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Arianna Occhipinti

Arianna is one of the leaders of the global natural wine movement. Her beautiful and personal interpretations of Sicily’s varieties are completely unique; there’s nothing quite like them and it would be impossible to try to imitate them. 

While she has found global wine fame for her SP68 wines, which can be found on hundreds of wine bar and restaurant lists, she has also almost single-handedly elevated the status of the indigenous variety, Frappato, to global fine wine territory. 

It’s the precision and focus found not just in her wines, but also in her approach to agriculture, that has cast a spell on us.

Meet Arianna 

Born into a Sicilian family, Arianna’s uncle is one of the three partners of the renowned COS winery; one of the wineries that has brought amphorae onto centre stage as winemaking vessels in recent years. But it wasn’t until Arianna went to one of the giant wine fairs in Italy with him, that she realised another type of wine existed; the mass-produced and mass-marketed kind. This seemed to her a world apart from the vineyards she played in as a kid. It sparked something in her, and soon after she decided to pursue the life of a winemaker.  

She settled in the ‘Fossa di Lupo’ area of Vittoria, in SW Sicily. Her winery and first vineyard straddle the ancient County Road 68; from which two of her iconic wines take their name. The next vineyards she added to her stable are also situated alongside it. This is not just any road; it represents 3000 years of Sicilian history; as well as Arianna’s own journey and future. 

Her venture in farming vines has taken her from an entirely natural approach, to biodynamics, and to a new chapter of polyculture. She’s still learning and remains deeply humble. She smiles as she says,

“Vineyards teach us to wait. I’m not usually a patient person, I don’t like to wait. Although that’s changing now I’m a little more mature. Vineyards are a good test for us – it takes three years from planting before we’re able to make wine, and the wine itself also takes time. The vineyards and the wine teach us and enable us to reflect. It’s grounding.”

The Vineyards 

Arianna works with the traditional Sicilian varieties of Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Albanello, Zibibbo (a synonym for Muscat of Alexandria) and Grillo. Working with the indigenous varieties is very important to her (Albanello, for example, is not commonly grown anymore), as this preserves part of her cultural identity. When she plants, she does so solely via field grafting (this means grafting vitis vinifera onto American rootstocks planted in the spot where the vine will live) and via massal selection; i.e. via planting from several mother plants as opposed to a singular clone, which ensures the genetic continuity of the grapevine material. It’s a huge amount of work; labour and time intensive; but it’s likely the plants in return will be healthier and live longer. And time is an irreplaceable investment. 

Her current baby is her new Grillo vineyards, which makes her eyes sparkle. She planted more of this white variety in 2017, on limestone soils at 500m elevation:

“The goal is to create a wine that is a child of the limestone - the soil of my place – and which also has a lot of elegance. The wine which I made from it has a lot of acid; it will need some time.”

She is also planting some more Frappato in the bush vine method (known in Sicily as albarello – not to be confused with Albanello the variety) to wide spacing of 1.25m x 1.25m. She explains,

“I have some vineyards planted in rows via the trellis system – and there are wonderful vineyards in the world planted this way. But when I can, I prefer to plant them as bush vines. There are many reasons for this – for example, when it comes to disease, the wind passes between the vines in different directions, so there’s not so much humidity. It’s important to permit wind to enter amongst the vines.”

Planting them further apart, and via the field grafting method, means she can avoid irrigation. Additionally, the vines are trained low, to permit the grapes to receive the moderating cool temperature from the soil during the night. The wide spacing is important, as it allows the roots to expand, meaning they can find more water. 

Helping the vineyards to find their balance has taken years of observation. These days, she works alternate rows in winter, and manages vegetation in spring and summer.

“When I began, my idea was to work only in the natural approach. I’ve been certified from the beginning, but that’s not the important thing. Step by step, I’ve understood that the best way is to integrate many approaches. Here, we have 300/400mm of rain, we’re in the centre of the Mediterranean, near northern Africa. Our conditions are very different to France and Northern Italy; different from the winemakers who inspired me.” 

She explains that her soils are very sandy, so the most important aspect for her is to try to improve the organic matter in the soils.  

“I worked with biodynamic preps for three years, but it was interrupted as I had a period where I wanted to try natural agriculture only. Then, I was building my cellar and had many other things to do, but four years ago I began to expand the agriculture on the farm so reintroduced the biodynamic preps.”

For her, it’s important to find a way to make biodynamics fit her place; meaning it’s important for her to focus on what she can incorporate from her own farm, and from the local area. She picks her own stinging nettles for the preps, all of the dead wood from prunings and dead vines is mulched, and their manure for the compost comes from a friend’s cows. This compost is particularly used for the parcels poorer in organic matter, which need more help. 

“Helping the soil is also important for the quality of the wine. Of course, I don’t want rich-rich soils – because I don’t want to change the nature of my soils – but the organic matter is useful for the vines’ health.”

