A Natural Wine Vignette: Occhipinti SP68 2008
I don’t often write about “natural wine” on this blog. This is a conscious choice. My problem with using such a charged label to describe wine is that I feel it simplifies what makes wine so compelling and so pleasurable.
Manifestos and Obsession
The “natural wine” movement has several faces, including the famed Alice Feiring, who built her reputation by skewering American critic Robert Parker and the influence he’s had on wine around the world. Another camp has built out of the absolutely brilliant wine bar/store Terroir in San Francisco – a place that eschews everything typical about wine drinking and buying (see my review). I simply do not want to suggest anything negative about this place. However, it is a source and Mecca for many “natural wine” obsessives because of its die-hard approach to finding wines made without a banned cocktail of chemical additives both in the vineyard and in the cellar.
The “natural wine” winemakers can also be divided into several camps and perspectives. There are those who evangelize that grapes can only be grown without herbicides and wine only be made without sulfur. There are those who proudly display “Demeter” biodynamic classifications on their wines. There are also those who simply pay meticulous attention to their farming and vinification methods but do not promote or advertise what they are doing. If the wine is good, they say, then that is what they are aiming for. If there are those who wish to learn more, then that is good too. But there is no need to label or be evangelical about what one is doing.
If any theme is consistent across the “natural wine” and biodynamic wine freaks is a meticulous attention to detail. Allen Meadows provided another tidbit of wisdom on this front by suggesting that obsessively detailed types tend to make better wine, even if they are also obsessed with the cycles of the moon.
Losing the Immediate
There is another side to “natural wine” that makes me wary of writing about it on a regular basis. That is, it often seems to get too caught up in an abstracted approach to thinking about and drinking these fermented grapes that inspire both lust, hedonism, greed and also wonder, astonishment and beauty. These sorts of things don’t happen to us on an abstract or universal level. They happen on a base, immediate level. Beauty is as visceral as it is lofty. Wonder and astonishment produce immediate emotional responses, even as on reflection they engage intellectual curiosity. The two sides of immediacy and reflection play together, not apart.
So it is that “natural wine” to me somewhat misses the point even as it also sometimes gets it. Wine is far too complex a journey to be easily formalized into a list of qualities or deformed into a dogma. The particular choices of an individual producer meld with the land and the history of a place. But all these things also only gain meaning in the context in which we experience them – that is, in our modern world and immediate surroundings. To think of wines you love as a movement is akin to saying you only read “authentic literature”. Who sets the boundaries and why? Who are the gatekeepers?
A Taste of the Natural?
Adriana Occhipinti, at a very young 20 something years old, is producing something special in Sicily. The cliché used when talking about her wines is that most people think of Sicily as hot and therefore the wines as big and fruit forward. Occhipinti, however, is the opposite. To me, that isn’t a particularly useful way of thinking about these wines. Any region, whether warm or cold climate, is capable of producing a variety of wines and styles. Even “fruit bomb” Australia makes nuanced wines with low alcohol and incredible freshness. So, that contrast means little here.
What does matter is that Occhipinti is interested in producing an accessible ‘light’ wine with tremendous fruit and food friendliness while honouring both regional and family traditions. Yes, traditions do not only arise from popular perspective. Occhipinti’s uncle started the winery COS in Sicily and sees the tradition of Sicilian wines much more as blending indigenous grapes than mimicking international styles. He argued that the DOC rules were stifling the traditional methods of blending Nero d’Avola with Frappato. His efforts resulted in a revival of the style and a new DOCG designation for Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which also happens to be the only DOCG in Sicily.
Interestingly Giusto Occhipinti experimented but then ultimately rejected a so-called “California” style of using new oak to age the wines. With time and experience Occhipinti learned that, with age, the new oak obliterated what made his wines interesting.
Adriana Occhipinti took these lessons well. Her own SP68, also a blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola, is a wonderfully expressive concoction that reminded me of festive tart cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries along with earth and brambles. This is fresh wine with deftness and precision – the acid strikes the tongue like freshly crushed berries.
That said, this steel-fermented wine is also made in a “lighter” style that, at least to me, can sometimes itself be tiring. There is no doubt that the wine is fresh and delicious – but, as with all wine, it is not a wine for every time or place.
Sometimes I feel the palate-jaded types take on natural wine and “lighter” styles as a messianic quest to reveal the true nature of great wine. To me this is not so. What is great about wines like the SP68 is that they are doing something unto themselves without the pretension of having to be everything to everyone. They are simply great wines being made simply. That this particular wine (and producer) has become trendy in natural wine circles means little. That the wine is intriguing and delicious. That means everything.
$27 at Pike and Western in Seattle