Sicily’s sun is rising in the wine world, due in large part to Az. Agr. COS, who, over the past 30 years, have co-authored a grand new chapter in the island’s rich viticultural history. With the dedication to expressing the island’s unique terroir, COS and other like-minded producers have spearheaded the steep uphill battle to reverse numerous systemic issues that have held Sicily back in the past.
With its long growing seasons and dry, sun-drenched climate, Sicily is a paradise for wine grapes, with the potential to produce voluptuous whites and big, burly reds, deep in color and high in alcohol. Mainland growers have historically looked to Sicily for grapes that would add color and tannin to weaker wines. Britain capitalized on Marsala production in the 18th century, and in the 19th, French merchants depended on Sicily to help bolster falling domestic production during the blight of phylloxera. A tragic side-effect of these vibrant export markets, and one whose effects continue to the present, is that the island’s wine industry has emphasized producing the maximum quantity of bulk grapes over the highest quality of bottled wine.
Compounding this unfortunate and shortsighted notion was the plight of the island’s poverty-stricken working class. When the large, feudal land holdings were broken up and distributed among the sharecroppers, another problem arose. Those farmers had the knowledge and skills to grow the grapes, but lacked the resources to establish winemaking facilities, thus the growing bulk export market. The phylloxera epidemic finally hit Sicily in the 1880’s, truly wiping out production over great swaths of island vineyards.
The cooperative movement began in Italy out of the ashes of phylloxera toward the end of the 19th century. The coop structure allowed small farmers to join forces, sharing the costs and profits of production to become more competitive. When supply began to outweigh demand, cooperatives found support in government subsidies. In some cases even into the 1980’s, subsidies paid for excess grapes or distilled juice, compelling cooperatives to continue to over-produce, rather than investing in the long-term projects needed to break the cycle.
It was in this climate of runaway plonk wine production in the late 1970’s that three friends, Giambattista Cilia, Giusto Occhipinti, and Cerio Strano, met and founded Azienda Agricola COS (see what they did there?). The trio at COS found themselves at the center of a small wave of growers who wanted to see dramatic changes in Sicily’s industry. Their goals with COS were to recreate the viticultural traditions of their families, and to help foster a new dialogue for Sicilian wines in the market. The friends purchased a four hectare property from Celia’s family in the town of Bastonaca, and made their first vintage of just 1400 bottles in 1980. A few years into the project, Strano left and returned to school, and was replaced at COS by his sister Pinuccia. In 1995, Pinuccia sold her part to Giambattista and Giusto, who continue operations today. They now farm 20 hectares, and produce 9 different wines.
Since its inception, the winery has been both forward-thinking and respectful of tradition in its philosophies and practices. COS was quick to adopt organic and biodynamic practices in the late 1980’s, and was instrumental in helping to establish the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG in their region, the only DOCG in Sicily. They remain open to experimentation and continue to amend their approach in winemaking. They were among the first to purchase French barriques for aging, a direction they quickly abandoned in favor of concrete. In 2000, they were again among the first on the island to experiment with vinification in large 400L Greek amphorae, which they continue to use for some wines, despite regulations that prohibit the use of these containers at the DOCG level.
At COS, we are not interested in representing our land by cabernet or merlot, but by grapes that, for centuries, have represented our territory. Producers should not necessarily follow what the market is asking for, as the market tends to homogenize. Wine is life and for this reason, diversity. – Giusto Occhipinti
Tomorrow night’s lineup (10/10):
2012 Terre Siciliane IGP “RamÌ”
Made with equal parts inzolia and grecanico, skin macerated for ten days and aged in cement for nine months before bottling, this white is balanced, with equal parts fruit-driven freshness and serious structure.
2013 Terre Siciliane IGP Frappato
100% frappato fermented in cement and aged in bottle for a year before release. Full of bright strawberry fruit, with a cheerful, elegant finish.
2013 Terre Siciliane “Nero di Lupo”
100% nero d’avola named after the same single vineyard. Fermented in concrete, aged 18-24 months. Elegant and warm with dark cherry fruit and a touch of earthy spice.
2011 Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG
40% frappato and 60% nero d’avola, made in concrete and aged 18-24 months. These two grapes compliment each other beautifully, and the result is a sultry red with bright fruit and quiet body.