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Occhipinti Tasting

Il Frappato and Grotte Alte: Highlights of the Occhipinti Tasting

I've written about the wines of Arianna Occhipinti before. More importantly, writers to whom the whole world listens--like Eric Asimov of the New York Times--have written about her wines. They're in the heart of the envelope for sommeliers and dedicated wine geeks...but still on the fringe for much of the wine drinking public.

For those who have not read my previous piece on Occhipinti (or, more likely, Asimov's), Arianna Occhipinti is a young winemaker from the Vittoria region of southern Sicily who has made a big impression in a short time. Her wines tend to be taut, elegant and intense--marked by freshness (powerful acidity) not by big, ripe flavors. They are--to use one of my favorite words--interesting.

For those whose wine sweet spot is in Napa, these will likely not appeal. But there are enough people broadening their horizons that the little bit of Occhipinti that makes it to big city wine shops, like DC's MacArthur Beverages, tends to sell out quickly. So it was with that as a background that I was intrigued that our local wine shop 30 miles west of the city held an Occhipinti tasting.

Antoinette Landragin manages the Virginia location of her family's Cork & Fork wine shops (the others are in Bethesda and the Logan Circle area of DC). Many local wine shops focus on what their community knows and likes--the familiar. Antoinette has a different idea. She's focused on finding new and interesting wines from small producers that the community doesn't yet know. And I think she's exactly right. Small shops are not going to compete effectively with the big box stores in selling Beringer Private Reserve...the different economies of scale make that impossible. What good local wine shops can compete on is the ability to find great new wines that you didn't know about...and to help you understand which ones you might like.

So, while I was at first surprised that a local wine shop would dedicate a Friday evening tasting to the wines of Arianna Occhipinti, as I thought about it, it made great sense. It's exactly what they should be doing. Distributor Charles Gendrot helped Antoinette and her father, Dominique, present the wines. Gendrot--an experienced winemaker born and raised in Bordeaux--seemed to have an innate sense of how to share enough about the wines without falling into the trap that I sometimes do of trying to share everything I know.

Seven wines were white, six reds. The white was the 2013 Occhipinti Sicilia Bianco SP 68. It's named for the SP 68 highway that runs through the region--reportedly one of the oldest wine roads anywhere (there is also a red wine named for SP 68). This one is a 50/50 blend of albanello, a white grape native to Sicily, and zibibbo, the floral and fruity grape known elsewhere as muscat. And the wine was fresh, floral, minerally...and maybe a touch nutty. An interesting wine.

The grapes Arianna works with to make her reds are nero d'avola and frappato. The first two of those that were presented were the 2013 Tami Frappato and the 2013 Tami Nero d'Avola. The Tami wines come from Arianna's young vines...and the youth showed. Maybe because I'd had their big brothers a number of times and knew what was coming, I found them pleasant but wasn't captivated.

Next up, the 2013 Sicila Rosso SP 68 is a blend of frappato and nero d'avola. Rich, dark and grapey, nero d'avola is the most widely planted grape in Sicily. Bright, fresh and light--but intense--frappato is native to Vittoria and not nearly as well known. DNA testing suggests frappato may be related to sangiovese. And the SP 68 red is truly a marriage between the two grapes--it brings the bigger, riper flavors of nero d'avola...bound with freshness and energy from frappato's acidity. Nice wine.

Stepping up, the 2011 Occhipinti Nero d'Avola triggered the thought "grapey elegance" in my mind. It was a little fruity for my taste...but notes say "in a caressing way." I preferred the last two wines to it...but I think a number of people enjoying the tasting had this at the top of their list.

The 2012 Occhipinti Frapatto showed brightness, acid and minerality--with both sweet black and tart red berry notes. Having had the 2011 the night before, my sense is that the 2012 will be as successful...but may need a few years in the bottle to reach its peak. I like this wine! It's far from the "easy listening/easy drinking" style that I sought once upon a time...but it's really interesting.

No surprise, the wine of the night was the 2010 Occhipinti Cerasuolo di Vittoria Grotte Alte. Arianna only makes this reserve blend of frappato and nero d'avola in top vintages (so far, 2006, 2007 and 2010). She makes only one barrel--from her best grapes, sourced from high up the Ippari River. She crafts the wine using extended maceration and ~five years aging (~three of them in a large oak cask). It's rich and velvety...but with solid underpinnings from the acid and noticable tannin. It's drinkable now, but I think I'll give the bottles I bought a couple of years...the harmony will only increase.

A really impressive tasting. I'd have been happy to drive into DC for it. Pretty cool that our local wine shop brought it to us!

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