It’s been a while since we’ve thought of southern Italian wine this way, but when some shady characters in Palermo were caught shipping white wine up north to be “turned” into pinot grigio from the Veneto, it was a reminder of how far the region has come. What was once a common scam is now unusual. Sturdy flavorful wines of the south have long bolstered the more subtle ones of the north, but these days, most people who make wine in southern Italy are keeping the best for themselves.
Southern Italy, nearly all hot and dry, once was caught up in an old familiar cycle: huge production, lousy quality. Then came the upgrade: modern vineyard management, better production control, finer winemaking skills, and for us a new expanse of great wines. Now, from Campania and Puglia to Sicily and Sardinia, the south is a source of immensely chewy and satisfying reds, fragrant whites and sturdy rosés. Even in this world of a strong euro and weak dollar, these southerners still represent value.
The reds aren’t shy. They show big, appealing, bold flavors and can be just what the sommelier ordered for New World wine fans looking to expand horizons. The whites, especially those without barrel fermentation or barrel aging, can be especially pleasing.
Campania offers the most variety and sophistication. Mount Vesuvio looms over Naples, and in the volcano’s shadow, it’s hard not to imagine the rush of fumes and lava that suffocated nearby Pompeii. But then, it’s also hard not to immediately fast forward centuries later and absorb the magic that volcanic soil works over the taste of grapes. If the grapes grown here flourished before Vesuvio blew its top, they taste a lot better after the soil healed and evolved.
Like everywhere else, Campania is making merlot, cabernet and chardonnay in abundance. But to score the good stuff, look to the indigenous grapes of the area. Of the multiple choices, the two most important reds are aglianico and piedirosso. The former produces age-worthy wines with serious tannins flecked with flavors of fennel, licorice and cherry. Piedirosso is a fleshy grape with strawberry and tea flavors.
There’s also a trio of important whites: falanghina, greco and fiano. Fiano has honey and floral notes. Greco is a delicate wine of fresh cut grass and peach. Falanghina has a tang of green apple and citrus and might have been the grape of Falernian, one of the most famous ancient wines.
Campania used to have only one DOCG wine, the highest level granted in Italy: Taurasi, whose grape is aglianico. But with the 2003 vintage, two whites from Avellino province, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, have been elevated to DOCG. Frankly, it’s nice to have a pedigree, but there are significant greco and fiano made in other zones.
HEEL AND TOE
The other major wine force is stretched out over the high heel of Italy, Puglia. Of the major grapes uva de troia, aglianico, montepulciano, malvasia nera, malvasia bianca, negroamaro and primitivo the latter two stand out.
Negroamaro thrives in the southernmost part of the heel, its wine often inky and velvety, filled with plump sun-baked and dried fruit flavors with a slight and very pleasant bitterness. You’ll find it dominant in such wines as Rosso del Salento or Salice Salentino.
A little further north in Manduria, the strength is in primitivo. The prevailing theory is that the grape originated in Croatia, traveled across the Adriatic to Puglia and then onto California where it became zinfandel. The wine doesn’t need a California name to make it good, though and in the best of hands, it can yield incredibly enjoyable and warming wines, especially in Manduria where laws governing vinification are fierce. There, production is limited, aging is governed and the alcohol content must reach a potent 14%.
In general, the whites here are forgettable, except for one notable exception: the white Gravina from Botromagno, a delightful bargain. Rosés, however, can be very memorable. Many are richly colored wines (think watermelon), and if you believe rosés are too feminine, try a few of Puglia’s rosés. (Unfortunately, not many are available in the U.S.)
Sardinia has been producing pretty good vino for some time, and they used to be true steals. Now the prices and the quality are on the rise (although some of the lower priced wines from some larger producers continue to be bargains). There can be a sun-baked quality to the reds, making them spicy and warming.
Wines made from cannonau, (better known as garnacha or grenache) have a kirsch-like quality. Indigenous grape monica makes a lighter, fruitier wine and carignano can often yield leathery and earthy wines which mix well with cannonau.
The vineyards of Feudo Monaci lie in the Azienda Castello Monaci, located in the Salice Salentino territory of Puglia.
Sicilian blood oranges tasted on the island are impossibly black and ruby. Their taste, a potent weaving of piercing and tart, can often be found in grapes capable of producing similar profiles.
The reds blend generous sun-drenched fruit and animal earthiness. The most appealing whites are fresh and floral. Again, there’s lots of cabernet, merlot and syrah being grown there, bottled solo or ending up in so-called super-Sicilians. But the red grapes to note here are the locals such as the island’s main squeeze, nero d’avola. Other grapes of note are the strawberry-like frappato and the earthy nerello, mascalese and nerello cappuccio. Ansonica is the most compelling Sicilian white grape, producing a beautifully floral wine.
These last two names are grande dames of the area. And in the rush to taste the new, it’s important to note that these older wineries are not fusty, but have some really great wines to offer. Southern regions all over the world have a similar profile of warmth and generosity. The difference is in the detail and nuance, but these wines are powerful packed with personality and are worth buying and drinking up.
Keep your eye open for southern Italian bargains, which, while becoming more rare, are still out there. In Campania, look to producers Mastroberadino and Cantina DiMeo for great Taurasi. Mastroberadino also produces a wide selection of grapes and styles that are considered well-priced. Cantina Grotta Del Sole in the DOC of Campa Flegrei, south of Naples, makes wonderful authentic wines. Sant’ Agata Dei Goti is one of the few medieval cities to survive the 1980 earthquake, and Mustilli is its fantastic winery. Check out their white falanghina and their Conte Artus red, a blend of 50% piedirosso and 50% aglianico, a typical Campanian mix. Also look for Grifo de Rocca, a 100% aglianico. Vestini Campagnano, a new kid on the block, is getting rave reviews for saving nearly extinct varietals pallagrello bianco and casavecchia. Other producers to look for include D’angelis, Terredora, Caggiano, De Conciliis, Ocone and Caputo.
Puglia still packs a great punch for the dollar. With many wines priced under $10 from such producers as Taurino, Feudo Monaci, Botromagno, Candido, Michele Cal