Exploring the Best of Central and Southern Italy
By Antonio Galloni
My tastings of central and southern Italy were the largest and broadest I have ever done. I found a number of properties that were new to me, but also
tasted a huge number of wines that left a lot to be desired. Times are tough; there is no doubt about that. Demand in many markets remains weak while the
shrinking power of the US dollar has begun to eat into margins in a big way. It appears that many wineries are making the choice to compete on price and
are willing to sacrifice quality in the process. Given the nature of the times, it’s hard to be too critical of cash-constrained wineries struggling to
survive, but the simple fact is that many wines are falling out of the range where they are truly interesting. Make no mistake about it, given the enormous
amount of great wine being produced virtually everywhere in the world today, that is exactly what is on the line. I continue to be convinced the regions of
the south and center have virtually unlimited potential, but winemakers have to be willing to make the necessary sacrifices in order to compete on the
global stage. Where producers remain diligent and focused on quality, the wines are compelling. At their best the wines of center and south offer an
amazing range of diversity and value.
On a more positive note, the most exciting region this year is the Marche, where I was truly blown away by the sheer diversity and pure beauty of what I
tasted. Campania has a superb vintage with the 2010 whites, many of which are exceptional. Puglia remains my favorite region for deep value, which I define
as wines in the 86-88 point range that can be had for $10-$12 a bottle or less. Primitivo and Negroamaro are varieties perfectly suited to delicious,
every-day wines. The same is true Montepulciano in Abruzzo. Quality is more irregular, but the best wines are well worth seeking out. Throughout the center
and south there is an increasing use of stainless steel (and occasionally cement) for entry-level wines, which allows the character and fruit of these
indigenous red grapes to express their unique personalities. There are plenty of other terrific wines to explore in this article, but they are more driven
by grower than by region. For more on the many native grapes of the center and south readers may want to consult my introduction in Issue 189, while
thumbnail summaries of the regions are available in the introduction to Issue 182.
One of the lasting memories of my childhood is Verdicchio in the green fish-shaped bottle. How things have changed since then! Today the Marche produces a
dazzling array of world-class whites and reds. Because of its less than illustrious past, Verdicchio is often mistakenly overlooked in serious discussions
of the best Italian wines. The reality is that Veridicchio is one of Italy’s most versatile whites. In Matelica Verdicchio can be lush and generous, but
without losing minerality, while in Jesi the wines are tighter and more focused. Verdicchio is most often vinified in steel and meant to be drunk young. A
handful of producers are experimenting with slightly later harvests, aging in oak and/or extended bottle aging. The very finest Verdicchios have an uncanny
ability to age gracefully for years. The Marche’s main red varieties are Montepulciano and Sangiovese, two grapes that are also highly complementary when
blended. Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno, both based on Montepulciano, are the two most important appellations, but there are also a number of exciting wines
being made from international varieties. Over the last few years a number of lesser known native grapes including the white Pecorino and the red Lacrima di
Morro d’Alba have been rediscovered, often with great success.
Another region full of distinctive wines is Campania. The best 2010 whites are gorgeous, with less overt radiance but more minerality than the 2009s. It is
a style that seems more inherently well-suited to the cold microclimates that yield virtually all of the region’s top wines. The 2009 reds are less
successful as a whole. It is an open, approachable vintage with modest structure for nearly all of Campania’s reds from the entry-level bottlings all the
way up to the superstars, including Terra di Lavoro and Montevetrano, two of the most highly anticipated releases each year. The entry and mid-level reds,
which are often unoaked, remain an excellent source of varietal typicity and value.
Finding Value in Central and Southern Italy
On the subject of value, I have decided to incorporate our coverage of value-priced wines into the respective regional reports in order to give readers
access to budget-friendly wines throughout the year rather than in one concentrated article. Central and southern Italy remains an excellent source for
reasonably priced whites and reds across all regions and grape varieties. The breadth of choice is truly staggering. Because the center and south are still
young oenological regions (from a modern-day standpoint) I often find the entry-level wines are just as enjoyable (if not more so) than many estate’s top
wines, which frequently fall prey to the desire to do too much.
Most readers have grown up with the concept that Italy’s most important wines fall under the DOCG denomination. The DOCG stands for Denominazione di
Origine Controllata e Garantita, which means the wine comes from a geographically delineated area and that quality is ‘Guaranteed’ through a series of
post-bottling tastings. This last point is especially important as it separates DOCG from DOC. Brunello di Montalcino was the first wine to be awarded DOCG
status in 1980. It was followed by Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti Classico and a number of important wines, mostly reds. Today’s list of DOCGs tops 60
appellations. Frascati and Montecucco are two of the newest members of this once-elite club. If you have begun to laugh, you are not alone. I have nothing
against Frascati or Montecucco but to even think about discussing these wines in the same breath as Italy’s truly great wines is patently absurd. Even
worse, it cheapens the supposed value of that label to an enormous degree. By expanding the number of wines with DOCG status to the current level,
government authorities, in their infinite wisdom, have totally eroded any value the classification may have had. I am sure a few more bottles of Frascati
and Montecucco will be sold now that the wines are DOCGs, but that will do nothing to increase Italy’s prestige on the world stage. Sadly, it is consumers
who suffer most, as Italy’s already tangled mosaic of regional and wine hierarchies has become even more challenging to understand.