle, Giusto Occhipinti, and spans 40 hectares. COS too had suffered from this year’s mildew plague, treating the vineyards twelve times instead of their usual five, and throwing some algae at the problem on top of their classic copper and sulphur. Seemed to work – they only lost around 15% of their crop. After a quick spin around the vines and through the cellar, we sat down with Giusto himself, who whipped out a gigantic map of Sicily and proceeded to school us. Giusto sees Sicily as a country in itself, given the insane biodiversity in the land. The island has 80 indigenous grape varieties – in the whole of Italy there are 1200. To demonstrate this crazy diversity, Giusto told us that in France, 70% of wine production comes from just five different grape varieties (don’t ask me which, he was speaking in Italian and, as I mentioned, Erasmus was ten years ago. What do you mean the word ‘Chardonnay’ is the same in Italian and English? Shut up.) while in Italy that same 70% of production comes from 80 different grapes. Giusto also believes in taking the land as it is and planting grapes that are actually suited to Sicily’s climate – he used the analogy of a parent forcing their kid to be a scientist when they suck at science, rather than encouraging them to express their natural talents and quirks. Makes sense! Someone go back in time and tell my parents, would have saved them a lot of money on those ballet lessons. Giusto also told us this amazing story of how he came to start using amphora for his wines – he went to Georgia in ’99 and it blew his mind. He visited a farmer who had some wine in qvevri that had been hanging out on its skins for four years, because he’d initially made it for his son’s wedding but then his son kept cancelling the wedding. Lol. They dug it up, expecting it to be a hot mess, but it was the best wine Giusto had ever tasted (and I reckon he’s tasted a fair bit in his time). After this visit he set off on a quest to find the best amphora for his own wines, settling finally on a producer from Castilla la Mancha. As I mentioned in the intro (vaguely) the qvevri are usually buried underground, but they had some issues with taint, so they’ve brought them up a bit this year to see if that improves things. In case you’re not up to date on your Classic languages, ‘pithos’ is the Greek word for amphora – so if you see the word Pithos on a bottle of COS, now you know why. Ya welcome.

    On to the tasting. I’ve been privileged enough to taste a bunch of Giusto’s wines before, so I just sat back and enjoyed as we rolled through the ’21s - Rami to the Zibbibo in Pithos (pop quiz! What does pithos mean?) to the Frappato to the Pithos Rosso. After those Giusto whipped out a Pithos Bianco from 2009 and a Cerasuolo from 2000, which he said was a bit tired, but tasted pretty darn good to me. Cerasuolo di Vittoria is the only DOCG in Sicily – to continue the language lessons, cerasuolo = cherry sand (i.e., red sand. Duh) – and is a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato. It started life as a DOC in 1973 but got the coveted ‘G’ in 2005 and the area expanded, at which point the initial designated area became ‘Classico’. See, language and history lessons all rolled into one. Language lessons that might have been better directed at the other attendees, as one of them decided ‘ragazzi’ meant ‘cheers’ rather than ‘boys’ and it quickly became the war cry of the trip, to the general amusement of the Sicilians present.

    After another extravagant lunch spread, we all piled back into the van and started the long, winding drive up to Mount Etna (glad I took those travel sickness pills, or we wouldn’t be getting our car hire deposit back) to Vino di Anna, run by power couple Anna Martens and Eric Narioo. Eric is the founder of the very same Les Caves that footed the bill for this trip, and Adelaide-born Anna started her winemaking life making Super Tuscans before she joined forces with Eric. Together they brought out their first cuvée in 2008, and these days they have 7 hectares spread all over the slopes of the volcano. Eric took us to their largest parcel, Pirao Rosso, two hectares of vines planted at the top of a (very) steep hill. Beautiful doesn’t quite cover it. It’s completely wild, with little patches of vines planted here and there, with plants and grasses pushing up through the gaps and butterflies the size of your fist just bopping around, living the dream. There’s even a swing hanging from one of the trees overlooking the land where one might sit and contemplate the meaning of life, or something. The swing was actually built for the couple’s children to play on, but whatever. The vines are ungrafted and 140 years old, and are all treated with nettle infusions – no copper or sulphur in sight. They’ve had a couple of rough years up here – the aforementioned terrible weather led to them losing almost everything this year; a few years ago they had a fire in the vineyard, before that there was an attack from a horde of rabid wild pigs, and the year before that the innocent-looking cows we spied at the bottom of the hill managed to break loose and trample the whole lot. Eric seemed in pretty good spirits, considering all that. It’s a pretty zen place, I guess. He probably spent a lot of time on that swing breathing into a paper bag.

    Back at the winery, we tasted some of their wines directly from the tank, including an unbelievable white that will hopefully be bottled soon so I can buy it all – a blend of various rather mental varieties for Sicily, including Savagnin from vines gifted to Eric by his friend, your man Ganevat. How do people become friends with Ganevat?! Is he on Bumble BFF? Then it was back up to the top deck for aperitivo (practically a dinner in itself) and enormous piles of meat barbecued by Eric himself, which he managed expertly with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Legend. A couple hundred bottles later we were jumping (or being pushed, in my case) in the pool for a quick dip of around thirty seconds before sprinting back to the dying barbecue to warm up again (it’s pretty cold up on Etna at this time of year). At around 3am I fell asleep at the table which was taken as a sign that we should head back to the hotel. What a party pooper. I’m led to believe that said party continued back at the hotel into the even smaller hours, but I headed straight to bed. Probably just as well, since it took a wake-up call from the hotel reception to rouse one of the other guys from bed the next morning, while I was piously eating breakfast at 8.30 a.m. on the dot.

    After another vomit-inducing drive back down the mountain, we made a quick pit stop at the beach for a dip in the sea and a few beers (don’t look at me, it wasn’t my idea), then a final arancino at the airport (last culture lesson! Arancini in Catania are cone-shaped, after Mount Etna, while in Palermo they’re round, after Sicilian oranges. They’re also called arancina in Palermo and arancino in Catania, and if you get them the wrong way round, riots will ensue. Apparently there’s quite the rivalry between the two, all over a single vowel. Whatever, wars have been started over less) before the long, sad flight back to London. Where I am now, crying and looking at pictures of Sicily on my phone.




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