SOUTHERN ITALIAN REDS: MOVING INTO THE MODERN ERA
Our tasting panel rates 18 of 150 wines 90 or better; Best Buys abound.
Our tasting panel rates 18 of 150 wines 90 or better; Best Buys abound.
Americans' love affair with Italian wines has been rekindled by a string of successful vintages in Tuscany and Piedmont. But with that success has come increased demand, which has led inevitably to higher prices. Faced by today's economic uncertainty, consumers are seeking out more affordable options and are discovering the wonderful wines of Italy's south and its islands.
The ancient Greeks nicknamed this locale Oenotria, land of wine, perhaps because they, as much as New World wine drinkers, enjoyed the full-bodied and richly fruited red wines produced by the region's hot climate. But the south is not just a land of sun-baked vines—maritime breezes help to moderate the climate along the coastline, preserving acidity in the grapes and promoting a balance between fruit and soil.
Southern Italy produces 40 percent of Italian wine, but is home to only 14 percent of the regions governed by denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) or denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (DOCG) regulations; Taurasi (known as "the Barolo of the south" for its weight and ageability) is the only DOCG for red wine in all of southern Italy. Historically, the quality-promoting DOCG regions have been defined in northern Italy, thanks to the political weight and financial muscle of northern vintners.
While northern Italian producers took steps to improve the quality of their wines during the late 20th century, many of their southern counterparts toiled in obscurity, doing little but contribute to the European wine lake. Much of their production made its way into vermouth or into bulk table wines; more was diverted to beef up weak vintages of northern wines.
Although change has always come slowly to the remote rural regions of southern Italy, winegrowers are beginning to understand that their future depends on quality, not quantity. More and more small quality-oriented producers sprout up every year. "The move from cooperatives to single estates is a big factor in increased quality in Apulia and Sicily," says Nunzio Castaldo, senior vice president for Italian wines at Winebow, a leading importer of Italian wines.
|SOUTHERN ITALY||CELLAR SELECTION |
Whereas growers once farmed for quantity and alcoholic strength, so that they could sell their wines to the cooperatives or to northern shippers, today the search for quality begins in the vineyards. Changes in pruning and trellising techniques and dropping fruit in June or July, to concentrate flavors and lower yields, are becoming more and more common.
One early proponent of these strategies was winemaker Riccardo Cotarella, who consults for a number of wineries in the region, including standouts Villa Matilde, Montevetrano and Feudi di San Gregorio. In some places, his advice was not initially well received. Old-school growers weren't happy dropping fruit in June and July—to them it was putting money on the ground. But these techniques, along with winemaking advances like filtration and temperature-controlled fermentation and storage, have given the wines clean, fresh fruit flavors in place of the cooked flavors of the past.
Even marketing has changed radically in the modern era. Wines that once were labeled simply "rosso" are now being labeled with the grape variety to appeal to the U.S. market for varietal wines. The indigenous grapes of southern Italy are introducing an entire new lineup of grape varieties to the American wine vocabulary (see sidebar, "From Aglianico to Zinfandel"). In addition, many wineries are experimenting with "international" varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
|Restaurants in this country are re-orienting their wine lists in a southern Italian direction because of the affordability of the wines and the fruit-forward style that appeals to the New World palate. Some restaurants are taking a very proactive approach. "I truly believe that the wines coming out of southern Italy are the best they have ever been," says Alex Berlingeri, wine director at Alfredo of Rome in Rockefeller Center in New York City. "We try to entice our customers to try these wines with our southern Italian wine guarantee." At Alfredo, it's made quite clear up front: If a customer orders a bottle of a southern Italian wine and is not completely satisfied with the choice, the sommelier will take the wine back, with no histrionics whatsoever. So far, not one bottle has been returned, and Berlingeri sees a bright future for the program. "Hopefully the prices will not increase into the stratosphere as a result of their success, as other areas have," he notes.|
For this feature, we tasted 150 red wines from southern Italy. More than 10 percent of them (18) scored 90 points or better, and 20 other wines represent exceptional values. These 20 Best Buys come from a wide variety of subregions, but the best wines are from only four areas. One-third of the top scorers come from Campania, including two of the top three wines. The rest come from the islands of Sicily (from which eight of the top wines hail) and Sardinia, with a single Apulian wine cracking the 90-point barrier.
Campania is a largely agricultural region known for its crops of tomato and eggplant grown in rich volcanic soils derived from Mount Vesuvius. It is also home to the DOCG of Taurasi and the DOCs of Falerno del Massico and Costa d'Almalfi; all are predominantly Aglianico, with varying small additions of Piedirosso, Barbera, Sangiovese or Primitivo permitted.
