Southern Italian Wines: A Walk on the Wild Side, Part 2

Written by Bill Leebens

Last time out

Part 1 launched our safari through the hinterlands of Southern Italy, specifically through the mostly unfamiliar region of Basilicata — mountainous, poor, almost unapproachably landlocked — and took us into the very popular, and by comparison, almost universally-known and much-beloved region of Campania.  What these two regions, in common, offer to the savvy consumer is a bounty of world-class red wine, made with the ancient and unknown Aglianico grape.  It is no understatement when I state that the Aglianico is perhaps the greatest “unknown” red wine grape in the wine world.

Singularly from the fertile slopes of Campania’s Mount Vesuvius, a bevy of ancient, racy, exotic and mineral-tinged white wines emerge. These are vivid, colorfully-named wines such as Coda di Volpe (“Fox-tail”) and Lacryma Christi (“Tears of Christ”) and simultaneously, somewhat musical, as well: Fiano di Avellino, Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, wine names that roll off the tongue almost as easily as they go down with a plate of the regional cuisine.

For our next foray into Southern Italy, we will make a  stop in Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot, then continue onward to Apulia, the heel of the Italian boot.  For the concluding part of our romp through Southern Italy, we will head to Sicily, where a new star is rising on the slopes of an old and very active volcano.


I first visited Calabria in 1996, was immediately depressed by the poverty of the region. Everywhere I went seemed like a ghost town. Houses, envisioned, dreamed of and started, during happier times by happier and more optimistic people, existed now as still-borne mockeries of these dreams, empty frames, collapsing shells, twisted and misshapen metal, abandoned and forgotten to the unrelenting, march of time.  It was all very disturbing to me, a cold slap of reality across my face, a reminder of just how privileged an existence I led in my own life. Whereas I expected to see this misery and hopelessness reflected in the culture of Calabria, instead I saw hope and vibrancy, awareness and passion.  I saw the very best side of the human spirit.

Defiantly Spicy

First and fore-most of the things I had heard about Calabrese culture was their passionate, almost maniacal love affair with the pepper.  Whispers had circulated among our small group that the wine-making brother duo, Antonio and Nicodemo Librandi, could, and would eat the hottest peppers imaginable, smile at you and politely ask for more. Our group had even assembled a small assortment of peppers to test this out, culminating in an especially fiery pair of habaneros that burned my tongue just to think about. Well, if we had intended to see a man (or two men) die gruesomely — a death by pepper — we were sorely disappointed.  Our hot peppers did not even elicit so much as a flash, a surreptitious wince of discomfort, let alone pain of any kind.


Heck, If the Calabrese people can eat peppers like so, then it stands to reason that their cuisine is spicy and its wines somewhat tannic and alcoholic to match them.  True and true.  Indeed, the Calabrese are renowned for a cuisine that embraces garlic — a whole lots of it! — sun-dried peppers and tomatoes, red-hot chili peppers, and eggplant in everything.  As the climate is so hot and humid, the Calabrians have specialized and mastered the art of smoking of meats and sausages — all of which is to say that the cuisine of Calabria is a perfect for its one red wine grape of note: Gaglioppo (Gall-yo’po).

Gaglioppo is a hearty, large-boned wine with a characteristic roasted, spicy, berry, cherry and chocolate character, high alcohol and typically, a medium-tannic structure.  Grown in several parts of Calabria, the most interesting examples derive from the Ciro Marino, an area of low-lying hills along the region’s coast, framed by the Ionian Sea.  Producers of note include Librandi (the region’s most-famous winery), Statti, Odoardi and Tenuta Iuzzolini.

