My Grandfather’s Wine
By Nick Mangiafico Wilson
For the past several years, my grandfather has insisted upon only drinking one wine. Not wines from one region, or even different wines made by one producer—he will only drink one specific cuvée (pardon the French) from the area of Ragusa in southeastern Sicily. Four years ago this Christmas, I brought him just one bottle of this dark, tart, lively, and intense wine that I got while on a trip to our ancestral hometown with my younger cousins. To be more precise, I brought home a suitcase full of wine that we enjoyed together, full of Etna Rosso, Frappato, and Cerasuolo di Vittoria. He enjoyed all of them and replied with something like a polite “very nice.” And then he tried Siccagno.
Last month my grandfather turned 90. The son of Sicilian immigrants to the United States, Edgar Mangiafico was raised in Virginia and Georgia, but took frequent trips to the Bronx to stay with aunts, uncles and his 37 first cousins. Maybe his most beloved of these relatives was Ziu Turiddu (Uncle Salvatore in Sicilian); Gramps has regaled me many times with warm memories of listening to Yankees games on the radio, his uncle’s cheap White Owl cigar smoke swirling around the driveway in Parkchester. Everyone in the family loved Turiddu, and everyone in the family loved Turiddu’s wine.
Long before I ended up working as a wine professional, I heard stories about the inimitable wines that were made by a few of my older relatives. They took on a legendary, almost magical quality in my mind—I never got to try them, born after the last bottles had been enjoyed–and when stories would be told about them I couldn’t help but think “what did they taste like?” These stories, by the way, always seemed to be told in order to say “this wine is nice, but man, remember Johnny Iacino’s wine?” Nothing ever compared to Johnny Iacino’s wine. I became preoccupied with understanding this precious experience that I had missed.
By the time I was able to accompany my younger cousins (a pitiful total of 2 to my grandfather’s 37) to see our ancestral homeland, I had become passionate about the wines of Sicily. Particularly in eastern Sicily, in the areas around Mount Etna and Vittoria, there is evidence of a 4,000 year-old-wine making tradition. At many points in both ancient and modern history, Sicilian wines were prized luxury items, sought after around the known world of those times. However, due to several tragic historical dynamics, including the lazy and self-indulgent aristocracy in the 1800s epitomized in Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, as well as the parasitic corruption that would grow out of those aristocrats’ middle-managers in the form of the Mafia, this proud and ancient tradition was nearly lost. It was not until the 1980s that we again see producers like Giusto Occhipinti at COS in Vittoria, and Giuseppe Benanti on Mount Etna produce high-quality wines like those from history and sell them on the market.
The return to excellence that we see beginning in the 1980s continues and builds, leading to not only more producers, but even new laws recognizing the excellence of Sicilian wine, as in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG. A quick primer: the DOC, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata system, is the Italian government’s classification system that started in 1963 in order to specify what grapes are used in what regions and how the wine of that region must be made, as well as to guarantee their quality. DOCG is the highest level of quality in this system, and there was not a DOCG in Sicily until 2005! Since then, we have continued to see the spread of this movement, which is marked not only by excellent wine, but also by the sustainable farming practices they use, and the economic opportunity they represent for young people who otherwise may have moved away.
As an enthusiastic amateur wine lover in 2018, there was only one winemaker I was
determined to see. Now, at the end of 2022, she is perhaps the most globally recognized winemaker in Sicily: Arianna Occhipinti. I was lucky to visit the Azienda Agricola Arianna Occhipinti, and luckier still to have arrived late from the nearby town of Noto: the large, apparently cartoonishly rude group of Americans we would have joined had just left. Arianna was unfortunately not there, but joined us briefly by phone as my cousins and I sat with one of her staff, eating olives in her kitchen, and tasting through her art. These wines are poems, exquisite metaphors for the beauty of the land and the intention of the winemaker who grew from the same soil as her fruit. I’ll avoid writing about what each of her wines is like, but I will tell you about one: Siccagno, the only wine my grandfather will drink.
Siccagno is made entirely from the Nero d’Avola grape, which is native to the region and is named for a coastal village to the east. The wine is named after a Sicilian idiom used both for someone with gaunt, sucked-in cheeks, as well as a type of tomato–but that also seems to be used more generally for something delicious. It is a beautiful dark purple, characteristic of this grape variety; but unlike most Nero d’Avola you will find in the United States, Siccagno is tart, with a balance between its raisinated fruit character and bright acidity—the way these wines have traditionally tasted in this region. This brightness lends itself to pairing with seafood–think grilled tuna or octopus with caponata–as well as the acidity of tomato-based pasta dishes. It is not inexpensive (Gramps doesn’t drink much anymore), and for a few good reasons: it is made in small quantities, with grapes harvested and sorted for quality by hand; it is one of very few wines of its kind imported to the United States; and because Stanley Tucci made Arianna Occhipinti even more famous by putting her on CNN, which I’ve written him a stern email about.
This wine reminds my grandfather so much of his family’s wine, of the all-day feasts on folding tables stretching across the house, of the flavors and voices of his youth, it’s no wonder that he’s no longer interested in other wines.
My grandfather’s family comes from the town of Floridia, just to the west of Siracusa on the eastern coast of Sicily. This places us just to the south of Mount Etna, and just to the north and east of Vittoria. I love both of these regions and their wines. Like so much of Sicily, of being Sicilian, it feels like an embarrassment of beauty to have two of the world’s great wine growing regions—with completely different grapes, different soils, different flavors–so close to one another, on one half of one island. But with our history of struggle, of external oppression and internal strife, the resurgence of these winemaking traditions feels like a profound moment. And it is a moment that we are only just beginning to enjoy.