I am always drawn to a wine with an interesting backstory. And while every wine has a story my personal bias is going to take me in the direction of family winemaking and organic or biodynamic viticultural practices. Or in the direction of a winemaker resurrecting a forgotten style of wine. Winemaking in Old World wine regions using indigenous varieties will catch my eye every time. If the region is off the beaten path, or at least new to me, I’m certain to be interested.
So, an interesting backstory was what I looked for as we planned the wine tasting portion of our trip to Sicily last year. Azienda Agricola COS near Vittoria in the provence of Ragusa looked interesting on paper. The winery was founded by three young friends, Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Cirino Strano, before leaving for university and takes its name from the surnames of each of the founders. Current winemaking includes the use of amphorae. Once I read that fact I knew I wanted to visit.
In the Vineyard
Our tour at COS (pronounced Koss) began in my favorite place — the vineyards. I love the smell of the earth and the vines and the feel of the wind blowing through my hair. We were guided by Joanna Dubrowska, whose official title I neglected to establish (cellar mistress perhaps), but who is familiar with every detail of viticulture and winemaking at COS. When, near the end of our tour, I asked if she was a winemaker she said no but that she had learned winemaking by drinking wine and being endlessly curious. She also told us that there is no “designated winemaker” at COS indicating to me that both owners are actively involved in winemaking at COS.
About 35 hectares (nearly 90 acres) are planted to vines on original rootstock. Mother-daughter propagation (layering) is used to fill in plants in the vineyard and annual pruning is not aggressive. Because of the strong sun, and warm summer temperatures, an ample canopy is needed to protect the fruit from sunburn. Vineyards are planted at between 220 and 240 meters (720 to 790 feet) above sea level.
The vineyards are dry farmed unless extremely dry weather requires irrigation. Limestone in the soil absorbs water like a sponge, according to Joanna, so a close eye is kept on the vines’ needs. “It’s like a first date, a little bit nervous but OK,” was how Joanna described dry farming the vineyards. Hot winds, called scirocco in Sicily, periodically blow up from North Africa and can substantially heat the soil and vineyards. Generally, though, salty, ocean breezes that are neither too humid or too dry blow across the area resulting in cooling temperatures at night.
The soil is relatively shallow, about 30 cm deep, but complex with clay, iron, limestone and calcareous rock. I noticed many white stones in the powdery, fragile-looking, red soil. And vineyard rows are covered with a diverse weedy ground cover, which does not need tilling generally. Sheep are used in the vineyards to control the ground cover.
When we toured the vineyard near the end of September harvest was complete. The vines looked spent, but the vineyard was green — thanks to recent rain I suppose. It was just the kind of vineyard I love to visit, messy looking with abundant ground cover between the rows and vines, not manicured to within an inch of its life.
Viticulture follows organic and biodynamic principles, reflecting a “biodynamic mindset,” as Joanna put it. To the extent it is possible work in the vineyards and wine cellar follows lunar and cosmic cycles.
Within just a few years of converting to organic and biodynamic farming the diversity of birds, insects (and frogs) in the vineyards increased significantly.
In the Wine Cellar
Since its founding in 1980 the goal of winemaking at COS has always been for the wines to reflect an expression of the land. In order to accomplish this goal the team needed to learn about the the land, but they also learned a lot about winemaking. Winemaking began in a more traditional way using Burgundy barrels from a number of coopers for aging. Over time they have been replaced with Slavonian oak botti — 500 to 1000-gallon oak casks. As Joanna put it, “not much wood and lots of wine,” so the flavors of oak do not get in the way of the flavors of the fruit, but the wine benefits from the exchange of oxygen wood aging provides. Also, concrete vats and clay amphorae are used all of which allow for full fruit expression.
In 2000 when remaining partners Giambattista Cilia and Giusto Occhipinti (Cirino Strano left winemaking early on to practice medicine) began researching clay amphora they traveled to Georgia to learn about the winemaking technique at its historic origin. They explored clay from Sicily, Tunisia and Spain. Through experimentation they discovered Spanish clay gives the purest expression of fruit from their vineyards.
Today over 100 amphorae are used to produce both a red and white wine. The 400-liter containers are partially buried in the soil which is covered by 10 cm of gravel and sand. Winemaking for both white wine and red wine made in amphorae is essentially the same. Fruit is destemmed and lightly crushed and placed into the amphorae with multiple punchdowns per day. When fermentation is completed the amphorae are closed. In about April the wine is pumped into concrete vats, the lees and skins are pressed and the juice added to the concrete vats. Wine spends a bit more time in concrete before bottling. The balance of winemaking at COS uses concrete vats and large-format Slavonian oak casks for aging. Annual production is about 200,000 bottles.
