Central & Southern Italy: A World Waiting to be Discovered
For many years discussions around fine
Italian wines centered around Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, the
high-end Tuscan reds and Amarone. That was pretty much it, and for good reason,
as most of what came out of the Center and South was undistinguished, to say
the least. That is no longer the case. Recent years have seen an explosion in
the number of high- quality wines from the Center and South. Take it from someone
who tastes thousands of wines from Italy each and every year; today the best
Taurasis, Aglianicos, Sagrantinos, Montepulcianos,
Cannonaus, Nero d’Avolas, Nerello Mascaleses
and a host of other compelling reds are world-class wines that are more than
capable of giving the big boys from Italy and elsewhere a run for their money.
The whites can be equally fascinating and just as diverse although they tend to
be wines for near-term enjoyment rather than extended cellaring. Just as
importantly, the wines from the Center and South deliver considerable value.
The following pages also contain notes on dozens of delicious, highly
pleasing wines that can be had for less than $25.
Readers will find an impressive number of
gorgeous wines from Umbria this year. By far the most interesting appellation
is Montefalco, where Sagrantino and Sangiovese yield wines of notable
character. Not surprisingly, Montefalco has become one of the hottest areas of
interest and is attracting significant new investments. Sagrantino was
traditionally a sweet wine drunk during the Easter holidays, but today
Sagrantino is better known as a dry table wine that has surpassed its
eccentric, sweet cousin. The best Sagrantinos are wonderfully complex, structured
wines that are emerging as some of the most intriguing reds in Italy.
Sangiovese, the historic variety for dry wines in Montefalco, is the base for
Montefalco Rosso, which incorporates Sagrantino and a host of other red grapes.
Of course, the sweet, or passito, version of Sagrantino is still
produced and the finest versions are compelling juice. Umbria also excels with
racy, delicious reds made wholly or in part with international varieties. The
whites are good, but rarely as exciting as the reds.
Readers who have visited Campania know this
is one of the most evocative regions not just in Italy, but anywhere in the
world. Campania’s rich cultural fabric encompasses history, breathtaking
natural beauty, art and of course, wine, all of which are woven together to a
degree that few places in the world can match. Wine has been made here for at
least several thousand years, and the virtues of Campanian wines were extolled
by the Roman poets. Perhaps the most important secular trend in Campania over
the last decade has been the emergence of small growers who have begun to
bottle their own wines rather than sell fruit or bulk wine to the region’s
larger wineries. Readers may not recognize all of the producers in this article
yet, but these pages contain notes on dozens of world-class wines just waiting
to be discovered.
Campania’s volcanic soils yield wines of
uncommon elegance and personality as expressed through the voice of an array of
compelling indigenous varieties. Among the whites, Fiano di Avellino, Greco di
Tufo and Falanghina are all capable of profound wines. Taurasi, often referred
to as the “Barolo of the South,” is the supreme expression of the late-
ripening Aglianico, Campania’s most famous red grape. Over the last few decades
much work has gone into reclaiming the ancient pre-phylloxera clones of
Aglianico and the results have been striking. More recent efforts to fully
understand the potential of Casavecchia and Pallagrello Nero point to
significant potential as growers learn how to get the most out of these
indigenous red varieties. In short, Campania offers one of the broadest
palettes of shade and nuance readers are likely to encounter anywhere. At their
finest, these are among the most extraordinary wines being made anywhere.
The most important region within Campania is
Irpinia, which is home to three prestigious DOCGs; Fiano di Avellino, Greco di
Tufo and Taurasi; and the Irpinia DOC. Taurasi in particular is the most
ageworthy, complex and structured of the wines made from Aglianico. The
province of Caserta boasts an intriguing mix of the old and the new. This part
of Campania includes the historic Falerno DOC, where estates like Villa
Matilde, Vestini Campagnano and Terre del Principe have worked to fulfill the
potential of a number of once-obscure native grapes. Caserta is also home to a
number of IGTs made from the slopes of the Roccamonfina vineyard, including the
wines of Galardi and Masseria Felicia. Just north of Irpinia lies Sannio, which
includes the Sannio and Aglianico del Taburno DOCs and the Beneventano IGTs.
Aglianico here is decidedly more approachable and easygoing than that found in
Irpinia. The province of Salento, located at the southern part of Campania, is
most famous for one wine, the incomparable Montevetrano.
