SOUTHERN ITALIAN REDS: MOVING INTO THE MODERN ERA

Our tasting panel rates 18 of 150 wines 90 or better; Best Buys abound.


Published:

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 ITALYCELLAR SELECTION
EDITOR'S CHOICE
 SCORE
WINE
PRICE
94Argiolas 1997 Turriga (Sardegna)
Caramel, floral and dried herb on the nose fuses elegantly with what follows in the mouth—juicy raspberry, plum and spice. Finishes in a crescendo of fruit and tannins that will only get better with time.
$50

94Feudi di San Gregorio 1999 Serpico (Campania)
Complexity is the key in this Aglianico-Merlot blend. A hefty
richness from the Aglianico combines with a velvety softness
from the Merlot, which also supports the midpalate. Flavors of
fresh blackberries, executed in a modern style, couple with
spices and smoke.
$57

94Montevetrano 1999 Campania
Bright raspberry, violets and a Bordeaux quality on the nose
makes this a wine you will want to linger over. Thankfully, the
elegant character continues on the palate with toasty cherries
and raspberries that are well balanced and integrated. An
exceptional wine with an exquisitely long, supple finish.
$70

93Palari 1998 Faro
Complex flavors of tar, ripe blackberries and white pepper
stay surprisingly soft in this immense wine. The balance of full
and dark fruit from a blend of indigenous grapes makes this
enjoyable now—and for a long time to come.
$45

92Caggiano 1999 Salae Domini (Aglianico dell'Irpinia)
There is a lot going on in this wine, starting with a wonderful,
floral nose that is supported with vanilla, toast and black
cherries. The fruit continues on the palate, introducing coffee,
tobacco and earth. The wine is big, full and rich, yet retains a
sense of elegance.
$32

92Villa Matilde 1998 Camarato (Falerno del Massico)
This 100% Aglianico from Campania offers layers of lavender,
dark fruits, eucalyptus, mint and clove in its intoxicating bouquet.
Sweet vanilla cream also adds to the richness of this skillfully
balanced wine that you can drink now or hold for another
10 years.
$45

91Argiolas 1999 Korem (Sardegna)
Red raspberry, spice and clove on the nose blends well with
large amounts of juicy, rich berry and spice on the palate. Finishes long and luscious, with soft tannins.
$34

91Cottanera 1999 Grammonte (Sicilia)
It's all Merlot, and it's all good. This is a wine that would make
our Sexiest Wines of the Year list, if we had one. Lush and
medium-full in the mouth, Grammonte has chewy tannins and a
palate full of ripe blackberry, toast, chili pepper and a dash of
red berry. Good acidity keeps the tannins in line. It finishes very
long, with more of the same flavors, plus some black pepper.
The bouquet is a tantalizing mix of blackberry and cedar, doused
in brown sugar and olive oil.
$38

91Marisa Cuomo 1997 Furore Riserva (Campania)
Toasted oak, chocolate and dark, jammy fruits make up the
flavor profile for this Piedrosso (70%) and Aglianico (30%) blend.
It is rich and well structured, and the bright acidity cleanses the
broad tannins. Enjoy now or in 3-5 years.
$32

91Palari 1998 Rosso del Soprano (Sicilia)
Leather, red berries and a little rustic smokiness on the nose. The
red berries repeat in the palate, then are joined by earth and a
woody char. A fully layered wine consisting of Nerello, Mascalese
and three other indigenous Sicilian grapes. Drink in 3-5 years.
$35

91Tasca d'Almerita 1998 Rosso del Conte (Sicilia)
A very sexy, deep wine with cedar, fresh coffee and milk choco-
late aromas guiding you into spicy, black-cherry warmth. It's the
kind of wine that elicits a spontaneous, sensual "mmmm." A blend
of Nero d'Avola (90 %) and Perricone (10%).
$42

90A Mano 1999 Prima Mano (Puglia)
If you enjoy a big Californian Zinfandel, you will love this wine.
It's big—but not overblown—with ripe, zesty black fruits and
juicy mouthfeel. Its acidity balances well with the fruit and oak
to make this another winner from the A Mano team.
$22

90Cottanera 1999 Fatagione (Sicilia)
There's plenty of complexity in the nose, with creamy cassis and
cocoa, plus a light dusting of oak. The flavors arrive with soft
tannins and a chalky mouthfeel. An altogether memorable
performance from this blend of indigenous Nero Mascalese
and Nero d'Avola grapes.
$25

90Gulfi 1999 Neroibleo (Sicilia)
This is Nero d'Avola at its best—aromas of fleshy plums and
ripe, juicy blackberries with toasty oak. Bright cherry flavors with chocolate, coffee and abounding oak finish long and full. Made
to drink now, but will last 3-5 years.
$12

90Mastroberardino 1997 Historia (Campania)
Big, full tannins do not overpower the plum fruits and chocolate
within this wine. Aglianico shows finesse, balanced with richness
that can be difficult to achieve. The finish is warm and lingers for
quite some time.
$70

