Text Felix Watzka
Photos Maurice Haas
The region around Vittoria, a small town in the south-east of Sicily, is one of the most economically depressed regions of Italy. All the more astonishing therefore what the young winemaker Arianna Occhipinti has achieved here.
Arianna is a child of the island. She is widely travelled, studied in Milan and yet has returned to her roots. “Vittoria, the wine, the vineyards and their stone walls, this is my home, my land”, she says. With a determined voice and passion shining from her dark brown eyes, this is a very vibrant young woman. A true Sicilian.
Arianna is bursting with energy. It’s difficult to keep pace with her as she inspects her vines. With one hand she directs her team, while the other is constantly on the phone. “We change something in the winery every ten minutes, that’s what makes it special. The feeling you have when you get up in the morning is totally different to the one you have when you go to sleep.”
Once she has made up her mind, there’s no going back. She presses on tirelessly.
‘Vittoria, the wine, the vineyard and its stone walls, this is my home, my land,’ says Arianna Occhipinti
For her 21st birthday she asked here parents for a gift of one hectare of vines in Fossa di Lupo. “When I started making wine, I just had this one hectare, a plastic bucket and a second-hand steel tank. Nothing else. This was fantastic though, because it meant I learned how to make wine in a totally natural way without using technology.”
In her first year she produced 4,000 bottles of wine. A New York wine dealer discovered her, bought practically her entire output and so her triumphal march began. The New York Times celebrated her.
Looking back now she knows what was important when she was starting out: “It’s thanks to the people who believed in me from the outset that I have been able to grow, even though I was a nobody, very tiny and my wines were completely unknown.”
Arianna has always done things her way. She rejected the typical practice in Sicily of irrigating vineyards and above all the use of chemical sprays. “It’s poison”, she says. “We have enormous potential in Sicily to produce organic wines, the weather conditions are almost perfect, it would be wrong not to work organically here.”
Her vineyard has to live. Birds nest in the vines. She plants field beans between the vines in the vineyard and allows herbs and flowers to grow. “Everything works better when there are flowers in the vineyard. They help to provide vital nutrients for the soil, so I allow as many as possible to blossom. The bees also return to the vineyard, therefore completing the cycle.”
The wine cellar is kept as simple as possible. Wild yeasts ferment the wine, which has been harvested by hand. It is also given the time it needs here to mature. Nature and Arianna’s scrupulous selection in the vineyard ensure the quality and character of the grapes. She doesn’t plan to make any other changes to the cellar.
Arianna Occhipinti now owns more than 25 hectares of land. In addition to the vineyards, she also farms olive groves, plants old grain types in her fields and keeps beehives.
Arianna feels most at home outside in nature, with her vines, on the red calcium-rich soil that fascinates her so much. “I want my wine to be a true image of the soil in which it grows”, explains Arianna as she once again stresses that her wines come into being in the vineyard and not the cellar. The island’s ancient grape varieties, Frappato and Nero d’Avola, were always deeply rooted in this soil. Which is exactly why her healthy soil is so important. And one more thing she stresses: “With the vines perched on the limestone soil, it would be wrong to seek anything other than elegance in my wines. This is what I have always wanted. Probably because I grew up with Frappato. This grape variety demonstrates unbelievable freshness in Vittoria.”
It’s the special characteristics of the soil and the climate, the heat of the day and the cool of the nights, that give the grapes their acidity and delicate fruit. Only here are the fine aromas and precision found that distinguish Arianna’s wines so clearly from the rich, opulent wines for which the island is famous. “That is the wine I want to make. The wine I want to drink. Even if I had to move somewhere else, I would still want the same things.”
‘I want my wine to be a pure expression of the soil in which it grows, ’ says the winemaker
What the young woman has achieved in this economically depressed region is pioneering and fundamental for winemaking and for Vittoria’s future generations. Not only does Arianna Occhipinti provide a vision of Sicilian winemaking in the future, she epitomises it. Against all odds. Back then, many people in the village had doubts that a female winemaker could make it alone in this male-dominated island. But Arianna was not to be deterred. “It’s important to focus on your ideas. That’s because an idea stays with you as you journey through life. The idea is the most powerful thing you have”.