Central & Southern Italy: A World Waiting to be Discovered

by Antonio Galloni

For many years discussions around fine Italian wines centered around Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, the high-end Tuscan reds and Amarone. That was pretty much it, and for good reason, as most of what came out of the Center and South was undistinguished, to say the least. That is no longer the case. Recent years have seen an explosion in the number of high- quality wines from the Center and South. Take it from someone who tastes thousands of wines from Italy each and every year; today the best Taurasis, Aglianicos, Sagrantinos, Montepulcianos,

Cannonaus, Nero d’Avolas, Nerello Mascaleses and a host of other compelling reds are world-class wines that are more than capable of giving the big boys from Italy and elsewhere a run for their money. The whites can be equally fascinating and just as diverse although they tend to be wines for near-term enjoyment rather than extended cellaring. Just as importantly, the wines from the Center and South deliver considerable value. The following pages also contain notes on dozens of delicious, highly pleasing wines that can be had for less than $25.


Readers will find an impressive number of gorgeous wines from Umbria this year. By far the most interesting appellation is Montefalco, where Sagrantino and Sangiovese yield wines of notable character. Not surprisingly, Montefalco has become one of the hottest areas of interest and is attracting significant new investments. Sagrantino was traditionally a sweet wine drunk during the Easter holidays, but today Sagrantino is better known as a dry table wine that has surpassed its eccentric, sweet cousin. The best Sagrantinos are wonderfully complex, structured wines that are emerging as some of the most intriguing reds in Italy. Sangiovese, the historic variety for dry wines in Montefalco, is the base for Montefalco Rosso, which incorporates Sagrantino and a host of other red grapes. Of course, the sweet, or passito, version of Sagrantino is still produced and the finest versions are compelling juice. Umbria also excels with racy, delicious reds made wholly or in part with international varieties. The whites are good, but rarely as exciting as the reds.


Readers who have visited Campania know this is one of the most evocative regions not just in Italy, but anywhere in the world. Campania’s rich cultural fabric encompasses history, breathtaking natural beauty, art and of course, wine, all of which are woven together to a degree that few places in the world can match. Wine has been made here for at least several thousand years, and the virtues of Campanian wines were extolled by the Roman poets. Perhaps the most important secular trend in Campania over the last decade has been the emergence of small growers who have begun to bottle their own wines rather than sell fruit or bulk wine to the region’s larger wineries. Readers may not recognize all of the producers in this article yet, but these pages contain notes on dozens of world-class wines just waiting to be discovered.

Campania’s volcanic soils yield wines of uncommon elegance and personality as expressed through the voice of an array of compelling indigenous varieties. Among the whites, Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo and Falanghina are all capable of profound wines. Taurasi, often referred to as the “Barolo of the South,” is the supreme expression of the late- ripening Aglianico, Campania’s most famous red grape. Over the last few decades much work has gone into reclaiming the ancient pre-phylloxera clones of Aglianico and the results have been striking. More recent efforts to fully understand the potential of Casavecchia and Pallagrello Nero point to significant potential as growers learn how to get the most out of these indigenous red varieties. In short, Campania offers one of the broadest palettes of shade and nuance readers are likely to encounter anywhere. At their finest, these are among the most extraordinary wines being made anywhere.

The most important region within Campania is Irpinia, which is home to three prestigious DOCGs; Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo and Taurasi; and the Irpinia DOC. Taurasi in particular is the most ageworthy, complex and structured of the wines made from Aglianico. The province of Caserta boasts an intriguing mix of the old and the new. This part of Campania includes the historic Falerno DOC, where estates like Villa Matilde, Vestini Campagnano and Terre del Principe have worked to fulfill the potential of a number of once-obscure native grapes. Caserta is also home to a number of IGTs made from the slopes of the Roccamonfina vineyard, including the wines of Galardi and Masseria Felicia. Just north of Irpinia lies Sannio, which includes the Sannio and Aglianico del Taburno DOCs and the Beneventano IGTs. Aglianico here is decidedly more approachable and easygoing than that found in Irpinia. The province of Salento, located at the southern part of Campania, is most famous for one wine, the incomparable Montevetrano.


