The Wine: Pithos Rosso 2016
COS Pithos Rosso is a red natural wine made from a blend of 60% Nero d'Avola, 40% Frappato - certified organic - sourced from estate vineyards in the hamlet of Bastonica in the Vittoria area, Sicily, Italy. The vineyards are planted at around 230 meters above sea level on red soil of medium consistency made up of subalpine sands composed of limestone and silica. Pithos Rosso undergoes spontaneous fermentation on the skins in concrete tanks for 10-15 days with indigenous yeast in amphorae. Pithos Rosso is then aged for six months in amphorae followed by 2-3 months in concrete tanks. Finally three months in the bottle before release. Star winemaker Giusto Occhipinti is one of the masters of amphora-aging in Italy.
The Producer: COS • Giusto Occhipinti
Giusto Occhipinti of COS is a benchmark producer in the Vittoria appellation of Sicily, and certainly one of the most important, influential, producers in all of Sicily if not Italy as a whole. The winery was founded in 1980 by three friends, Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti, and Cirino Strano. The initials of their last names form the winery’s name.
The winery itself dates back to the 1880’s during a period in which there was huge demand for Sicilian wines. Phylloxera had already devastated many of the world’s top wine growing regions but it had not yet reached the island. Sicily has a long history of winemaking, dating back to the 8th century BCE when the Greeks first planted grapes in the eastern part of the Island. It is only more recently though that true top quality wines and winemaking have arrived there. It was through the hard work and dedication of producers such as COS who showed the potential of Sicily’s terroir and drew attention to the island, especially its ability to produce complex, pure and fresh wines, despite its location at the very southern tip of Italy.
This freshness and balance are helped by the soils in the Vittoria region which are blessed with limestone substrates under 1-2 feet of red clay. For Giusto, “the vineyard is like our life’s savings in the bank, so we must protect it.” Protecting it means that they work organically and biodynamically in order to support the health of the soil. In fact, they have never used any synthetic or chemical additives in the vineyard since the outset in 1980. Officially, the winery was an early practitioner of Biodynamic viticulture starting in 2000, and were certified (Organic) as of 2007. The climate of Vittoria is also generally warm and dry making it well-adapted to organic & biodynamic viticulture. Giusto and his vineyard team also prepare many of the Biodynamic treatments in house, though a few are purchased elsewhere from small, reputable sources for these important products.
As a goal, Giusto seeks to have the transparency of the soil conveyed into the wines themselves. To that end, he did extensive research on aging vessels and eventually decided on a combination of 440-liter clay amphorae sourced from Spain along with a collection of large neutral botti and also concrete tanks (latter mostly for the Frappato). The clay is porous like oak but has the advantage that it imparts less flavor to the wine than does even large, old casks. All aging at the winery is done in one of these vessels. Stainless steel is only used for assembling the wine prior to bottling. For many of the wines, the juice remains in contact with the skins for extended periods, even for whites. Giusto feels these extended macerations help the wine obtain natural preservatives which in turn allows them do the aging and élévage with little or no added Sulphur until the bottling when there is only a small addition.
Among the wines, COS is probably best known for their Cerasuolo di Vittorio, but also equally for their Pithos Rosso which is basically a Cerasuolo di Vittoria aged exclusively in amphora instead of oak. He also makes a single-vineyard Cerasuolo from his top cru, called Della Fontana. On the white side, they are also known for their Pithos Bianco, made from the Grecanico grape, a local variety of Garganega (of Soave fame), aged and fermented in amphora. Throughout the entire range there is a focus on elegance and purity, especially the joyous, floral Frappato – Sicily’s answer to Cru Beaujolais – and the spicy, fruit-forward Nero di Lupo (Nero D’Avola).
The Region: Sicily
Sicily is Italy’s biggest island and also its biggest region. It’s separated from the mainland by the Strait of Messina (Stretto di Messina). The capital of Sicily is Palermo, a majestically decadent multicultural city offering one of the richest culinary traditions in Italy.
Sicily’s history and culture are fascinating, to say the least. Their complexity is manifest in the diverse architecture of its cities. All over the region and particularly in Palermo we can find Arab, Greek, Roman, and Spanish influences in the layout of the city as well as in the food and local language.
Sicily is the third biggest producing country in Italy, behind Veneto and Tuscany. The quality of Sicilian wines has increased steadily over the past 30 years. Some international grape varietals - mainly chardonnay and syrah - have found a place in Sicilian viticulture, traditionally dominated by native varietals such as Nero d’Avola, Catarratto, Grillo, and Inzolia.
The Terroir of Sicily
Sicily proximity to Northern Africa and position right at the center of the Mediterranean reflect deeply on its climate. Endless sunshine, moderate rainfalls, and good aeration characterize pretty much the whole region with minor seasonal variations. Palm trees and other tropical plants and fruits are a fairly common sight in Sicily all year round.
Among the several benefits of this climate one stands out: in Sicily, grapes can grow without being imperiled by mildew, rot, or any other disease brought by too much humidity. Sicilian grapes are generally speaking naturally healthy, hence the substantial number of certified organic or biodynamic wineries.
The Red Wines of Sicily
The most widely planted red grape varietal in Sicily is Nero d'Avola, which accounts for about 20% of the total regional wine production. Frappato is another prominent red varietal, used to make the only DOCG wine in Sicily, Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG.
Less common but typical of Sicily are Alicante, similar to Grenache, Nocera, and Perrone, often blended with Nero d'Avola. On the slopes of the active volcano Mount Etna, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio are key red grape varietals in the popular Etna DOC appellation.
The White Wines of Sicily
Marsala and Passito di Pantelleria are perhaps the most famous Sicilian white wines, although their popularity has been waning over the years in favor of dry and refreshing white wines made from native varietals Inzolia and Grillo are fairly easy to find in the United States and generally very good.
In a similar way to Umbria, the Central Italian region known for the red tannic wine Sagrantino di Montefalco, Chardonnay has found its place also in Sicily. Chardonnay from Sicily can vary in quality depending on the producer.
On Primal Wine we sell one of the few 100% Chardonnay vinified with extended skin-contact in the style of an Orange Wine made by the excellent Marabino winery from organically farmed grapes.