Apulia (Puglia)

The bleak poverty of Calabria stands in stark contrast to much of Apulia, or Puglia, as it is known in Italy. A beautiful region of rolling green forests, gorgeous hill-top towns capping glorious panoramic Mediterranean beaches and perfect, miles upon miles of picturesque coastlines, centuries-old charming farmhouses, wonderful old Baroque villages (Lecce), and a thriving and vital port city in Bari.  It is a visitors’ delight, a bicycler’s paradise and to many, just a paradise in general, a place where well-heeled northern Italians come to roost for the duration of their difficult winters, and to indulge their culinary tastes within a thriving food culture.  Even the wine business has prospered and matured. Once the last bastion of mediocrity, with oceans of inexpensive, barely passable plonk emerging from within its borders, Apulia is now home to some of Italy’s best wine values, with very fine, deliciously affordable reds made from such high-quality varietals as Primitivo and Negroamaro.  For the well-known wines of Salice Salentino in the southern part of Apulia, the Negroamaro is blended with another high-quality varietal called Malvasia Nera. To the north, the production zone known as Castel del Monte has long enjoyed a reputation for high-quality reds, utilizing such grapes as Bombino Nero, Aglianico (Sound familiar?), and Nero di Troia, with some producers using Cabernet (Franc and/or Sauvignon) and/or a bit of Montepulciano.  A small amount of rather interesting white wine, Chardonnay-based is made here too by Tormaresca, but is difficult to find. It may be the finest white wine in all of Apulia!

The taste of Apulian red wine from the south might best be described as a taste of light and sun.  Three grapes dominate the Apulian landscape here:  Primitivo, Negroamaro and to a lesser extent, Malvasia Nera. The grape we know of as Primitivo is genetically the same grape as that of the grape known in California as Zinfandel.  For a long time, in fact, the Italian version was thought to be the “Mother Grape” of Zinfandel. Further research by ampelographers (grape detectives) uncovered the real “Mother” finally.  It is now official: Crljenak Kastelanski.  Being genetically the same does not mean that the wines from one area are going to taste exactly like the ones from another area however. There are winemaking styles to consider, soil variations, climate conditions — endless variables exist. Still, the family resemblances are striking. The Apulian Primitivo, like its American counterpart, offers up signature flower, cherry, berry and spice aromas, and is very sensitive to high temperatures.  Furthermore, as with most of the”New World” interpretations of “Old World” wines, the warmer California climate, coupled with the prevailing “bigger, riper, better” mantra, means that the “New World” renditions will typically be a degree or more — sometimes two — in alcohol.   Sometimes, bigger is better.  Right off the tip of my head, I can list half a dozen producers in California consistently producing profound examples of Zinfandel, in a style not even challenged by their Italian brethren.  At the same time however, it must be said that the California “interpretations” that I alluded to are, on average twice to three times the price of the average Italian Primitivo, most of which can be had for about $15.  Unless you are going to pay my tab for me, I will opt for the Italian everytime!

Negroamaro, “black bitter” is another important grape of the Apulian south.  Some argue that the name was coined to describe the wine’s deep colors and the corresponding bitter or savory characteristic.  That’s one interpretation. I prefer “dark black.” For that is exactly what this grape is about: dark color, medium-to-full tannins and luscious dark-berry fruit accented by allspice and cinnamon.

The last of the triumvirate that covers the grapes of the Apulian south is Malvasia Nera. A black-skinned relative in the Malvasia family, it is seldom bottled solo, though it was even part of Chianti’s “recipe” once upon a time. Now it is utilized mainly to add perfume to the Salice Salentino blend.

The first established area of Apulia, the production zone known as Castel del Monte, is, after 46 years of regulation, still the best.  There are three different “DOCG” zones (“Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita” — the top-quality designation a particular area or zone can be awarded).  Of the three DOCG zones, one is awarded to the Castel del Monte Bombino Nero zone which produces Rose or Rosato wines, one to the Castel del Monte Nero di Troia production zone, which specifically produces Riserva level wines, and another, simply called Castel del Monte Riserva, which allows Riserva level wines made only with Cabernet Sauvignon or Aglianico (ding!).  The area is famous for the well-preserved Castel del Monte, from which the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederic II held sway in the late 13th Century.  Notable producers of this region include Taurino (Mimmo Taurino championed the south when it was uncool to do so.), Cantine Due Palme, Chiaromonte, Leone di Castris, and Accademmia Racemi in the south.  Producers to seek out in the northern part of Apulia include Rivera, Tenute Rubino, Tormaresca, and Tenuta Viglione.

Stay tuned in two more weeks for the last part of our sojourn into the unknown hinterlands of Southern Italy.  Next up is Sicily, and that means gods and monsters and rumbling volcanoes!  See you soon!

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