The Rise of Italian Aglianico

The Rise of Italian Aglianico

Humanity has enjoyed no wine grape more than Aglianico.

Cultivated by the Phoenicians, exported by the Greeks, consumed by the Romans, protected by popes and coveted as a blending agent during the phylloxera plague, “Aglianico is probably the grape with the longest consumer history of all,” says Denis Dubourdieu, oenology professor at the University of Bordeaux.

There are several theories concerning the origin of the name Aglianico, all of which underline its ancient roots. But even more fascinating than the grape’s past is its future.

“The history of Aglianico is incredible,” says Antonio Capaldo, chairman of Feudi di San Gregorio. “The history of the wine is much newer.”

The recent rise of Aglianico occurred in pinpoint areas of southern Italy, where the Mastroberardino family of Avellino deserves much credit for the grape’s commercial success.

Aglianico’s two greatest expressions are Aglianico del Vulture in Basilicata and Taurasi in neighboring Campania. It’s also found in Molise, and has a rapidly growing presence in Puglia. But many of the places where Aglianico thrives are distinguished by their volcanic soils.

Basilicata’s Mount Vulture is a dormant volcano, and its vineyards are located on the lower tiers of the cone where ash deposits are thickest. Vulture wines are incredibly complex and nuanced, with dusty mineral tones and dark red-fruit notes.

Basilicata experiences hot, dry conditions ideal for this late-ripening variety, but further north, the Taurasi area of Irpinia sees twice as much rainfall. That’s more than compensated for by the region’s well-drained volcanic soils.

Here, Aglianico-based wines are structured, rich in depth and ample in length. There are several times more producers in Taurasi than in Basilicata, and Taurasi’s proximity to the bustling port city of Naples has made it easier to market the wines abroad.

Thanks to its elegance and capacity for long cellar aging, Aglianico is often referred to as “the Barolo of the South.” It’s time to let the grape stand on its own as the protagonist of some of Italy’s greatest red wines.

Gerardo Giuratrabocchetti

Cantine del Notaio, Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata)

A great love story lies behind the founding of Cantine del Notaio.

Gerardo Giuratrabocchetti’s grandfather was an illiterate farmer who had immigrated to America. His grandmother was a noblewoman, fluent in Greek and Latin, who lived in the majestic Castello di Venosa in Basilicata. In an ironic twist, the immigrant had put some money aside, and the noblewoman’s family was broke. Ultimately, the two lovers were given blessings to marry.

They had four children, but only one pursued academic studies. Consalvo Giuratrabocchetti studied law and became a notary (notaio in Italian) in the little town of Rionero in Vulture, located on the slopes of the dormant volcano. Consalvo’s son Gerardo also started in academics, but he had a sudden change of heart.

“I dreamt of my grandfather, after whom I am named, and decided to farm the land he loved,” Gerardo says.

On his 40th birthday, in 1998, Gerardo founded Cantine del Notaio in memory of his grandfather and in honor of his father.

The wines he produces all evoke his father’s profession: La Firma means “the signature,” Il Sigillo is “the seal,” Il Rogito is “the deed” and Il Repertorio refers to an archive of notarial contracts.

The winery produces 215,000 bottles per year from approximately 65 acres of vineyards spread across five locations ranging from 1,300 to nearly 1,800 feet above sea level. The well-drained soils are composed of compacted ash and tufo (an indigenous rough clay), and a series of warm volcanic lakes creates a unique microclimate that’s home to a diversity of insects, including a rare African butterfly. Warm weather patterns from the Sahara provide the long, dry summers that Aglianico needs.

“They say the biggest gamble is leaving your homeland to make your fortune elsewhere,” says the bespectacled vintner. “In a poor region like Basilicata, it’s an even bigger gamble to stay here.”

91 Cantina del Notaio 2008 Il Repertorio (Aglianico del Vulture). From the heart of the Vulture region, Il Repertorio shows an authentic and slightly rustic personality, with flavors of candied fruit, prune, plum, lead pencil and cured meat. It delivers a polished, elegant finish. Michael Skurnik Wines. —M.L.
abv: 14%    Price: $25

Ilaria Petitto

Donnachiara, Taurasi (Campania)

There’s a fascinating trend underway in Italy, as an increasing number of women are at the helm of some of the nation’s most dynamic wineries.

This movement is especially noticeable in southern Italy, where tradition and a strong family-based culture have fostered a new generation of women intent on carrying forward their family legacies.

Ilaria Petitto and her mother, Chiara, are perfect examples. The original Donna Chiara was Ilaria’s grandmother (also named Chiara), a noblewoman who inherited a beautiful 20-hectare property just outside the town of Taurasi. The Aglianico from the property was sold to some of the biggest wineries in the region.

“Our dream was to one day make our own wine,” says the 37-year-old Petitto.

Her grandfather died in 1997, and her father manufactures machine components. Her siblings pursued other careers. Despite the challenges, says Petitto, “My mother and I decided to do this together, and we were determined.”

Since their first vintage in 2006, Donnachiara has grown from 30,000 to 160,000 bottles per year, of which 60% is sold in foreign markets.

The family crest was adopted as a logo and set against a modern design. The cozy tasting room is decorated with modern art and sculptures fashioned from the metal materials used in her father’s factory.