She alternates her management of the cover crop from row to row. This means one row will have a spontaneous cover crop, and the other row will have a cover crop which comes largely from the 15 different plants she sows during winter. These are chosen for their properties of nitrogen-fixing & oxygenation, giving life to the soil and macro and micronutrients. Then before spring, she cuts them down and leaves them on the soil as a form of mulch, to keep humidity in the ground. Then she does a superficial ploughing just once in springtime.  

“This means we have the spontaneous cover crop of indigenous plants, as well as plants that are very useful for the vineyard. We have 40+ species of plants in the vineyard; it’s very important to leave the native plants and to let them flourish, like in a forest. We also eat them and make tea from them. We have a kind of mustard, fennel, all sorts. We also pick some for a little shop in Ragusa to sell.”

Since day one, it’s been important for Arianna to find a balance between her vineyards and the local ecosystem. She wants to combat monoculture, and in recent years has been expanding her efforts. She says,

“I have a farm with a lot of different cultures. The aim was never to have only vineyards. I’m also farming vegetables, oranges and pears. We make juice and marmalade from the oranges, and a spirit from the pears. We also farm wheat and make pasta, and sell capers here in the shop, too. These small projects are a way to introduce biodiversity to the farm, and to employ more local people and to serve as a source for inspiration. 80% of the people who work for us are local, and I like to create a connection with them. They bring energy. I have many friends of course, but Vittoria, my place, needs more connections and natural farmers.”

They also have local varieties of olive trees, some of which are over 100 years old. Her 30 orange trees are also all different varieties. 

“Sometimes one variety becomes fashionable... but to maintain many varieties is so important.”

The Wines

The area of Vittoria is famous for its Cerasuolo di Vittoria wine; a blend of the grape varieties Nero d’Avola and Frappato, and the only Sicilian wine with ‘DOCG’ status (the highest regional classification of quality regulation & control in Italy). As Arianna has both varieties, and as an homage to the history of the wine, she makes her own version, but it’s by no means the be-all and end-all. 

Arianna has always been particularly fond of Frappato. It’s perhaps her work with this variety through her contrada wines; single vineyard expressions; that has seen her become world-renowned for fine wine production. The variety is almost Burgundian in terms of its capacity to translate the unique terroirs. She’s equally renowned for her SP68 cuvées, but for a different reason; these are the perfect introductory bottles to natural Sicilian wine. Arianna explains, 

“When I started making wine in 2004, I really focused each vintage on understanding Frappato and Nero d’Avola. The wine of the area is Cerasuolo, so I first made the Grotte Alte, which ages for five years. But as a young person and wanting to drink terroir wines with a simple approach, I wanted to make a blend that was aged for a shorter amount of time. I also realised the vineyards on sand produce something smoother and more fruity, whereas the limestone tends to give something more austere with more tannin.” 

She liked the fruit and energy of Frappato, so decided to create a blend with 70% Frappato versus 30% Nero d’Avola. 

“I took the SP68 name from the road, but decided not to use the appellation. My idea for this wine was to be free from regulation, tasting, papers… I mean, I still do papers every day, but I wanted this to be my personal appellation wine – and that’s what the road is.” 

The red SP68 has been made with a small portion of whole bunches since 2016. She selects some bunches of Frappato and puts them in the bottom of the tank, and then fills destemmed whole berries on top with a tiny bit of juice. The whole bunches introduce a small carbonic maceration, which Arianna likes. She explains, 

“It gives a very nice aroma and a sense of terroir, but I don’t want to use more than 10% else I find the sense of terroir changes. We know the typical aroma of carbonic maceration - which I like a lot - but I can’t see my wines when they’re completely covered by those aromas.”

Next came her white skin-contact wine, also named SP68. She had been greatly influenced by northern Italian and Slovenian winemakers in the early days, such as the world-renowned orange winemakers Stanko Radikon and Elena Pantaleoni, and many of these winemakers have become lifelong friends and mentors. But she also knew that her climate and varieties were very different to theirs. She says, 

“I tried 15 days, and I liked it. The goal also wasn’t to age the wines in barrels for two years, so a shorter skin maceration worked well. The Zibibbo and Albarello varieties have an intense yellow colour to their skins, so the wine is that colour.” 

She winks;

“Don’t trust a white wine when it’s not the colour of the skins.”

Grillo, meanwhile, is very different to Zibibbo; the latter has a lot of pulp, which means it suits skin contact, whereas she feels Grillo is already generous with its structure. As such, she doesn’t want to extract too much from it, so she’s only doing three days’ skin contact. She will age some in barrel, and some in concrete. 

It’s an exciting time for a winemaker; releasing a cuvée you’ve dreamed of for a long time, from vines you’ve planted yourself. Looking at how much Arianna has already achieved with her other wines, and how adored they are in the wine community, we’re pretty certain the Grillo will be something special. We can’t wait. 

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