After wandering the vineyards and seeing the amphorae we sat down to taste wine. Other parts of the winery were too busy for visitors.
In the Glass
The first thing I noticed about COS wines was the shape of the wine bottle. The bottle shape is designed after a old bottle that was unearthed during excavation at the winery. It’s unique to COS.
2013 COS Pithos Bianco — dark yellow-orange in the glass with generous stone fruit aromas. Medium-bodied with concentrated flavors of pineapple, peaches and almonds with nice acidity. Mineral backnotes add even more complexity. This wine has nice weight and, not surprisingly, some tannins. 11.5% abv.
Made from 100% Grecanico, a common white variety in Sicily that is genetically identical to Garganega in Soave, and surely one of the most interesting white wines I’ve tasted in some time thanks to indigenous yeast fermentation and 8 months of skin contact in amphorae. It is a white wine for more than just fish dishes.
2014 COS Frappato — light ruby in the glass with generous fruit flavors reminiscent of Gamay to me. Berry and cranberry flavors combine with smooth tannins and bright acidity. A lovely, fruity wine for warm weather that would be perfect slightly chilled. 12.5% abv.
The lively and lovely fruit flavors of Frappato shine through beautifully. Fermentation with indigenous yeast, aging in cement vat and bottle. Just fruit. Just delicious.
Frappato is, according to Joanna, always a problem to grow. As she put it so colorfully, “like an aristocratic old lady when she sees blood.” The variety produces tight clusters with delicate-skinned berries and is not particularly high yielding. I thrives in the red soils of the area, however.
2014 COS Nero Di Lupo — medium ruby in the glass with generous berry and herbal aromas. Juicy mixed blackberry flavors combine with interesting backnotes of black tea and dried hay. Firm tannins provide structure and the finish is very long with flavor and tannins. Love the combination of fruit flavors, bright acidity and tannins in this wine. 12.5% abv.
100% Nero d’Avola, indigenous yeast fermentation, aging in cement vat and bottle. It’s simple. It’s enough. A beautiful fruit expression of this variety. Love it!
Nero d’Avola is the most widely planted red grape variety in Sicily. The name means black grape of Avola, which is a port town in southeast Sicily where the variety is thought to have originated. It was referred to as Calavrisi in a local dialect, meaning grape from Avola, and that name was Italianized to Calabrese which is how the Italian National Registry of Vine Varieties identifies the variety. Because Calabrese is easily confused with Calabria, a region is southern Italy, Sicilian wine producers prefer then name Nero d’Avola to identify the grape variety.
2013 COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico — medium ruby in the glass with red and black fruit aromas. Complex, bright berry and earthy, dark fruit flavors and a bit of spice. Smooth tannins linger on the finish with fruit and bright acidity. 13% abv.
Once again, indigenous yeast fermentation with aging in both cement vat and large Slavonian oak casks before 6 months of bottle aging. A blend of 60% Nero d’Avola, 40% Frappato.
It’s complex, delicious and satisfying. We ordered a bottle at a restaurant one evening in Ragusa Ibla and it paired beautifully our the wild mushroom pizza.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria is the only DOCG in Sicily and only red wines produced from at least 50% Nero d’Avola and a minimum of 30% Frappato are allowed. First established as a DOC in 1973, the classification was elevated to DOCG status in 2005 and surrounds the town of Vittoria and reaches to the ocean. A Classico zone encompasses the original (smaller) area included in the DOC classification and requires a minimum of 18 months of aging.
The blend of 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato is a common proportion for the blend for Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Nero d’Avola provides structure and Frappato provides the fruit flavor – they complete each other. Joanna described why she thinks this 60/40 blend works so well, “Nero d’Avola is like a Sicilian guy — he makes the decisions. With a 50/50 blend nobody makes a decision and that’s not good.” That’s a description everyone can understand.
Sicily, in Joanna’s view, is more like a continent than an island in terms of wine because of the many indigenous varieties and distinct growing regions. The east coast of Sicily is characterized by volcanic soil and red wine making. The middle of the island includes soils derived from ancient sea beds and produces fine red wines. The west coast of Sicily is known for its white wine production and of course for Marsala.
In her view, drink Sicilian white wines young. Nerello Mascalese and Nero d’ Avola are the red varieties that have the best aging potential. Drink Frappato with in 3 years of release and enjoy the fruit flavors.
I came to COS for the amphorae and fell in love with the wines. I even came away with some excellent guidelines for drinking Sicilian wines. Can’t ask for more than that. Many thanks to Joanna for making our tour so personal and memorable.
COS wines are distributed in the U.S. Look for them. Below is a slideshow of our visit. Please enjoy.