Campania, or the shin of the Italian boot, is a case study of its own. The region is home to an amazingly rich collection of traditional grapes, matched only by the extraordinary territorial differences that characterize it: There are vineyards on volcanic slopes, in extremely high elevations and on the smaller satellite islands. It is no exaggeration to say that Campania makes some of Italy’s best wines.
White grapes include Falanghina, Greco and Fiano and each has a beautiful ability to reflect the mineral nuances from Campania’s volcanic soils. The delicate notes of white stone and flint found here are not unlike what you find in the whites of France’s Sancerre. The region’s main red grape—the dense and tannic Aglianico—makes Taurasi, a wine that is often referred to as the Barolo of the south.
The main appellations are Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo and Taurasi; there is a vibrant community of winemakers in the region who craft these wines. One of the most successful, Feudi di San Gregorio, can be credited with bringing these wines to the attention of wine lovers the world over.
The gnarled toe of the Italian boot is the most isolated and insular part of Italy. Centuries of earthquakes, poverty, warring feudal landlords, malaria and Mafia have permanently disfigured this already rugged region. But in ancient times, this was Magna Graecia: a Greek colony so rich and wealthy, one of its trading towns, Sybaris, inspired a word for luxurious decadence.
Today, Calabria is the diametric opposite of sybaritic, but traces of Magna Graecia can be found in the vast genetic patrimony of the region’s grapes. Researchers have embarked on ambitious projects to identify and catalogue hundreds of undiscovered clones and varieties that would otherwise face extinction. The number of grape genes is so great, Calabria is like the Galapagos Islands of the wine world.
“This region is a symbol of the potential of the future,” says Antonio Statti, who runs an estate with 247 acres of vines near Lamezia Terme with his brother Alberto. “Calabria may be last now, but its focus on indigenous varieties will make it a model for the rest of Italy.”
For now, two grapes fuel the majority of Calabria’s wines. Almost all red wines are made with Gaglioppo and white wines are made with Greco Bianco. Gaglioppo is a drought-resistant grape that produces a light-colored wine with high alcohol and tannins. Calabria’s most famous wine is Cirò, which is made with Gaglioppo near Crotone, on the underside of the toe.
Basilicata is an arid, desolate territory located between Calabria and Puglia at the arch of the boot. The birthplace of Roman poet Horace, Basilicata was once covered by lush forests that have long since disappeared. More recently, the region was associated with the scandalous poverty described in Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli.
Today, Basilicata’s luck has changed and the region has at least two great things going for it. First, its rock-embedded city, Matera, is among the most memorable and moving sites in Italy, up there with the Sistine Chapel and the Rialto Bridge. Second, its austere red wine, Aglianico del Vulture, is an undiscovered gem of Italian enology.
Aglianico del Vulture confirms one’s faith in the winemaking potential of southern Italy. The wine is shaped by two factors: the quality of the Aglianico grape, which is naturally low in yields and renders structured, tannic wines that need years of aging; and the unique mineral composition as well as the cool temperatures of Monte Vulture, an extinct volcano. Expect to hear more from Basilicata as new producers set up shop and as the region begins to introduce itself on an international level.
Small, sparsely populated and mountainous, Molise is located directly above the spur of the boot on the Adriatic side. Only a couple of producers’ wines are available in the United States, but these robust wines make Molise a worthy inclusion in this report.
Borgo di Colloredo is a 200-acre estate run by brothers Enrico and Pasquale Di Giulio, who are winemaker and vineyard manager respectively. Di Majo Norante makes some of the best wines south of Rome. “We may be small in size, but we are big in territory with vineyards from the sea to the mountains,” says Alessio Di Majo Norante. His estate is dedicated to “enological archeology,” or the recovery of indigenous varieties.
Molise’s red wines are largely composed of Montepulciano and Aglianico and fall under the Biferno appellation. The region’s white wines are often based on Trebbiano and Bombino. Sangiovese, Greco, Falanghina and international varieties are also planted here. Steep, hilly valleys and climatic extremes make it possible to achieve a careful balance between structure and acidity.
Rumors have persisted for decades that when producers in Tuscany and Piedmont can’t coax their wines into maturity, they blend in a spot of Puglia red to improve the color, concentration and fruitiness of their wines. Such is the reputation of this region blessed with abundant sunshine and hardworking vintners.
The time has come for Puglia to shape its own winemaking identity. A wine renaissance has washed over the region, thanks to outside investments and a new focus on quality winemaking in the vineyard and the winery. “Over the past 10 or 15 years, wines from Puglia are more appreciated abroad because there has been a noticeable jump in quality yet [they] have maintained attractive prices,” says Piernicola Leone de Castris, whose family runs one of the region’s most historic wineries.
Puglia is primarily a red wine region and its production relies on meaty grapes such as Montepulciano, Bombino Nero, Malvasia Nera, Negroamaro and Primitivo (a genetic twin to California’s Zinfandel). It is also the Italian region most closely associated with excellent rosé production.
Southern Italian Stars
In 1878, Mastroberardino was officially registered with the Avellino Chamber of Commerce. But a 130-year-anniversary is only a small part of what makes this winery noteworthy today. More crucial is the role it has played in safeguarding the traditional varieties of Campania that came close to extinction only a few decades ago.
An enormous patrimony of indigenous grapes such as Fiano, Falanghina and Aglianico would not exist today if it weren’t for the efforts of Antonio Mastroberardino, who embarked on a massive replanting effort in the 1950s. Following in the footsteps of his father, Piero Mastroberardino has successfully exported his family’s wines to foreign markets. “Campania has so much going for it today,” says Piero Mastroberardino.
Wines to look for: Naturalis Historia Taurasi.
Nicodemo Librandi, one of two brothers who run the Librandi winery in Cirò Marina in Calabria, is the Charles Darwin of Italian wine. Like Darwin’s search for new species, Nicodemo and his family have combed through the Calabrian back hills to discover new grape varieties.
Once collected, these mysterious and unclassified vines have been planted in Librandi’s 620-acre Rosaneti vineyard that was acquired in 1997 to be one of the south’s biggest experimental vineyards. So far, an amazing 175 varieties have been rediscovered in the Librandi study, revealing one of the largest collections of grape diversity in the world. Many are vinified by Librandi.
Wines to look for: Librandi Magno Megonio and the Efeso.
With its crenulated towers and tall ramparts, Castello Monaci is one of the most beautiful estates in the Salento, the southernmost area of the Puglia peninsula. It is surrounded by centuries-old olive trees and long, flat rows of vines that extend to the horizon. Today, Gruppo Italiano Vino, based in northern Italy, owns the winemaking activities of Castello Monaci and the estate has recently unveiled an ambitious makeover in terms of wine quality and image.
Castello Monaci is an excellent source of value wines. Enologist Francesco Bardi has shaped three well-priced reds that accurately portray the tastes of Puglia.
Wines to look for: Maru Negroamaro, Lianta Negroamaro and Piluna Primitivo.
Cantine del Notaio
Cantine del Notaio (Winery of the Notary Public) is dedicated to making some of the best wines you will taste from Basilicata.
Much of the winery and the underground cellars are housed inside tufo rock grottoes that have been used in these parts since the 1600s as housing, storage and, in some cases, as underground churches. Today, these romantically ruined caves provide the perfect conditions for aging stellar wines. Editor's Pick.
Wines to look for: Il Sigillo Aglianico del Vulture and Il Repertorio Aglianico el Vulture.