Clay Pots or Lunch?

Cos1 Cos2

I saw a bottle of COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria on the shelf of Grape and Grind, one of our excellent local independent wine merchants, recently and I eagerly handed over my £16.99 to buy it. Not just because I knew the wine to be good but also, it brought back memories of a visit to the producer in the very early 2000s.

My wife and I were on a guided tour of the vineyards of Sicily and our group arrived at COS late one morning. The itinerary said something about a brief tour of the winery followed by a tasting and lunch. It didn’t quite work out that way!

We were greeted by the owner/winemaker who was keen to tell us about a recent visit he’d made to Georgia in which he’d seen wine made in the ancient way: putting crushed grapes in a clay pot, sealing it, burying it in the ground and leaving the wine to ferment naturally. This was the way all wine should be made and he’d bought a selection of clay pots that he just had to show us:

amphora at COSAs time passed, our initial interest in his clay pots was overtaken by a desire to move on to the tasting and then – as it was now approaching 3 o’clock – to lunch.

But, I must have forgiven him for our hunger, as I’ve been a keen follower of COS wines ever since.

In fact, the bottle I opened was not made in one of his clay pots, but in tank. An unusually intense nose of black fruits greeted me on drawing the cork followed, on tasting, by a really savoury mixture of cooked plums and prunes – a delightful wine, strongly flavoured but in no way heavy; in some aspects like a lighter version of a good Barolo.

This clearly is a wine made with the passion he showed that day and, even after all these years, it is this impression that floods back every time I open one of his wines.

Vines Must Struggle

It’s often said that the best wines are made when the vines have to struggle. That may surprise you but, if you make life too easy for them, with rich soils, plenty of sunshine and warmth and liberal amounts of water, your grapes will ripen quickly, but not pick up much flavour. Or, the vine will make plenty of leaf growth, shading your grapes so they won’t ripen properly. Either way, the result will be nothing special.

But, plant your vineyard on poor, rocky soils, where the vines have to fight to get every little drain of moisture and the picture is very different, assuming, that is, that you are somewhere with enough sunshine and warmth to ripen the crop.

And, of all the fine vineyards of the world, one of the best examples of this kind of challenging terrain is found in eastern Sicily, on the slopes of the still active volcano, Mount Etna. Amazingly, despite the constant threat of volcanic eruptions, there are vineyards planted all over the mountain and the growers have to face the fact that, to make the wine they want, they need to accept also the danger.

Etna Rosso

It’s something I thought about when I opened a bottle of Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Rosso recently (Wine Society, £12.50). Grown in volcanic soil overlooking the sea, about 650 metres (2000 feet) up, it’s made from a blend of traditional local grape varieties, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. Delicious and elegant, it’s a red with lovely bitter cherry flavours together with hints of thyme and other fresh herbs. Although rich and satisfying, it’s not at all heavy and would make an excellent accompaniment to red meat, game or hard cheeses.

But, when you open a bottle, do think of the struggle the vines – and the growers – have been through before this wine gets to your glass.