It is tempting to lump all Sicilian wines
into one category, yet the island is home to an incredibly rich variety of
grapes, terroirs and microclimates. I continue to be thrilled with the quality
of the wines coming from the Etna, a region that is quickly establishing itself
as one of the most fascinating in the world. These high altitude vineyards and
volcanic soils are proving capable of yielding extraordinary wines. The main
red variety on the Etna is Nerello Mascalese, a grape that has much in common with
both Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo in its textural weight and flavor profile. Nero
d’Avola, Sicily’s other important red variety, is capable of many shades of
expression, from slightly rustic wines to those that reveal the grape’s more
refined qualities. The area around Noto and Pachino is especially well-suited
to Nero d’Avola. Among the whites Carricante and Inzolia are worthy of note.
Sicily also produces a wide array of dessert wines, including delicious
Marsalas and wines made from air-dried Zibibbo. International varieties, both
red and white, grow exceptionally well in Sicily, but it is the rare wine that
truly expresses something special.
These wines from the Marche were among the
most pleasant surprises of my extensive tastings of the wines of Central Italy.
Verdicchio, the region’s top white, is made in a variety of styles that
showcases this grape’s versatility. Readers will find everything from fresh,
crisp versions to bottlings made in a late- harvest style that show the
extraordinary richness and depth Verdicchio is capable of. A little known fact
is that Verdicchio can also age very nicely. Although I am not sure the wines
necessarily improve, the best wines can develop beautifully in bottle. Among
the reds, the Montepulciano-based Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno often yield
delicious wines that can be had for very reasonable prices. A number of
higher-end reds from both international and indigenous varieties rounds out the
fascinating variety of top-flight wines being made in the Marche today.
Abruzzo is one of my favorite regions in
Southern Italy. The wines are not only delicious, but in many cases remain
reasonably priced as well. Montepulciano is the main red variety, and is a
grape that is proving to be quite versatile. When raised in large, neutral oak
the flavor profile resembles that of Sangiovese, with plenty of red cherries,
tobacco and earthiness, but with perhaps a touch more plumpness. Montepulciano
can handle French oak as well, and the best of the more modern- styled wines are incredibly appealing. Best of all, Montepulciano
is a great food wine. Trebbiano is the main white grape in Abruzzo, and while
the best examples can be delicious (and also age well) they are few and far
between. In recent years the newly re-discovered Pecorino has shown itself to
be capable of very interesting wines as well. Lastly, Abruzzo is home to
Cerasuolo, which is possibly Italy’s most consistently outstanding appellation
for superb, pedigreed roses.
Sardinia is one of the great undiscovered
oenological gems of the world. The crisp, aromatic Vermentinos are ideal wines
for drinking alongside fish and seafood dishes while Carignano, Cannonau
(Grenache), Bovale Sardo and a host of other grape varieties yield red wines of
notable character. Many of the vineyards on the island contain a heavy
component of sand, which protected the vines against the spread of phylloxera.
The wines made from these old, ungrafted plants are often nothing less than
spectacular. To make things even better, many of Sardinia’s wines remain very
Puglia has attracted a lot of attention
recently. The indigenous Primitivo and Negroamaro can yield reds loaded with
regional character and complexity. Both grapes are well worth discovering and
will open readers’ eyes and palates to a unique facet of Italy’s rich
oenological landscape. Aglianico has also given promising results. Prices
remain quite low, making Puglia one of the best sources in Italy for
value-priced wines, especially the reds. Much of Puglia is physically striking,
with gorgeous, rustic landscapes, beautiful coastlines and raw ingredients for
the kitchen that offer incredible purity. The culture of food and wine in the
region’s restaurants and hotels is still very much a work in progress, to put
it kindly. Still, Puglia remains the region of the Deep South with the most
upside potential. There is plenty to look forward to as producers increasingly
set their sights on making better and better wines.
Basilicata is one of the emerging regions of
Southern Italy. TheAglianicosofBasilicata Aglianico is the main red grape in
Basilicata and the major appellation for important wines. Vulture is the tend
to be rounder and more accessible than those of Campania.
Calabria is another of the less well-known
regions in southern Italy. The main indigenous red grape is Gaglioppo, which
can be found alone or blended with other varieties. Each year I find a few gems
from Calabria that are truly delicious and well worth the effort of seeking out.
I suppose technically Emilia Romagna could be
considered a region of the North rather than Center/South. The region is best
known for the sparkling Lambrusco. Most versions are forgettable, but a few
distinctive examples were reviewed in the Best Buys article. Emilia Romagna
also produces a handful of other distinctive wines from both indigenous and