90Morgante 1999 Don Antonio Nero d'Avola (Sicilia)
Black raspberry and sweet cinnamon-toast aromas lure you into
the glass. The alcohol is 14%, but the intense, dark fruit and
substantial tannins give it balance. Delicious now but will age well for
a number of years.
$30

90Planeta 1999 Santa Cecilia (Sicilia)
If you love sweet, dark fruit —if the word "carnival" appeals to
you when applied to wine—this is a keeper. Aromas of pine
trees and cloves are echoed in the mouth with candy apple
flavors, big dark fruit concentration and cotton candy. It's a
triumph of a certain style.
$39

90Santadi 1997 Shardana (Sardegna)
An inky, bright-purple color invites you into a glass of fleshy
plums, candy apples and blackberry jam. Aromas of buttercream
frosting, spice and sweet toasted oak round out the complexity
of this wine. Made mostly from century-old, prephylloxera
Carignano vines, it also contains a touch of Shiraz.
$24
 

 

SOUTHERN ITALY 
 SCORE
WINE
PRICE
89Cottanera 1999 L'Ardenza (Sicilia)
$38

89Jerzu Antichi Poderi 1998 Josto Miglior Riserva
(Carnonavdi Sardegna )
$32

89Librandi 1998 Gravello (Val di Neto)
$29

89Marisa Cuomo 1996 Ravello Riserva (Campania)
$30

89Mastroberardino 1995 Radici (Taurasi)
$45

89Santa Lucia 1998 Riserva (Castel del Monte)
$22

89Santadi 1997 Terre Brune (Carignano del Sulcis)
$37

89Struzziero 1997 Riserva (Taurasi)
$25

89Valle dell'Acate 2000 Poggio Bidini Nero d'Avola (Sicilia)
$11

88Abbazia Santa Anastasia 1998 Litra (Sicilia)
$40

88Alberto Loi 1995 Tuvara (Sardegna)
$35

88Cottanera 1999 Sole di Sesta (Sicilia)
$38

88Felline 2000 Vigna del Feudo (Puglia)
$28

88Feudi di San Gregorio 1997 Selve di Luoti (Taurasi)
$38

88Morgante 1999 Nero d'Avola (Sicilia)
$12

88Planeta 2000 La Segreta (Sicilia)
$16

88Tenuta Le Querce 1999 Rosso di Costanza (Aglianico del Vulture)
$26

88Terre di Genestra 1999 Nero d'Avola (Sicilia)
$13

88Valle dell'Acate 2000 Cerasoulo di Vittoria
$24

87Bonaccorsi 1999 Val Cerasa (Etna)
$15

87Felline 2000 Primitivo di Manduria
$19

87Feudo Monaci 2000 Primitivo (Puglia)
$9

87Pietratorcia 1998 Riserva (Campania)
$36

87Planeta 1999 Merlot (Sicilia)
$39

87Santa Lucia 1999 Castel del Monte
$10

87Tenuta Monaci 1999 Eloquenzia (Copertino)
$8

87Villa Matilde 1999 Cecubo (Campania)
$28

86Candido 1998 Immensum (Puglia)
$18

86Ceuso 1998 Custera (Sicilia)
$37

86Danzante 1999 Merlot (Sicilia)
$11

86Dardano 2000 Primitivo (Puglia)
$9

86Hauner 1999 Agave (Sicilia)
$15

86Leone de Castris 1996 Donna Lisa Riserva (Salice Salentino)
$30

86Mastroberardino 2000 Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio
$21

86Paternoster 1997 Aglianico del Vulture
$20

86Santadi 1996 Shardana (Sardegna)
$21

86Santadi 1998 Rocca Rubia (Carignano del Sulcis)
$19

86Tenuta Le Querce 1999 Il Viola (Aglianico del Vulture)
$11

86Terrale 2000 Nero d'Avola-Syrah (Sicilia)
$8

86Tormaresca 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon-Aglianico (Puglia)
$11

86Zenner 1999 Terra della Sirene Nero d'Avola (Puglia)
$12

85Cantine Pichierri 1999 Tradizione del Nonno (Primitivo di Manduria)
$24

85Caputo 1999 Sannio Aglianico (Campania)
$13

85Castellani 2000 Essenza (Puglia)
$9

85Coppi 1999 Primitivo (Gioia del Colle)
$10

85Coppi 1997 Vanitoso Riserva Primitivo (Gioia del Colle)
$14

85Fattoria San Francesco 1998 Ronco dei Quattroventi (Cirò)
$28

85Leone de Castris 1999 Riserva (Salice Salentino)
$12

85Librandi 1999 Magno Magonio Rosso (Val di Neto)
$25

85Salvatore Molettieri 1996 Vigna Cinque Querce (Taurasi)
$32

85Santadi 1998 Grotta Rossa (Carignano del Sulcis)
$11

85Sasso 1997 Covo dei Briganti (Aglianico del Vulture)
$15

85Soletta 1997 Riserva (Cannonau di Sardegna)
$24

85Taurino 1998 Riserva (Salice Salentino)
$10

85Tenuta Monaci 1997 Simposia Rosso del Salento (Puglia)
$12

85Terrale 2000 Primitivo (Puglia)
$8

85Terredora 1998 Il Principio (Aglianico dell'Irpinia)
$9

85Tosca d'Almerita 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon (Sicilia)
$48

