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A Walk on the Wild Side
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Oct 5, 2010
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Occhipinti, IGT Sicilia (Italy) “Siccagno” Nero d’Avola, 2007 (Louis/ Dressner Selections, $34):  When the island of Sicily began to transition from making huge quantities of mainly everyday-quality red and white wines to producing some finer wines as well, much of the new efforts involved international grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  That was twenty-plus years ago.  The international varietals succeeded in capturing the attention of the world market, even as they disheartened Italian wine aficionados.  Since then, Sicilian wine producers have come home to their native grape varieties, particularly the red Nero d’Avola grape.  If the reviews published on this site are any indication, most of the Sicilian wines that critics applaud are based on Nero d’Avola. 

In all fairness, Nero d’Avola is the island’s most planted red variety and thus makes a much larger quantity of wine than red varieties with very localized production, such as Nerello Mascalese on Mount Etna or Frappato in southeastern Sicily.  In terms of its ubiquitous presence, you could say that it is the Sangiovese of Sicily or, for a global comparison, Sicily’s Cabernet Sauvignon.  Stylistically, however, it does not resemble either of those grapes, with the possible exception of its firm tannin profile and, like Cabernet, its deep color.

The town of Avola, from which the grape takes its name, is in southeastern Sicily, and that part of the island is considered a particularly fine region for growing Nero d’Avola grapes.  The Azienda Agricola Arianna Occhipinti is situated in Vittoria, a classic zone of southeastern Sicily for both Nero d’Avola and Frappato grapes.  Occhipinti is quite a new venture, led by a winemaker still in her twenties, whose first vintage was 2004.  Whether because the vintner is an articulate, attractive young female, or because the wines are considered “natural” wines, or because the wines are very good, Occhipinti has become something of a cult favorite among Siciliaphiles.

Arianna Occhipinti farms 12 acres of vines and makes three red wines: Frappato (think of a cherry-scented, fairly light-bodied Pinot Noir with an air of wildness to it), a Nero d’Avola-Frappato blend called “SP68,” and this Nero d’Avola.

Siccagno is a particularly compelling Nero d’Avola because of its aroma/flavor complexity and its nuanced structure.  Its aroma reminds me ever so slightly of a southern Rhône wine in that it conveys warm, dry earth; darkly ripe fruit and a note of roasted fruit; and the vague perfume of dried herbs and flowers.  Here, the fruity notes are plum and tart, wild berries, and the aroma suggests chocolate as well, said to be characteristic of Nero d’Avola.  Structurally, the wine is full-bodied with a strong measure of firm tannin on the rear palate, velvety texture, moderate alcohol (13 percent) and high acidity that brings the wine tremendous depth.  Speaking technically, the high-acid impression is partly due to volatile acidity (acetic acid), which in excess can be a flaw; in this wine, it lifts the taste, lightens the tannic impact and gives the wine a slightly wild, untamed personality.  I like it.

The fermentation for this wine occurs through ambient rather than cultured yeasts--one element of the “natural,” non-interventionist winemaking here.  This wine ages for 15 months in French oak tonneau of 600 liters, more than twice the size of a barrique.

I recommend drinking this wine fairly soon, because with time the sharp acidity will become more noticeable.  I also recommend a fairly small, narrow glass.  Above all, I recommend that you try this wine.  It is well worth knowing.

90 Points