Southern Italian Wines:
A Walk on the Wild Side, Part 1

It’s a Malbec world out there. Once upon a time, it was a Merlot world—and then came the movie Sideways, based on Rex Pickett’s novel of the same name. Sideways detailed the misadventures of Miles, a Pinot Noir-loving, Merlot-hating, creatively-blocked author on the wine roads of Santa Barbara County. The movie, while not a huge box office hit, rang a chord with wine drinkers who subsequently flocked to wine shops, eager to declaim, “anything but Merlot!”

Well, pardon my lack of excitement over the current consumer wine choice du jour, Malbec: this writer is not impressed. Now come at me asking for Primitivo, Aglianico, Fiano, Gaglioppo or be still, my beating heart, Nerello Mascalese or Carricante, and I might just kiss you! Scared? You should be.

The wines of Southern Italy are as diverse and challenging as any wine area can be. Like any worthy endeavor, however, a little time spent investigating the subject pays great dividends. Did I mention there are some insane values to be had here?

Chin up. It’s wild and wooly out there, but you’re in experienced hands. Let’s take a walk on the wild side.

Geography

With any new exploration of an unfamiliar area, it pays to spend a bit of time on geography. For our purposes, we will concentrate on five regions of Southern Italy, basically the lower boot and the football:  Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Apulia (Puglia), and Sicily.

Basilicata

Basilicata, largely unknown even now, is a mountainous and dirt-poor region, tucked squarely in the middle of nowhere and landlocked, to its everlasting detriment.  Its fame is derived solely through the character of its single noble grape, Aglianico. To be precise, it’s Aglianico del Vulture, from the specific location, Monte Vulture (”voolTOOReh”, not “VUL-cher”), a long dormant volcano. It is a rustic wine of considerable power, capable of maturing and developing in the bottle for upwards of ten to fifteen years. The characteristic flavors of the Basilicata expression of Aglianico marry cherry, dark berry, chocolate, leather and herbs onto full-bodied frames with considerable tannins, and, in their infancy a certain chewy rusticity.  Producers of note include Elena Fucci, Cantine del Notaio, Terre degli Svevi , Grifalco and Terre dei Re.

Campania

Alone among the five regions considered in this column, Campania is equally renowned for the sterling quality of its racy, exotic whites, as for its own rendition of Aglianico, the most spectacular of which are the bottlings labeled Taurasi. If for no other reason, Campania would be famous – or is that infamous? – as the region blown to bits by Mount Vesuvio (Vesuvius) in AD 79. Pompeii or Herculaneum, anyone?  On a more pleasant note, Campania is the home of, among other things, the Blue Grotto, the Isle of Capri (“COP-ree”, by the way!), and San Marzano tomatoes, legally the only tomatoes permitted for the sauce of a true Neapolitan pizza.  Enough small talk! What about the grapes and wines?

We’ll start with the whites, since there are so many of them. In no particular order, they are:  Fiano, Greco di Tufo, Coda di Volpe and Falanghina. The beauty of these four varietals is that they seem, well, interchangeable; that just makes things easier. They all share a common volcanic heritage, as well as a history extending for some two thousand years plus. Whether it is a floral, honey-scented, chalky-herby Greco di Tufo you are tasting, or an intensely blossomy, opulently floral, mineral-tasting Fiano di Avellino, these wines are consistently well-made, represent consistently great values and are consistently delicious, so easy to pair with everything fish or fowl. And what names these grapes have: Coda di Volpe, ”Fox tail” in Italian, is so-named because its grape clusters resemble the bushy tail of a fox. Extending the name game further, the colorfully-named Coda di Volpe is the prime grape of the famed white version of Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, or “Tears of Christ”. Finally, the Falanghina, a more delicate white, is thought to have its name derived from the Latin “falangae” or stakes that support the grapes in a vineyard. Interestingly enough, the eruption of Vesuvio left perfect records of the grapes that were planted at the time – what type of grapes, how deep, how far apart – all perfectly and permanently captured in ash and lava.

The red grapes of Campania are predominantly a class of two: Piedirosso and Aglianico. Piedirosso translates to “red feet”, apparently, a reference to the bottom of the Piedirosso vine which were red in appearance and resembled the red feet of a pigeon. While I don’t find this red especially complex or challenging, I must admit that at its very best, in the wine called Galardi Terra di Lavoro, it is a sumptuous, sleek, even profound wine.

Pride of place among the red wines of Campania, however, must easily be accorded to the grape called Aglianico. Yes, this is the same grape that grows so successfully in Basilicata. As one might guess, the Aglianico of both regions, share some things in common. The cherry and dark berry character so common among the Basilicata bottlings is here intact. So too are the herb nuances, the leathery character and hints of chocolate. Where the Campania Aglianico begins to distinguish itself from its cousin in Basilicata is in tannin profile and overall elegance. Aglianico is tannic, whatever the provenance.  In fact, it can be downright brutal in its youth. Curiously enough, this seldom is the case in the Aglianico from Campania. I have a hunch it has much to do with the rearing of the wines, the timing of the harvest, and just plain better winemaking facilities and technique.

In Campania, Aglianico is produced in the provinces of Benevento, Taburno and Falerno del Massico. Generally less full-bodied and tannic than those made in or around the village of Taurasi, these often offer the ambitious, informed consumer considerable bang for the buck, with most of these wines coming in at or just under the twenty-dollar range. Such is the historic importance and favored status long enjoyed by the wines of Taurasi, that they are  recognized as the greatest expression of Aglianico in the world. Except for the beastliest of Riserva bottlings, a truly fine Taurasi is a marvel of Italian craftsmanship, a liquid Lamborghini in a wine-red robe, powered by huge raspberry and cherry aromas and flavors, fuel-injected by leather, smoke, herb and chocolate accents, all perfectly-calibrated, masterfully underscored by a suspension of big, firm tannins.

Finally, many writers have described the Aglianico-based Campanian reds— most particularly, Taurasi— as the “Barolo of the South”.  As Barolo is the undisputed “King” among Italian wines, any mention of the two in the same breath, only honors the red from Campania for the inherent greatness of Aglianico.

Producers to seek out include Mastroberardino, Feudi di San Gregorio, Terredora di Paolo, Pietracupa, Cantine del Taburno and Vesevo.

This concludes Part One of our breakdown on Southern Italian Wines. You’ve seen by now, I hope, how friendly these wines can be – wild and wooly, yes, but with great and fascinating back stories. Our romp through southern  Italy concludes in Part Two with a trio of regions – Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily- as well as a host of volcanoes, gods and monsters and, of course,  some unforgettable wines!