Azienda Agricola COS, founded in 1980, is one of Sicily’s most well known wineries. Few, however are aware that their wines are natural wines which are extremely low in sulphites and are mainly aged in amphoras (see above photo) like in the old days.
I met one of the winemakers of COS, Giusto Occhipinti, at the Vini Birre Ribelli fair organised in Brussels for the first time this weekend, tasting all their wines and discovering what makes them different from other winemakers in Italy and the world.
This was the first stand I visited and what was immediately distinct is that unlike common practice they recommend that you start the tasting with the red wines to be followed by their two white wines, because as they say, the white wines are made in a similar fashion to the red wines and hence have a distinct character.
But before I report on the tasting, a bit about the story of this Sicilian winemaker from Vittoria, a small Sicilian village in the South East of Sicily.
The winery was founded by Giambattista Titta, Giusto Occhipinti and Rino Strano, three friends who wanted to recreate wines in the same way as their ancestors. I asked Giusto why COS had taken a non-interventionist approach to winemaking. “In a way it is the result of our ignorance,” he told me quite humbly. “But then we developed a conscience which led us to take the biodynamic route and then one where we intervene in the least possible manner in the wine production.”
What strikes you when you taste their wines is how different they are to the normal Sicilian wines which are normally high in alcohol and power. In this case, the wines of COS are rather light despite the fact that the winery is based in the South East of Sicily where the summers can be incredibly hot.
COS is today synonymous with the Cerasuolo di Vittoria which is a wine made of Nero D’Avola and Frappato grapes. This wine is specific to the province of Ragusa as well as parts of Caltanisetta and Catania. This ancient wine region dates back to the third century BC. The Cerasuolo di Vittoria began much later around 1607.
The winery is obsessed with ancient practices, and I was told that on a trip to Georgia, the winemakers came across amphoras and this was the moment when they decided to use clay jars dug in the earth to age their wines. “It was one of those moments when you see an ancient technique and you realise that you want to use it,” the winemaker told me. The first shipment of amphoras arrived from Spain in September 2000 and it was then that the winery created its well know wine Pithos.
COS has very distinct and recognisable bottles which Giusto told me were bottles that had been used in Sicily many years ago.
We started the tasting with the Nero Di Lupo 2012, a 100% Nero D’Avola which was surprising in its lightness. This is aged for 18 months in concrete and glass tanks. On the nose it had all the characteristics of the Nero D’Avola but this was a fresh wine which was low in alcohol. A perfect entry-level wine.
This was followed by the Cerasuolo 2011, a blend of Nero D’Avola (60%) and Frappato (40%). This wine, like the previous one was surprising in its freshness and its low alcohol level. It is aged between 18 and 24 months in concrete and glass tanks and the average age of the vines is 26 years. Like all the wines we tasted from COS, these were very low in sulphites.
We then moved on to the Pithos Rosso 2012, made from the same blend of Nero D’Avola and Frappato. The difference between this wine and the previous one is that this is aged in terracotta amphoras with a capacity of 400 litres and 250 litres. This wine was much more complex than the previous one with a very pleasant nose and exceptional balance.
We tried the 2010 Delle Fontane. This had been aged for three years in cement and glass tanks. It was more tannic then the previous wine though still had excellent balance. This is a 100% Nero d’Avola from a single vineyard.
The next wine was the Contrada 2007 which was our favourite wine. It is a 100% Nero D’Avola made from 55 year old vines. It has a great nose but still light on alcohol compared to similar Sicilian wines. This is the only wine which is aged for 24 months in large French oak barrels, six months in steel tanks followed by 12 months in the bottle.
We then moved on to the two white wines. The first, the 2011 Pithos Bianco made from 100% Grecanico, which at 11.5% is surprisingly low in alcohol. It has a beautiful nose and is fermented with the skins on giving it a very amber colour.
Our next wine was the Rami 2012 which is a blend of 50% Grecanico and 50% Insolia which is more aromatic then the first wine. We finished off the tasting with a 2003 Moscato di Noto, a splendid sweet wine which is made with grapes that are left to dry on the vines.