Southern Italy: Diamonds in the Rough


After nearly two decades of tasting through numerous wines across all of Southern Italy, I still struggle to write that these producers have come a long way, creating high-quality wines that represent fantastic value. Across the world, I’ve watched technology and the ease of sharing knowledge change the face of wine. I’ve heard many times from producers throughout regions of both Italy and the United States that today, it’s easy to make a good wine, just difficult to make a great one. When considering this and the rise in the quality we have all witnessed around the globe, I must question: Why does Southern Italy still lag? And, yes, I’m excluding Sicily and Campania, which I review separately. Don’t get me wrong, there are many great producers in this report worth hunting for, collecting and cellaring for decades, yet they are in the minority.

My Basilicata, Calabria, Puglia, Lazio and Molise tastings are littered with overripe, over-oaked, rustic and even dirty wines. I’ve only seen a general rise in quality, organization between producers and a desire to do better in Basilicata. Some might argue that these other regions lack an icon, which is a valid point. Basilicata has the dynamic Elena Fucci, who not only sheds light on Vulture and shows the world what it is capable of but also works to band producers together and communicate progress. But who will become an icon in Calabria, Puglia, Lazio and Molise? In these regions, a handful of high-quality wines, the “diamonds in the rough”, are wildly impressive amongst a sea of mediocrity.

A snowy Maschito vineyard not long after harvest.

What Is Holding Them Back?

A big part of the problem is motivation and willingness to grow. If great wine can be produced in the most brutal environments, the poorest soils and the most drought-stricken locations, why not here? Are the producers of Italy’s south traveling the world to observe and learn from winemaking icons? I’ve witnessed this throughout much of Italy as younger generations pick up the torch, yet I seldom hear about it in conversations with southern producers. Is the word “tradition” used to excuse antiquated and rustic winemaking? I’ve certainly been in my fair share of “traditional” cellars where the noxious odors verge on the nauseating scents evocative of the passing of life. Is there an organizing body, such as a Consorzio, that not only passes legislation and upholds the rules of the DOC or DOCG but also markets and helps to organize the producers of the region? The fact that this article covers just over two hundred wines is a perfect example of how marketing and organization are necessary. Receiving just 200 wines between Basilicata, Calabria, Puglia, Lazio and Molise was disappointing after reaching out to importers and producers, often more than once. Many emails went unanswered, many wines arrived without any information or contact to reach out to, and many were lost in the system of shipping and customs without any recourse. Ultimately, it’s up to the producers to push for such changes.

That starts with education, travel, tasting the world's most outstanding wines, trying to understand them better and not settling for the status quo. Just as important, though, for producers is understanding that no matter how many generations have made wine in the past, nothing will ever change without striving to do better. If that does not happen, Southern Italy will continue to crawl instead of walk. 

Basilicata: Nowhere To Go But Up

Of all the regions of Southern Italy, Basilicata, propelled forward by the producers of Vulture, has continued to improve by leaps and bounds. Just ten years ago, this wasn’t so. Like many wines of the south, these were over-stylized, oak-inflected, high-alcohol wines with big burly tannins. Often producers would practice appassimento in an attempt to tame the tannins, but in the end, the problem was not the inherent qualities of the grapes but the poor practices in the vineyards and the cellars. Today, the wines are nearly unrecognizable from those of the past. The importance of terroir and purity of Aglianico (their principal grape) is first and foremost on most producers' minds.

Basilicata lacks an organizing Consorzio that can better communicate and market its producers to the world. Last year's article, “Basilicata: Vulture’s Rise from the Ashes”, which I would suggest to anyone interested in a deep dive into the region, was only possible because of the combined efforts of several winemakers. However, this year's report shows the continuing problem: most producers are forced to ship wines independently to be included in this report. Often without the help of an importer, which many wineries don’t currently have, these packages are lost or sit stagnant in customs. With such a small representation of producers, the decision was made to include Basilicata, once again, within the larger Southern Italy report. It’s a horrible shame because Vulture has proven its worth over time, and nothing would make me happier than seeing more of these wines in international markets. Readers will find a selection of genuinely outstanding Aglianicos in the accompanying notes that can easily compete with the best of Campania. It’s only so long before the rest of the world catches on.

Elena Fucci's Titolo by Amphora aging the cellar.

Calabria Keeping Pace

There are some outstanding values among the Calabrian wines in this report, which gives me hope. Overall quality is high, and the wines are much cleaner and more precise than in the past. Unfortunately, except for a tiny subset, finding a producer pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved is not easy. 

Calabria forms the sole, instep and toe of Italy’s boot. Outside of some unique and often highly pleasurable IGTs produced from its native varieties, Cirò is the most important category. The wines are rich with dark red fruits, spice and grippy tannins that require taming or long-term cellaring. Cirò is produced from the Gaglioppo grape, with its own Classico area centered around the towns of Cirò and Cirò Marina. The entire growing zone runs down toward the Ionian coast from the foothills of the Sila Mountains. The most interesting wines hail from the higher elevations. This is where we find the tiny producer ‘A Vita, one of the standouts in each year’s tastings. Ippolito 1845 is also notable and has a much larger production. Then there is Ceraudo, who also uses Gaglioppo with significant effect, often blended with the indigenous Magliocco grape, yet not in the Cirò DOC. The trick to Gaglioppo is tannin management and time, as the wines can be almost painful when young but also disinteresting when grown at lower elevations and allowed to overripen. 

