Women in Wine: Arianna Occhipinti in Sicily

Arianna Occhipinti’s terroir-driven wines have put southeastern Sicily on the map.

This is a 4-part series on women winemakers who are making waves in Italy not only for producing award-winning wines in a traditionally male-dominated field, but also for their visionary efforts in sustainable viticulture and investment in the cultural heritage of their territories. Let’s raise our glasses and toast to their continued success!

Meet Arianna Occhipinti of Azienda Agricola Arianna Occhipinti

For Arianna Occhipinti, the path to winemaking began earlier than most. When she was only 16, her uncle Giusto Occhipinti (of the well-respect Sicilian winery COS) asked her to help pour wine at Vinitaly, the most important annual wine fair in Italy. She enjoyed the experience so much that she began helping out at her uncle’s winery when she returned to Sicily and promptly enrolled in enology school in Milan.

Arianna may have found her calling, but her instinct and interest in natural winemaking caused rifts in enology school. The young winemaker admits that she got into heated debates with teachers who wanted to “teach recipes for making wine” using commercial yeasts, while she believed that grapes and terroir should speak for themselves. Holding her own course, Arianna completed her education and harvested her first vines on a one-hectare vineyard surrounding her parents’ home in Vittoria: an arid, slightly inland area just below the Hyblean Mountains of southeastern Sicily. This area is known for its red, sandy soil and the island’s only DOCG wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria.

At just 22 years old, she released the first vintage under her own label — and according to her own rules. Arianna’s first labels were made Nero d’Avola and Frappato, two of Sicily’s most prized native grapes that are often blended to produce Cerasuolo but are also excellent on their own. Nero d’Avola offers bold, dark berry flavors and spices, and is capable of making wines with body and tannin. Frappato, on the other hand, is typically lighter and fresher, and expresses red fruit and floral notes. “I feel myself in their expression,” says Arianna.

Arianna’s vineyard holdings have since expanded and her beautiful winery is based in a renovated farmhouse, complete with a historic palmento, a traditional stone building designed for making wine which was in use throughout Sicily until the 1970s. She continues to farm organically — with no fertilizers, pesticides nor irrigation — because less intervention is better for the earth and produces more authentic, local wines. As a guiding principle for her work, Arianna uses a quote from Saint-Exupery.

“We do not inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

Organic practices, it turns out, also produce more elegant wines. “The freshness and minerality of my wines come from the subsoil,” she explains. “Any wine made from young vines or chemically grown vines feeding only off of the topsoil will have the cooked, hot characteristics people associate with wine from warm regions.”

Another aspect of Arianna’s winemaking that has remained constant is her love for native Sicilian grape varieties. In addition to Nero d’Avola and Frappato, she also grows two native white grape varieties that go into her SP68 white blend: Moscato di Alessandria, an aromatic white grape variety believed to be indigenous to Sicily (though its name hints at an Egyptian origin), and Albanello, a nearly-extinct white grape variety that has great capabilities. Thanks to Arianna and a few other Sicilian producers who have planted vineyards of Albanello, the variety has been saved from a fate that too many other indigenous Italian grapes have faced in the last 100 years.

Arianna’s connection to her homeland has been a constant presence in her winemaking practice, and it has pushed her to pursue a new line of terroir-focused Frappato wines called Vini di Contrada (single parcel wines) that express the nuances in soil. Whereas the sandy soils cause the grapes to express themselves in a softer and more fruit-forward way, the limestone-based vineyards result in a more structured wine. The three wines of this line, which are named after their vineyard parcels, represent one pure sandy vineyard, one pure limestone vineyard and a final one that is the blend of the two.

“I realized that the vineyards play on this game of sand and limestone — presenting themselves in the wines with fresh fruit and silkiness from one side, but also with great acidity and energy on the other,” explains Arianna. It is this attention and appreciation for terroir that is taking Sicilian wines to the next level.

Of course wine isn’t the only agricultural product this fertile island produces, and Arianna’s love for her native Sicily encompasses other plants, both cultivated and wild. She grows and presses olives, bottling two exceptional extra virgin olive oils. She harvests capers in the Hyblean Mountains and she has planted orange and pear orchards on her farm. And Arianna has even started growing an ancient Sicilian wheat called tumminina which she uses to produce dried pasta with local chef Giorgio Minardo.

This pride for Sicily is at the core of her work. Though the economic downturn has seen many of the island’s youth seek opportunities abroad, Arianna’s success demonstrates that one can do important work in Sicily. “I want to show [young people] the importance of tradition and the beauty of being attached to a sense of place,” she says.

If you have the chance, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Vittoria and meet Arianna Occhipinti. May you savor the experience. Cheers!

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