If you read the literary works of the first modern travel writers to discover the southern realms of the Italian peninsula, you will be charmed by tales of Robin Hood brigands in Calabria; women who dance the tarantella in Puglia; and fishermen in Campania who lure swordfish into their nets with love songs. If you travel there today, you will find that nothing much has changed.
Unlike northern regions such as Tuscany and the Veneto where culture, language and geography merge with apparent seamlessness, southern Italy is an eccentric patchwork of fiercely independent spirits and jagged contrasts.
In his book, Southern Italy (1969), travel writer H.V. Morton describes the mysterious land between the toe and the heel of the Italian boot as “a country for scholars.” He was referring to its ancient role as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) and to the many subsequent roles it played as the gatekeeper of the Mediterranean.
Morton’s affirmation rings especially true for scholars of the grape. Here, vintners don’t just grow fruit and make wine. They are part researcher, geneticist and archeologist. They are the guardians of biodiversity and of what is now accepted as the world’s largest and most varied patrimony of genetic material for making wine. Southern Italy is home to hundreds of traditional grapes and new clones and varieties are constantly being discovered. A 2008 study presented by Calabria’s Librandi revealed that over the past decade or more, geneticists have rediscovered 175 winegrape varieties, 76 of which were found to have completely unique DNA.
Southern Italy is not only a treasure chest of traditional grapes, it is also an open-air museum of ancient farming methods and practices, many of which originated in the nurseries of the ancient world. For example, vines in Puglia and Basilicata use a low head-pruned training system called albarello (little tree) that keeps yields naturally low. This was imported directly from ancient Greece. In Campania, you can still visit magnificent vineyards in which vines grow on tree trunks for support. This practice was first used by the ancient Romans. And thanks to the geographic isolation of parts of southern Italy, this is one of the few places where you can admire vines that were planted previous to, and therefore survived, the ravages of phylloxera. The louse and all outside influences never touched them.
The wines of southern Italy offer flavors that are radically different from the familiar tastes of Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet—just as large portions of the region are unfamiliar to most tourists. Wines from the south pair naturally with some of our favorite Mediterranean ingredients, such as shellfish, goat cheese, oregano, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and olive oil.
Touring the Boot
The Bay of Naples, Pompeii and the technicolor Amalfi Coast are already well known as the embodiments of the ideal Italian sojourn; and Puglia—with its limestone Baroque city Lecce and its hobbit-like trulli homes—is quickly becoming the “in” destination for foreign visitors.
If the desire is to venture off the beaten track in southern Italy, a trip to Matera (in Basilicata) is a must. Shaped in equal measure by human poverty and the drama of nature, this ancient city was built between the steep walls of a tight ravine that splits deep into the earth. Instead of homes, inhabitants and their precious livestock cohabited in sassi, or caves carved out of the soft tufa stone. Over the centuries, Romanesque and Baroque details were crafted in generous layers and the overall effect is a cross between Cappadocia in Turkey and Notre Dame in Paris.
Today, Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it was a principle location in the filming of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A few hotels let you sleep inside the sassi including Hotel Sassi and Hotel Sant’Angelo.