The popularity of the wines of Sicily has not coincidentally paralleled the increase in the quality of the wines over the past 20 to 30 years. Restaurateurs, wine retailers and consumers became more aware of indigenous grape varieties such as Nero d’Avola, Insolia and Catarratto during this time. Often these wines were blended with international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay to appeal to the North American market and facilitate the familiarity of the wines to consumers in these markets.
Fortunately, the quality and popularity of Sicilian wines continues on an upward curve, but more importantly, producers are focusing more than ever on indigenous grapes and expressing the vineyard site in the bottle.
The vibrant, mineral-laden wines (and the corresponding grapes such as Carricante, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio) from the volcanic soils of Mount Etna, for example, are currently among the most sought after by somms, wine geeks and savvy consumers alike. And nestled in the southeast corner of the island are wines of distinction with elegance, vibrancy, finesse, immense drinkability and food versatility. These wines of Cerasuolo di Vittoria should be on the go to list for wine drinkers everywhere.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria achieved DOCG status in 2005 (the first wine region in Sicily to attain this designation), a sign of both the importance and consistent quality of the wines. The two grapes that must be used in the production of the wines are Nero d’Avola (50 to 70%) and Frappato (30 to 50%).
Nero d’Avola (Sicily’s most widely planted red grape) can bring wild berry, red liquorice, wild herbs, earthiness and moderate tannin structure to the wines while Frappato tends to contribute a fresh, floral, vinous liveliness.
Arianna Occhipinti, the undisputed queen of Frappato, explains that the region is excellent for Frappato due in large part to the soils, which consist of a top layer of red, loosely packed sand that is rich in iron with both hard and soft limestone below. The vines’ roots are able to penetrate deep in search of water. The result is highly perfumed, floral wines with elegant tannins.
The Nero d’Avola from the region tends towards fresh and minerally with less density but great focus and finesse. According to Occhipinti, Nero d’Avola grown in more calcareous soils are higher in acidity and richer in tannin, while the wines lean toward more delicate and finessed in sites with the red top-sand. Occhipinti prefers to use the former for her Cerasuolo di Vittoria while blending Nero d’Avola from the different sites for complexity in her monovarietal bottling.
I found the best wines in the region to possess a beautiful freshness with minerality, juicy mid-palate, moderate tannins and refreshing acidity. The use of any sort of new oak should be discouraged to avoid masking the character and purity of the wines.
Producers such as Occhipinti and COS (the king of Cerasuolo and co-owned by Arianna’s uncle Giusto Occhipinti) have a preference for fermenting in concrete (COS even uses terracotta amphorae for some of its wines), which is porous and allows the wine to breath and evolve without adding the “flavours” that oak can impart.
With only 20 producers in the zone, Occhipinti says there is a positive, collaborative attitude amongst the wineries. Also, the climate and soil allow for sustainable farming practices and the majority of wineries are producing in this manner regardless of whether or not they have certification.
The wines of Cerasuolo di Vittoria are the perfect example of unique, distinctive wines that are elegant, complex and finessed with a depth of flavour that don’t have to be heavy to be considered great. The wines possess a veracity, purity and true sense of place. Occhipinti hopes that the area’s wineries will continue to work together to produce and promote wines of this character and not be swayed by market trends.
Fortunately (and as it should be), it is the market that is being swayed and swooned by the elegance of the wines of Cerasuolo di Vittoria.
Occhipinti il Frappato IGT 2013 ($48)
Bright, fresh and fragrant with loads of wild cherry, wild herbs, pomegranate and spice; starts juicy on the palate then shows elegant, but grippy tannins, great focus and concentration with minerality and lifted acidity on the long finish. Absolutely delicious and incredibly quaffable. 100% Frappato. No one does Frappato better.
Occhipinti SP68 Rosso IGT 2014 ($32)
Fresh, young and vinous showing aromas and flavours of fresh herbs, bright red and black berries, red liquorice and elegant, juicy tannins. 70% Frappato and 30% Nero d’Avola. Not allowed to be called Cerasuolo because the amount of Frappato exceeds the maximum 60% allowed.
Occhipinti Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico ‘Grotte Alte’ DOCG 2010 ($46)
Quite bright with expressive aromas and flavours of red cherry, red currant, crushed blackberry, earth, liquorice and fresh herbs, balanced and structured, moderate tannins, refreshing acidity and a mouth-watering salinity on the finish. A 50/50 blend.
Valle dell’Acate Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2011 ($42)
Ripe notes of cherry, blackberry, raspberry, liquorice, spice, sage and cocoa, soft juicy tannins, soft acidity and round on the finish. 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato.
COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2012 ($46)
Elegant, vibrant and supple with cherry, currant, spice, earth, liquorice and a savoury quality, silky tannins, great texture and flavour penetration and depth with a long, long minerally finish. A difficult vintage for many producers due to the heat, but this wine is beautifully fresh. COS is still the benchmark to which all Cerasuolo is measured. 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato.
Planeta Dorilli Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2014 ($44)
Fresh and grapey, leaning towards grape Bubblicious with bright cherry, red liquorice, voluminous mouthfeel, juicy, silky tannins and bright acidity on the finish. 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Frappato.
Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2004 ($30)
Still showing bright fruit and silky tannins with cherry and currant flavours complemented by earth, olive, spice and soft acidity on the finish. Has aged very well and still has years left in it. Great match with braised pork. 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato.