New Releases from Southern Italy

Italy’s south—Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia—is home to at least one excellent world-class native red grape variety and more than a few very good white varieties. In fact, the best examples produced from these native grapes are currently among the most exciting, fruit-driven, complex wines being made in Italy today. Clearly, an ocean of weak or downright faulty wine is still being made in Italy’s deep south. After all, if Puglia and Sicily were one country, it would rank as the world’s fourth or fifth largest wine producer; most of the wine made here, however, is sold in bulk. Yet in Italy's extreme south, there are many wonderful wines to be had, and the best wines from the aglianico grape rank right up there with Barolo and Brunello.

The single greatest asset that Southern Italian producers share, besides a climate ideally suited to viticulture, is the myriad different grape varieties that call Southern Italy their home. Most of these grapes have been cultivated here for centuries. Whereas international varieties such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and even syrah have done remarkably well where planted in Italy’s south, it is the native grape varieties that are generating much of the excitement today. Clearly, Southern Italian wine producers have their work cut out for them, as it is one thing to sell the instantly recognizable chardonnay or merlot, but quite another to get people to try a wine made from coda di volpe or uva di Troia. Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of Southern Italian wines today. On the one hand, they offer consumers a plethora of fragrances and taste sensations not found in any other wines—a welcome relief for all those ABC (anything but chardonnay, or cabernet) drinkers who have had it with carbon copy wines. On the other hand, the onus is on Italian producers to ensure consistent quality standards and to improve marketing strategies to make these wines better known. Starting with the labels wouldn’t hurt: Italians are masters of beautiful graphic design and romantic names, but often the information included on front and back labels is of little or no help. It’s fine to talk about night harvests or the grandfather’s mule-driven cart, but a simple explanation of what the grape tastes like and whether or not the wine has been aged in wood would be of more use. In any case, the future appears to be quite bright for these “new” wines from “old” grape varieties: they offer a welcome diversity in terms of both taste sensations and possible food and wine pairing combinations. And, happily, they run against the trend of globalization and standardization of wine styles.

Rome-based Ian D'Agata has been writing and lecturing about wine for more than 20 years and is currently the director of the International Wine Academy of Rome. Among his writing credits, he has written parts of several editions of Gambero Rosso's Italian wine guide and has co-authored a number of wine books, including one on Italy's native grape varieties. D'Agata is the assistant editor of a guide to Italy's best wine values due out this November, with responsibility for Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, and Puglia.