84Alberto Loi 1995 Cannonau di Sardegna
$15

84Antonio Caggiano 1997 Vigna Macchia dei Goti (Taurasi)
$42

84Botromagno 1999 Primitivo (Puglia)
$10

84Candido 1995 Duca d'Aragona (Puglia)
$25

84Caputo 1999 Zicorra Aglianico (Campania)
$20

84Castellani 2000 Arbos Primitivo (Puglia)
$10

84D'Angelo 1997 Canneto (Basilicata)
$23

84Felline 2000 Alberello (Rosso del Salento)
$15

84Spano 1996 Annata (Puglia)
$40

84Terrale 2000 Sangiovese (Puglia)
$8

84Valle dell'Acate 2000 Frappato (Sicilia)
$22

84Villa Matilde 1999 Falerno del Massico
$15

83Al Bano Carrisi 1997 Salice Salentino
$9

83Candido 1997 Cappello di Prette (Puglia)
$8

83Cantina del Taburno 1999 Fidelis (Aglianico del Taburno)
$15

83Caputo 2000 Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio
$13

83Feudo Monaci 2000 Salice Salentino
$9

83La Casa dell'Orca 1996 Taurasi
$25

83Patriglione 1994 Rosso del Salento
$41

82Borgo al Castello 1999 Mother Zin (Puglia)
$11

82Càntele 1998 Primitivo (Salento)
$6

82Jerzu Antichi Poderi 1998 Marghia (Cannonau di Sardegna)
$17

82Odoardi 1998 Garrone (Calabria)
$6

82Pozzi 1999 Rosso Nero d'Avola (Sicilia)
$9

82Sinfarosa 1998 Zinfandel (Puglia)
$24

82Vezzani 2000 Salice Salentino
$6

81Leone de Castris 1999 Santera (Primitivo di Manduria)
$15

81Librandi 2000 Rosso Classico (Cirò)
$10

80San Francesco 1999 Rosso (Cirò)
$12

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
AGLIANICO
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.
CANNONAU
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
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.
GAGLIOPPO
The primary grape of Calabria's Cirò yields a deeply colored juice that makes strong
alcoholic wines.
NEGRO AMARO
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.
NERO D'AVOLA
Native to Sicily, Nero d'Avola produces a wine with juicy blackberry fruit that's layered with cinnamon and brown sugar.
PRIMITIVO
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.
ZINFANDEL
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.

BEST BUYS  
 SCORE
WINE
PRICE
90Gulfi 1999 Neroibleo (Sicilia)
$12

89

Valle dell'Acate 2000 Bidini Nero d'Avola (Sicilia)

$11

88Morgante 1999 Nero d'Avola (Sicilia)
$12

88Planeta 2000 La Segreta (Sicilia)
$16

88Terre di Genestra 1999 Nero d'Avola (Sicilia)
$13

87Bonaccorsi 1999 Val Cerasa (Etna)
$15

87Feudo Monaci 2000 Primitivo (Puglia)
$9

87Santa Lucia 1999 Castel del Monte
$10

87Tenuta Monaci 1999 Eloquenzia (Copertino)
$8

86Danzante 1999 Merlot (Sicilia)
$11

86Dardano 2000 Primitivo (Puglia)
$9

86Tenuta Le Querce 1999 Il Viola (Aglianico del Vulture)
$11

86Terrale 2000 Nero d'Avola-Syrah (Sicilia)
$8

86Tormaresca 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon- Aglianico (Puglia)
$11

86Zenner 1999 Terra della Sirene Nero d'Avola (Sicilia)
$12

85Castellani 2000 Essenza (Puglia)
$9

85Coppi 1999 Primitivo (Puglia)
$10

85Santadi 1998 Grotta Rossa (Carignano del Sulcis)
$11

85Taurino 1998 Riserva (Salice Salentino)
$10

85Terrale 2000 Primitivo (Puglia)
$8

85Terredora 1998 Il Principio (Aglianico d'Irpinia)
$9

 

Previously Reviewed:


89Santa Anastasia 1998 Passamaggio (Sicilia)
$14

88A Mano 2000 Primitivo (Puglia)
$10

87Promessa 2000 Rosso Salentino (Puglia)
$8

For notes on these wines, click the link to Wine Enthusiast's Buying Guide.

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