The perfect intersection of archeology and wine is found in southern Italy. From Naples to Reggio Calabria, this portion of the peninsula was a formidable extension of ancient Greece, or Magna Graecia. The widespread colonization of southern Italy left a lasting Hellenic imprint that would inspire the culture of ancient Rome.
Southern Italy is a major interval on the timeline that traces the history of wine. As the Greeks realized the trading potential of fermented grape juice, they brought many nonnative varieties to the fertile soils of Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria. Sunny southern Italy became a giant nursery. Genetic variations one generation to the next gave rise to one of the largest grape biodiversity hotspots on the planet.
This classical era throwback is what makes southern Italy so sensational. The area boasts Pompeii (an important port for wine exports during the Roman Empire), the ancient Greek trading hub Metapontum and the legendarily indulgent Sybaris.
The names of grapes—variations on the name greco or “Greek”—reveal their origins as do the actual growing methods. In Puglia and Molise, head-trained vines, or alberello, reflect the methods used by the ancients. In Campania, grape vines are draped onto tree trunks in a little trellising trick handed down throughout the centuries. In Calabria, vine stocks are tied into giant knots as a way of reducing yields. Just like in archeology, the area’s wines peel back layer after layer to reveal ancient roots.
Lacrima Christi, produced on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius in Campania, takes its name from an old legend that as Christ grieved Lucifer’s fall from Heaven, his tears fell on the land and imbued it with his divine inspiration.
Within Calabria is the region of Cirò, where some believe the first wine in the world was produced. Archaeologists have found a “vinoduct” there, which carried wine from its production site to the homes of the Sybarites nearby.
Another wine from Calabria, the Cremissa, was used to toast athletes in the ancient Olympics.
Common Grape Varieties
Fiano: Beautifully redolent of Golden Delicious apple and pear, Fiano di Avellino is a creamy white wine from Campania that pairs with spaghetti alle vongole or fried calamari.
Greco: Of Greek origin, this white variety is used across southern Italy but finds its maximum expression in Campania’s volcanic soils as Greco di Tufo wine.
Aglianico: This austere red grape (from the word “Hellenic”) was on the verge of extinction. Today it makes two of Italy’s best, cellar-worthy wines: Taurasi (from Campania) and Basilicata’s underrated Aglianico del Vulture.
Gaglioppo: The mainstay red grape of Calabria (the “toe” of Italy), this light, ruby-colored variety is featured in Cirò and is steadily gaining interest abroad.
Negroamaro: The grape known as “bitter black” is farmed throughout the Salento area in southern Puglia and is featured in Salice Salentino where is it blended with fruitier Malvasia Nera.
Primitivo: Said to be a relative of California’s Zinfandel, Primitivo di Manduria is one of Puglia’s most popular and enjoyable red wines, showing jammy fruit flavors.