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.

94 Argiolas 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.

94 Feudi 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.

94 Montevetrano 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.

93 Palari 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.

92 Caggiano 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.

92 Villa 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.

91 Argiolas 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.

91 Cottanera 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.

91 Marisa 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.

91 Palari 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.

91 Tasca 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%).

90 A 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.

90 Cottanera 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.

90 Gulfi 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.

90 Mastroberardino 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.

90 Morgante 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.

90 Planeta 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.

90 Santadi 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.


89 Cottanera 1999 L’Ardenza (Sicilia)

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

89 Librandi 1998 Gravello (Val di Neto)

89 Marisa Cuomo 1996 Ravello Riserva (Campania)

89 Mastroberardino 1995 Radici (Taurasi)

89 Santa Lucia 1998 Riserva (Castel del Monte)

89 Santadi 1997 Terre Brune (Carignano del Sulcis)

89 Struzziero 1997 Riserva (Taurasi)

89 Valle dell’Acate 2000 Poggio Bidini Nero d’Avola (Sicilia)

88 Abbazia Santa Anastasia 1998 Litra (Sicilia)

88 Alberto Loi 1995 Tuvara (Sardegna)

88 Cottanera 1999 Sole di Sesta (Sicilia)

88 Felline 2000 Vigna del Feudo (Puglia)

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

88 Morgante 1999 Nero d’Avola (Sicilia)

88 Planeta 2000 La Segreta (Sicilia)

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

88 Terre di Genestra 1999 Nero d’Avola (Sicilia)

88 Valle dell’Acate 2000 Cerasoulo di Vittoria

87 Bonaccorsi 1999 Val Cerasa (Etna)

87 Felline 2000 Primitivo di Manduria

87 Feudo Monaci 2000 Primitivo (Puglia)

87 Pietratorcia 1998 Riserva (Campania)

87 Planeta 1999 Merlot (Sicilia)

87 Santa Lucia 1999 Castel del Monte

87 Tenuta Monaci 1999 Eloquenzia (Copertino)

87 Villa Matilde 1999 Cecubo (Campania)

86 Candido 1998 Immensum (Puglia)

86 Ceuso 1998 Custera (Sicilia)

86 Danzante 1999 Merlot (Sicilia)

86 Dardano 2000 Primitivo (Puglia)

86 Hauner 1999 Agave (Sicilia)

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

86 Mastroberardino 2000 Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio

86 Paternoster 1997 Aglianico del Vulture

86 Santadi 1996 Shardana (Sardegna)

86 Santadi 1998 Rocca Rubia (Carignano del Sulcis)

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

86 Terrale 2000 Nero d’Avola-Syrah (Sicilia)

86 Tormaresca 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon-Aglianico (Puglia)

86 Zenner 1999 Terra della Sirene Nero d’Avola (Puglia)

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

85 Caputo 1999 Sannio Aglianico (Campania)

85 Castellani 2000 Essenza (Puglia)

85 Coppi 1999 Primitivo (Gioia del Colle)

85 Coppi 1997 Vanitoso Riserva Primitivo (Gioia del Colle)

85 Fattoria San Francesco 1998 Ronco dei Quattroventi (Cirò)

85 Leone de Castris 1999 Riserva (Salice Salentino)

85 Librandi 1999 Magno Magonio Rosso (Val di Neto)

85 Salvatore Molettieri 1996 Vigna Cinque Querce (Taurasi)

85 Santadi 1998 Grotta Rossa (Carignano del Sulcis)

85 Sasso 1997 Covo dei Briganti (Aglianico del Vulture)

85 Soletta 1997 Riserva (Cannonau di Sardegna)

85 Taurino 1998 Riserva (Salice Salentino)

85 Tenuta Monaci 1997 Simposia Rosso del Salento (Puglia)

85 Terrale 2000 Primitivo (Puglia)

85 Terredora 1998 Il Principio (Aglianico dell’Irpinia)

85 Tosca d’Almerita 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon (Sicilia)

84 Alberto Loi 1995 Cannonau di Sardegna

84 Antonio Caggiano 1997 Vigna Macchia dei Goti (Taurasi)

84 Botromagno 1999 Primitivo (Puglia)

84 Candido 1995 Duca d’Aragona (Puglia)

84 Caputo 1999 Zicorra Aglianico (Campania)

84 Castellani 2000 Arbos Primitivo (Puglia)

84 D’Angelo 1997 Canneto (Basilicata)

84 Felline 2000 Alberello (Rosso del Salento)

84 Spano 1996 Annata (Puglia)

84 Terrale 2000 Sangiovese (Puglia)

84 Valle dell’Acate 2000 Frappato (Sicilia)

84 Villa Matilde 1999 Falerno del Massico

83 Al Bano Carrisi 1997 Salice Salentino

83 Candido 1997 Cappello di Prette (Puglia)

83 Cantina del Taburno 1999 Fidelis (Aglianico del Taburno)

83 Caputo 2000 Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio

83 Feudo Monaci 2000 Salice Salentino

83 La Casa dell’Orca 1996 Taurasi

83 Patriglione 1994 Rosso del Salento

82 Borgo al Castello 1999 Mother Zin (Puglia)

82 Càntele 1998 Primitivo (Salento)

82 Jerzu Antichi Poderi 1998 Marghia (Cannonau di Sardegna)

82 Odoardi 1998 Garrone (Calabria)

82 Pozzi 1999 Rosso Nero d’Avola (Sicilia)

82 Sinfarosa 1998 Zinfandel (Puglia)

82 Vezzani 2000 Salice Salentino

81 Leone de Castris 1999 Santera (Primitivo di Manduria)

81 Librandi 2000 Rosso Classico (Cirò)

80 San Francesco 1999 Rosso (Cirò)

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.

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
alcoholic wines.
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.


Published on May 1, 2002

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