The mother-daughter team produces a Campania Aglianico IGT, an Irpinia Aglianico DOC and two other 100% Aglianicos under the Taurasi DOCG, along with a long line of Campania whites.

“We consider ourselves specialized in Aglianico,” says Petitto.

Petitto has a law degree and completed her studies in Rome before returning to the family vineyard.

“What appeals to me is the feminine side of the wine business,” she says. “Creativity and flexibility, or [not] being set in your ways, is fundamental, and wine gives me enormous possibility of expression.”

90 Donnachiara 2008 Taurasi. What sets this Taurasi apart is the finesse and elegance it shows on the finish. One of the great reds of southern Italy, this hearty wine reflects many of the mineral characteristics inherent to volcanic soils. Black fruit flavors are followed by notes of smoke, ash, tobacco and polished tannins. Michelangelo Selections. —M.L.
abv: 13.5%    Price: $35

Antonio Capaldo

Feudi di San Gregorio, Taurasi (Campania)

“Aglianico is the grape we believe in most,” says Antonio Capaldo, the 35-year-old chairman of Feudi di San Gregorio. “If you made a list of the top five red varieties in the world of wine, we believe Aglianico would be on that list with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.

“It’s one of the most beautiful grapes in Italy,” he says. “Its fruit is firm and decisive, but sweet and bright. The bouquet is so broad, and its natural aromas include unique mineral nuances. It adapts well to oak and shows enormous potential for cellar aging.”

Producing 3.5 million bottles per year, Feudi di San Gregorio is one of the most important wineries in southern Italy in terms of numbers and image. Along with the historic cellars of Mastroberardino, it is a protagonist of modern Campania wine.

“We are betting our future success on this grape,” says Capaldo.

Feudi di San Gregorio has embarked on an ambitious research project focused on Aglianico and the 400 biotypes already identified. The Patriarchi project focuses on safeguarding the few precious ancient vines (older than 250 years) that still exist in Irpinia.

The winery produces various expressions of Aglianico (such as Taurasi), including a rosato and a sparkling wine made using the metodo classico.

The company has seen ownership turmoil in the past, but under Capaldo, Feudi di San Gregorio has hit its stride. With a wine bar to open shortly in Rome and a restaurant planned for New York, he hopes to spread Aglianico far beyond southern Italy.

“Running this company is like managing a small multinational,” says the London School of Economics graduate who dreamed of fighting poverty at the United Nations.

“I worked as a consultant in development economics for years,” he says. “Wine has taught me a hands-on approach I never expected.”

94 Feudo di San Gregorio 2007 Piano di Montevergine Riserva (Taurasi). Aged for 18 months in oak, this wine shows a massively long and intense finish, with notes of black fruit, ash, prune, spice, leather and bitter dark chocolate. All should evolve harmoniously over the next 10 years or more. It showcases the hard work achieved by Feudi di San Gregorio over the years. Palm Bay International. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.5%    Price: $65

Mario Bisceglia

Bisceglia, Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata)

At the dawn of the millennium, Mario Bisceglia was introduced to a brand-new world. Over dinner in 2000 at the celebrated New York City restaurant Le Cirque, owner Sirio Maccioni asked Mario if he knew of an obscure red wine named Aglianico del Vulture. Mario did not, but the proverbial seed was planted.

Following decades abroad as an executive in the food and beverage industry, Bisceglia was looking to return to his native Basilicata. He had traveled the world for companies like Segafredo Zanetti (espresso), Fiorucci (specialty meats) and Gaudianello (mineral water).

“I wanted to apply my experience as CEO to a product from my homeland,” says the 56-year-old entrepreneur. “The morning after dinner at Le Cirque, I gave the order to purchase my first three hectares of vineyard.”

Today, Bisceglia heads one of the newest and largest wineries (with an annual production of 400,000 bottles—half being Aglianico-based wines) in the Vulture area. His first wines were released in 2006.

Bisceglia offers three Aglianico del Vulture wines, including the flagship Gudarrà Riserva, as well as varietal bottlings of Chardonnay and Syrah.

“My goal is to make wines with the varieties that are best suited to my territory, regardless if they are indigenous grapes or not,” he says.

His spoken Italian is peppered with English words like “mergers and acquisitions,” “investment capital” and “stock options.” More recently, terms like “oak barrel,” “pruning” and “tannins” have entered his vocabulary.

“I was not born into wine, and I do not come from a wine family,” Bisceglia says. “I come from a business culture in which achieving consistency and standardization is a priority.”

The hard part, he says, is applying those values to a product that changes vintage to vintage.

“Wine has given me the ability to bring a little piece of Basilicata to countries all over the world,” he says. “That has been the biggest payoff of all.”

92 Bisceglia 2005 Gudarrà Riserva (Aglianico del Vulture). Already on the road to revealing its fine aging potential, this dark and dusty Aglianico opens with enticing aromas of liquid smoke, pipe tobacco, ash, candied fruit, leather and exotic spice. Bold, intense and long lasting on the finish, it speaks highly of Basilicata, one of the most fascinating and unexplored Italian regions. Winebow. Cellar Selection. —M.L.
abv: 14%    Price: $45

Published on January 7, 2013
Topics: AglianicoItaly