- Sarah O'Kelley
Occhipinti: Iconic Sicilian White
I clearly remember my first experience with the natural, Sicilian wines of Arianna Occhipinti, and the SP68 Bianco, in particular It was a tough time, and the wine was a bright spot. And a surprise!
See, I had signed up for a natural wine club via a New York City shop (RIPFrankly Wines!) curated by wine writer Alice Feiring. Each month I would receive a box full of low intervention wines from all the wine regions of the world. And these were legit, natural wines. This was long before marketing forces appropriated the phrase “natural wine” and large scale national “wine clubs” began shipping questionably natural wines all over the country.
Now don’t get the wrong idea, I am far from being a natural wine evangelist myself, but I saw the wave coming and I was just beginning to seriously veer my career in the wine direction so I knew that I needed to understand the phenomenon and judge for myself. Hence, the Feiring Wine Club (which still exists today)!
The reality is my partner in wine did not have THAT much affection for natural wine, and consequently over several months I would end up with a serious stash that I would either take to my writing group or in this case bring with me to a family emergency in Georgia.
My cousin called first to let me know my grandmother had developed an infection in her eye from the shots they routinely gave her for glaucoma, but she told me not to worry. Fast forward a few days and the message became, “You better come; she’s talking about checking out!”
It was a grueling few days in the hospital (as is all hospital time), and ultimately my grandmother lost her eye. But she pulled through proving that even in your 90s you can be fierce and resilient.
Once home from the hospital, I proceeded to do what I knew best – cook and feed. And in my family where there is cooking there must be wine. I did not quite have the brain space to look at my Feiring Line newsletter and educate myself on the wine of the night in advance, but rather just pulled the cork and enjoyed. Such was the case with the Occhipinti SP68 Bianco, except upon first sip my cousin and I both exclaimed, “What’s this?!”
Of course, these days Arianna Occhipinti is a household name for natural wine lovers and even has seen crossover fame into the more classic wine world thanks to her appearance on Stanley Tucci’s television series “Searching for Italy” (a travel show that visits all regions of Italy, including Arianna’s home of Sicily). But that night in Georgia, I had no idea.
Of course, a quick google search revealed she was basically a wine phenom. She started making wine with her uncle Giusto Occhipinti at the age of 16. He was one of the founder’s of COS winery, a passion project between friends that really set Sicily on the quality wine map (after many years of facist rule had depressed the region and turned wine into a bulk agricultural product rather than an artisanal one). Inspired by her work at COS, Arianna went on to oenology school and then started her own project with one hectare of abandoned vines next to a family vacation house.
Like her uncle, Arianna believes in little intervention in the vineyard or cellar and seeks to make wines that truly tell of their place. Her SP68 Bianco and Rosso are named for the road nearby and constitute her “entry level” wines, but in reality they are hard-to-find gems (not your average entry level)! The Bianco is a blend of Moscato (called Zibibbo here) and a rare native grape Albanello. These white grapes undergo 15 days of maceration (aka fermentation on the skins) resulting in an orange or amber wine.
But it’s not the color I remember so much from that first experience – rather this beguiling floral nose but completely dry finish and backbone of minerality. It escapes me what we ate with the wine but I actually do still have my tasting notes, “Waxy flowers, peaches, minerality, awesome!”
As much as I loved this wine, I have only had it a few times since as it’s in such short supply, but this year I grabbed a bottle for myself. Perhaps I wanted to relive old times as so much has changed since then. There’s no longer my grandmother to cook for, but I do often raise a glass to her and especially appreciate wine at sunset when we often shared a bottle. This year’s vintage actually shone just like the autumn sky – bronze and gold and lovely. And the nose and palate lived up to my memories – not an easy task.
I consider this a perfect fall wine – refreshing but with enough body to pair with seasonal inspired dishes like seafood stews, roasted chicken, or grilled pork chops.
I encourage you to seek out the SP68 Bianco or any of Arianna’s wines if you are lucky enough to find them in your neighborhood wine shop!