Hanging around waiting for the university term to commence in 1980, friends Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti and Cirino Strano came up with an unusual project to fill their vacation: using a small vineyard and abandoned cellars owned by Cilia’s father on the island of Sicily, they decided to resurrect a local winemaking tradition.
At the time, they had no idea they were embarking on an adventure that would not only change their lives, but also the destiny of an entire denomination.
“By 1980, winemaking had been practically abandoned here in southeastern Sicily, as in much of rural Italy,” says Occhipinti today. Most young people were leaving the countryside around the city of Vittoria in Sicily’s Ragusa province to work in the factories of northern Italy.
Cerasuolo is made with two native red varieties, nero d’Avola and frappato, but rather than make the wine, the few growers who remained in the area sold their over-ripened grapes to manufacturers of concentrated musts. They, in turn, sold these musts to wine producers in northern Italy and France who wanted to beef up their more delicate offerings.
From Primitive to Modern
In the beginning, the three friends had a shoestring budget, and in the basic cellars at their disposal they crushed grapes by foot and fermented the wine in a large concrete vat, using no technology whatsoever. They sold the resulting bottles of Cerasuolo di Vittoria to local shops under the name COS, which derives from the first initial of each of their surnames.
Encouraged by the positive response from the locals, the trio continued their project during their university years, studying winemaking on top of their course work – architecture for Occhipinti and Cilia, and medicine for Strano.
After graduating, they carried on with their winemaking venture. They also participated in the stylistic upheavals of this period, traveling to California, and for a while they adopted a more international approach to winemaking.
“In 1983, we bought Angelo Gaja’s used barriques to age our wines,” explains Occhipinti. "Then, in the late 1980's, we started using new barriques."
Critics took notice of the firm’s wines – as did other grape growers in the area, who began making Cerasuolo di Vittoria in their own right.
Starting in the mid-1990's, the area has undergone a full-blown renaissance. Thanks in large part to the success of COS, there are now nearly 40 producers of Cerasuolo di Vittoria, and in 2005 the wine was elevated to DOCG status. It is Sicily’s only DOCG-regulated wine – an impressive achievement given that three decades ago the wine industry teetered on extinction.
But just as the area’s winemaking boom began, Occhipinti and his partners had a revelation.
“In the mid-1990's, we opened up some of our earliest bottles and compared them to our more recent wines," says Occhipinti. "We realized that the mineral notes and earthiness of our first vintages were replaced by vanilla and toast sensations of new barriques in the later wines. We also found our older vintages were so much more interesting. So we took a big step back and began recycling our barriques and investing in larger barrels made with Slavonian oak."
A Natural Direction
At about the same time, Occhipinti and Cilia – the firm’s sole owners after Cirino dedicated himself to medicine full-time – opted for an entirely natural approach to winemaking.
“In Vittoria, nero d’Avola is more elegant than in other areas, and gets its marked mineral notes from the denomination’s red, sandy and calcareous soils,” explains Occhipinti. "The soil also gives frappato its floral notes and freshness."
To keep these sensations pure, the COS winemakers use no chemicals in the vineyards, and adhere to the principles of biodynamic agriculture. In the cellars, they eschew selected yeasts and do not filter or fine their wines.
In 2000, they started experimenting with large clay amphorae, heralding the birth of Pithos, their cult wine. Made from nero d’Avola and frappato, Pithos IGT is fermented and aged entirely in these large clay vessels buried in the ground, and is one of the most fascinating wines coming out of Italy. It possesses an intense earthiness, with floral, truffle and meaty aromas combined with an exceedingly elegant palate that boasts a remarkable purity of fruit and intense mineral notes. They also make a complex and mineral-driven Pithos Bianco from grecanico (garganega) vinified entirely in amphorae.
In the firm’s new cellars – finished in 2007 – COS ferments in resin-lined concrete vats. Depending on the wine, aging occurs in large concrete barrels or clay. Their Cerasuolo di Vittoria – also marked by earthiness and minerality as well as concentrated fruit and spice – is aged in Slavonian casks. But Pithos is the firm’s calling card and to this end COS has 150 clay amphorae.
“Like wood, clay allows the wine to breathe but without imparting wood sensations. This allows us to make wine that best expresses its vineyard and terroir,” says Occhipinti, who concedes that the concept behind amphorae is their “extraordinary simplicity – the way the best things in life should be.”
The most popular Azienda Agricola COS wines and their prices on Wine-Searcher (in USD, ex-tax per 750ml bottle):