Of course, winemakers can also ignore the restrictive DOC and DOCG rules in favor of looser IGT (indicazione geografica tipica) regulations, like in the top-scoring Feudi di San Gregorio 1999 Serpico (94 points). Winemaking consultant Cotarella blends a small amount of Merlot into Aglianico from prephylloxera vines. While some other Aglianico-based wines can seem hollow on the midpalate, the Merlot in Serpico bridges that gap, making the wine complete from front to finish.
Aglianico is also the mainstay in the mountainous region of Basilicata, where it is famous for the DOC wines of Aglianico del Vulture. The contrast of styles between the wines from this region and Campania is a fine illustration of the differences imparted by terroir. Aglianicos from Basilicata are lean, rustic wines that show lots of minerality, whereas the Campanian wines tend to be richer and more lush because of the fertile soil and more temperate climate. Readers more familiar with California wines might think in terms of the difference between the lush Rutherford and other Napa Valley-floor wines and the tougher wines of the mountain AVAs.
|FROM AGLIANICO TO ZINFANDEL|
A full-bodied, tannic grape with flavors of chocolate and fleshy dark fruits grown in
Campania and Basilicata. The name derives from the Greek Hellenico.
On the island of Sardinia, Grenache is called Cannonau. Although the name is changed, it retains the variety's characteristic aromas of white pepper and raspberry or cherry fruit.
Carignano is the same variety as the Carignane of southern France. It boasts floral-spice
aromas. Cannanou and Carignano may have come to Sardinia from Catalonia.
The primary grape of Calabria's Cirò yields a deeply colored juice that makes strong
Negro Amaro translates into English as "bitter black." This Puglian variety makes a dry, dusty wine with aromas of leather, barnyard and earth that can sometimes overwhelm the fruit.
Native to Sicily, Nero d'Avola produces a wine with juicy blackberry fruit that's layered with cinnamon and brown sugar.
DNA testing has proved that Primitivo is identical to Zinfandel and a Croatian variety called Crljenak. Apulian Primitivo often shows jammy, dark fruit and spice notes.
Some producers are marketing their Primitivo under this more familiar moniker.
The biggest surprise of the tasting may have been the success of Sicilian wines. The versatility of the island's indigenous Nero d'Avola was showcased in Best Buys, such as the Valle dell'Acate 2000 Poggio Bidini Nero d'Avola (89 points) and in top scorers such as Tasca d'Almerita's 1998 Rosso del Conte (91 points), a blend of 90 percent Nero d'Avola and 10 percent Perricone. Despite the economic successes of international varieties, which demand higher prices, our panelists preferred the wines made from Sicily's indigenous grapes—the top scorer from Sicily (Palari's 93-point 1998 wine from the Faro DOC) is a blend of Nerello, Acitana, Tignolino, Nocera, Cappuccio and Galatena.
Sardinia also showed diversity, providing both top scorers and Best Buys. As in other parts of southern Italy, many of the best wines are being made outside the DOC regulations. Argiolas's top-scoring 1997 Turriga (94 points), primarily Cannonau, is labeled Sardinia IGT, which gives all-star consultant Giacomo Tachis more leeway to make the best wine he can. On the other hand, Santadi's 1998 Grotta Rosa (85 points, Best Buy) falls under the DOC of Carignano del Sulcis.
Apulia is quickly gaining a reputation for value wines and the results of our tasting bear that out. We found Best Buys from several DOCs, including Primitivo di Manduria, Salice Salentino and Castel del Monte, as well as from IGT wines. New technology and vineyard improvements are making a huge impact in this region, attracting investors and winemakers from other parts of Italy and the world (see sidebar, "An American in Apulia").
Aside from the obvious differences from region to region, focused as they are on different grape varieties, our panelists also noted distinct stylistic differences within regions that reflect the differences between traditionalists and modernists. The traditional wines possessed more dried fruit qualities, along with sometimes slightly cooked flavors and dusty old-wood notes. The modern wines showed deeper color and fresher brighter fruit, along with sweet oak flavors from aging in small wood vessels.
One of the biggest strengths of southern Italy is this diversity of styles imparted by different techniques, terroirs and grape varieties. Add to that improving quality, indicated by a multitude of Best Buys and high-scoring wines, and the vinous future of southern Italy is very promising. Even at the uppermost price points, the wines are still inexpensive compared to other Italian classics from Piedmont or Tuscany. Let's hope that the continued success of this region doesn't mean that we won't be able to afford to drink these wines as intended—with our daily meals and not just for special occasions.
For notes on these wines, click the link to Wine Enthusiast's Buying Guide.