Recently, we gathered to enjoy food, wine and friendship. Well…perhaps I should say friendship, wine and food to get things in the right order. One of the nice things about a tasting group that meets regularly is the ability to go off the beaten path now and then. To search for something new and interesting. Sunday night, the theme was Sicily. The Sicilian-inspired menu included arrancini as an hors d'oeuvre, with veal, artichoke risotto and artichoke with fava beans highlighting the main. The wines came from two producers who have helped lead the renaissance in Sicilian wine: Occhipinti and Passopisciaro. Arianna Occhipinti has become something of a cult figure in only a few years. Now in her early 30s, Arianna was exposed to the wine business in her teens by her uncle. After graduating from college, she began with only one hectare of grapes. Though the operation has expanded, it is still small. She focuses on on frappato and nero d'avola--the two primary grapes of the southeastern part of Sicily (nero d'avola being more common). She has a virtual monopoly on old vine frappato and old vine nero d'avola in the area, because many of the growers in the area ripped out their vines as unprofitable. With restrained, expressive, elegant wines that show character she has won fans ranging from top sommeliers to New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov who has written about her a number of times. Andrea Franchetti was already established as a winemaker in Tuscany when in 2000 he became intrigued with the vineyards on Sicily's volcanic Mt. Etna in the northeastern part of the island. He acquired Passopisciaro ("Fisherman's Path"), also the name of the town. At the time, vineyards on the mountain could be purchased for very good prices--they were considered hard to work and not very profitable. The primary grape of Mt. Etna is nerello mascalese (though Franchetti also has one vineyard, or contrada, of chardonnay). All of the wines were interesting…and all were food friendly, with elegant perfumes, moderate fruits and strong acids. The 2011 Passopisciaro Guardiola was 100% chardonnay. It spent only enough time in old oak to go through malolactic fermentation and then was aged in stainless steel. The result was a very clean, fresh tasting chard. And the 2010 Passopisciaro Sciaranuova was an example of the elegance that old vine nerello mascalese can achieve…light on its feet, yet intense. In between, we sipped three Occhipinti wines. SP68 is a blend of frappato and nero d'avola from Arianna's younger vines. The 2012 was medium weight and nicely balanced--it struck me that it would be great red wine for the coming warm days (please tell me they're coming!). In fact, some suggest that it should be served lightly chilled…perhaps like cru beaujolais. The 2011 Nero D'Avola, made from old vines, showed the darker plummy and peppery character of that grape…yet it was smooth and balanced. Like Andrea Frachetti, Arianna avoids big oak flavors, choosing instead the subtlety of old oak casks. For me, and I think for most, the wine of the night was the 2011 Occhipinti Il Frappato. It's not an easy wine to capture in a phrase or two. It's lighter than nero d'avola…perhaps more in the red cherry, cranberry domain than plum. It was graceful and harmonious. Something about it made us tilt our heads and smile…and look at the glass with curiosity. "This is different. This is interesting." more than one of us said. it was certainly not a heavy wine--but like good pinot noir, it had solid intensity and complexity on a spare frame. It was the first glass emptied at my place--and at most around the table. As I sipped it, I remembered a term one of my wine mentors used. This wine had soul. And that's a high compliment. These aren't easy wines to find. But they're worth the search.