It is tempting to lump all Sicilian wines into one category, yet the island is home to an incredibly rich variety of grapes, terroirs and microclimates. I continue to be thrilled with the quality of the wines coming from the Etna, a region that is quickly establishing itself as one of the most fascinating in the world. These high altitude vineyards and volcanic soils are proving capable of yielding extraordinary wines. The main red variety on the Etna is Nerello Mascalese, a grape that has much in common with both Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo in its textural weight and flavor profile. Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s other important red variety, is capable of many shades of expression, from slightly rustic wines to those that reveal the grape’s more refined qualities. The area around Noto and Pachino is especially well-suited to Nero d’Avola. Among the whites Carricante and Inzolia are worthy of note. Sicily also produces a wide array of dessert wines, including delicious Marsalas and wines made from air-dried Zibibbo. International varieties, both red and white, grow exceptionally well in Sicily, but it is the rare wine that truly expresses something special.


These wines from the Marche were among the most pleasant surprises of my extensive tastings of the wines of Central Italy. Verdicchio, the region’s top white, is made in a variety of styles that showcases this grape’s versatility. Readers will find everything from fresh, crisp versions to bottlings made in a late- harvest style that show the extraordinary richness and depth Verdicchio is capable of. A little known fact is that Verdicchio can also age very nicely. Although I am not sure the wines necessarily improve, the best wines can develop beautifully in bottle. Among the reds, the Montepulciano-based Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno often yield delicious wines that can be had for very reasonable prices. A number of higher-end reds from both international and indigenous varieties rounds out the fascinating variety of top-flight wines being made in the Marche today.


Abruzzo is one of my favorite regions in Southern Italy. The wines are not only delicious, but in many cases remain reasonably priced as well. Montepulciano is the main red variety, and is a grape that is proving to be quite versatile. When raised in large, neutral oak the flavor profile resembles that of Sangiovese, with plenty of red cherries, tobacco and earthiness, but with perhaps a touch more plumpness. Montepulciano can handle French oak as well, and the best of the more modern- styled wines are incredibly appealing. Best of all, Montepulciano is a great food wine. Trebbiano is the main white grape in Abruzzo, and while the best examples can be delicious (and also age well) they are few and far between. In recent years the newly re-discovered Pecorino has shown itself to be capable of very interesting wines as well. Lastly, Abruzzo is home to Cerasuolo, which is possibly Italy’s most consistently outstanding appellation for superb, pedigreed roses.


Sardinia is one of the great undiscovered oenological gems of the world. The crisp, aromatic Vermentinos are ideal wines for drinking alongside fish and seafood dishes while Carignano, Cannonau (Grenache), Bovale Sardo and a host of other grape varieties yield red wines of notable character. Many of the vineyards on the island contain a heavy component of sand, which protected the vines against the spread of phylloxera. The wines made from these old, ungrafted plants are often nothing less than spectacular. To make things even better, many of Sardinia’s wines remain very fairly-priced.


Puglia has attracted a lot of attention recently. The indigenous Primitivo and Negroamaro can yield reds loaded with regional character and complexity. Both grapes are well worth discovering and will open readers’ eyes and palates to a unique facet of Italy’s rich oenological landscape. Aglianico has also given promising results. Prices remain quite low, making Puglia one of the best sources in Italy for value-priced wines, especially the reds. Much of Puglia is physically striking, with gorgeous, rustic landscapes, beautiful coastlines and raw ingredients for the kitchen that offer incredible purity. The culture of food and wine in the region’s restaurants and hotels is still very much a work in progress, to put it kindly. Still, Puglia remains the region of the Deep South with the most upside potential. There is plenty to look forward to as producers increasingly set their sights on making better and better wines.


Basilicata is one of the emerging regions of Southern Italy. TheAglianicosofBasilicata Aglianico is the main red grape in Basilicata and the major appellation for important wines. Vulture is the tend to be rounder and more accessible than those of Campania.


Calabria is another of the less well-known regions in southern Italy. The main indigenous red grape is Gaglioppo, which can be found alone or blended with other varieties. Each year I find a few gems from Calabria that are truly delicious and well worth the effort of seeking out.


I suppose technically Emilia Romagna could be considered a region of the North rather than Center/South. The region is best known for the sparkling Lambrusco. Most versions are forgettable, but a few distinctive examples were reviewed in the Best Buys article. Emilia Romagna also produces a handful of other distinctive wines from both indigenous and international varieties.