First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 18th February, 2017
For many wine-lovers, the south of Italy is uncharted territory. If pushed, they might remember Salice Salentino and perhaps Primitivo. And yet, these are some of the oldest vineyards in the world. The entire region is coming down with little known indigenous grape varieties, most of which date back to Roman or Greek times. Today we skim the surface of three areas, each with their own unique wines.
Our journey starts in Campania, the area surrounding Naples and Salerno, dominated by the Campanian volcanic arc that includes Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei. We think of southern Italy as being hot. Yet the icy mountain slopes back from the coastline here have one of the latest harvests in the entire country, producing some excellent, vibrant white wines. We will look at those another time; today the reds.
Aglianico is often called the Nebbiolo of the south – a slightly backhanded compliment. It may be the most long-lived, but the wines can be tough, dry, tannic and austere in their youth, especially those from the most revered, cooler sub-region of Taurasi. Instead of fruit, you often find liquorice, tobacco and dried spices. There are other red grape varieties in Campania: Coda di Volpe and Piedirosso are two ancient varieties, both producing softer, easy-drinking wines. Piedirosso, the second most-planted red, is often blended with Aglianico to soften those tannins. As well as Taurasi, Aglianico is found in Taburno and neighbouring Benevento. The high limestone content and volcanic deposits are said to give that tannic bite to Taurasi. Others are more forthcoming.
Devastated by decades of emigration to the Northern cities and the US, Calabria is the most obscure of the three regions. This is the “toe” of Italy. The most important grape here is Gaglioppo – you can rest assured that most wine buffs have never heard of this grape either, but it can produce perfumed, warming soft wines.
Lastly Puglia, or Apulia, the stiletto heel and calf of Italy. This long, narrow region is responsible for massive quantities of red wine. Negroamaro produces rich wines with dark fruits and plenty of oomph. Primitivo, the same grape as California’s Zinfandel, can produce wines high in alcohol, tannin and fruit. Some, including the example below, can be sensationally good. Sadly, not all reach such peaks; I tried a host of semi-sweet soft wines that desperately needed an injection of character. Less common is Uva di Troia (or Nero di Troia) possibly named after the city of Troy, which produces wines that range from soft and fruity to full-bodied and tannic.
Anyone looking to improve their knowledge of Italian wine should buy the newly released The Modern History of Italian Wine, edited by Walter Filiputti (Skira), a fascinating, unique look at the development of Italian wines over the last 50 years.
Moreish clean ripe blackberry and red cherry fruits
Stockists: Corkscrew; Green Man Wines; Blackrock Cellar; Wineonline.ie
Big powerful concentrated earthy dark fruits, with well-integrated tannins on the finish.
Stockists: Quintessential Wines, Drogheda; Atasteofitaly.ie; Morton’s; Hole in the Wall; The Grapevine; Dublin 9; Martins.
A delicious, full-bodied wine with intense ripe dark fruits, lovely acidity and leathery length. I love it.
Stockists: 64 Wine; Green Man; Mitchell & Son; Sheridan’s.
Smooth, medium-bodied ripe plum and black cherry fruits. Mid-week with pork chops?
Stockists: Wines Direct, Mullingar