Puglia, the Honey Pot of Southern Italy

Two grapes primarily define Puglia today: the earthy, fleshy, often rustic Negroamaro, which also can mature surprisingly well, and the racy, fruit-forward and often high-alcohol Primitivo. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen less of recently is the indigenous Nero di Troia (also known as Uva di Troia). Nero di Troia boasts dark red fruits, forest, earth and spices, along with high acidity that adds wild energy and grippy tannins. Its elevation to DOCG in 2011 within the Castel del Monte designation seemed to be a sign of good things to come, but that potential has yet to be fully realized.

Ultimately, most of these wines can be pleasurable, yet they can catch up quickly with the taster. Their combination of sweet fruits and juicy textures with high alcohol and often residual sugar means that enjoying more than one glass can be challenging to even the most experienced taster. That said, if there was a push toward refinement, lowering alcohols and cleaner cellar practices, the native varieties of Puglia could reach incredible heights. Tenuta Bocca di Lupo, formerly labeled under Antinori’s Tormaresca brand, is the only producer currently championing Aglianico. Tenuta Bocca di Lupo is located in Murgia with close proximity to Vulture in Basilicata, with vineyards on pure limestone soil. It’s rough terrain, yet it produces Aglianico of amazing character.

Barrel aging in the Alberico cellars.

The Untapped Potential of Lazio

Lazio has tremendous untapped potential, but who will lead these producers? Two years ago, in my article “Umbria & Lazio: Italy’s Underdogs”, I wrote, “Even with all of the producers in Lazio turning out amazing varietal Cesanese, or the few Frascati producers bottling Malvasia Puntinata into something altogether different from the bulk-produced versions that adorn tourists’ tables throughout the region, a lot of wine made in Lazio is still low-quality, high-production and unworthy of serious attention.” I wish I could revise that statement today, but it remains true. The future of Lazio, in my opinion, is the indigenous Cesanese, produced from three growing areas: Cesanese del Piglio, Cesanese di Olevano Romano and Cesanese d’Affile. Cesanese is a late-ripening red grape that offers a gorgeous, perfumed floral bouquet of dark fruits mixed with wild herbs, florals and spices and the structure to carry them in the cellar. When tasting these from the best producers, the potential of Lazio becomes apparent. However, even with the growing interest in Cesanese amongst wine drinkers, the roll call of producers that make it into international markets remains very small. 

Lest We Forget Molise

The small region of Molise may not even receive coverage if it weren’t for Di Majo Norante. This standout producer has managed to excel with a portfolio based on Tintilia, Aglianico, Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Molise is often lumped together with Abruzzo. The two regions share a natural border and similar terroir where they connect. However, the varieties in Molise are much different from their neighbor to the north. Tintilia is the ruling red, a fragrant and zesty variety that makes incredibly fresh yet gently tannic wines. As for whites, there’s Cococciola, along with international varieties such as Riesling and Sauvignon. Most wine produced in Molise comes from the plains closer to the mountains and its border with Campania. I would love to see a focus on quality winemaking here outside of Di Majo Norante, as they have proven it's possible to create lovely wines of both power and prestige at extremely fair price points. 

Current Releases

Two thousand twenty and 2021 are the two years most represented in my tastings. However, it’s impossible to lump the regions in this report together, as each is geographically unique, especially in the case of Lazio. In this instance, the vintage character is quite close to both southern Tuscany and Umbria, yet less so with Campania. While in Molise, vintage conditions follow closely with Abruzzo, their neighbor to the north. This leaves us with Basilicata, Calabria and Puglia. Each of these regions has a distinctive climate. In the case of Basilicata and Calabria, the effects of a sea on two borders create a drastically different situation from Puglia. Basilicata and Calabria both have coastlines that touch the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas. However, in Basilicata, it’s Mount Vulture that produces the majority of its fine wine. The combination of altitude and water-retaining volcanic soils define this region and make each vintage unique from its neighbors. 

Last year, I touched on the 2020 vintage in Basilicata. I continue to be impressed with these wines in recent tastings. This was a small production year due to frost in the spring and hail in the summer. It was also relatively dry and warm. However, the soils of Vulture did an excellent job supplying water to the vines from built-up supplies in winter, which were then replenished again through periodic rains in the summer. September and October brought more balanced conditions, allowing the fruit to mature beautifully. These are seductive wines that combine elegance and depth with regal tannins. In 2021, Basilicata suffered through a brutal winter with a surplus of snow, which ultimately helped to build up water supplies. The spring turned quite warm, punctuated by a ten-day-long heat wave in June. Temperatures remained high through July and August, offset by occasional rain and the strong diurnal shifts that the region is known for. However, by the end of August, cooler conditions prevailed and lasted into the fall, allowing grapes to regain balance. I’ve already tasted several 2021s from some of the region's top producers. The wines are racy and vibrant, already pleasurable, with masses of ripe fruit and, at times, edgy tannins. 

Aglianico del Vulture continues to impress and improve.

As for Calabria, it was a very different situation in both years. In 2020, the Cirò region, Calabria’s most important growing area, suffered the entire summer without rain. The last recorded rainfall was on June 4th, followed by a reprieve on September 20th. Combined with the year’s warmth, sugar accumulation and maturation were accelerated, and harvests were over a week earlier than usual. Expect big, burly, fruit-forward wines and the possibility of under-ripe tannins. The 2021 vintage was much more balanced. The region witnessed regular precipitation through much of the spring, followed by dry yet balanced conditions through the summer. Rain returned in mid-August along with cooler temperatures, allowing for a normal and healthy harvest starting in the middle of September. I’m excited to taste more of the 2021s as they enter the market. From what I’ve tasted so far, the 2021s possess vivid, plush fruit and racy acidities. 

In Puglia, producers reported a cool and balanced spring in 2020, with well-timed rains and only sporadic issues with frost. June into July was hot, with several refreshing periods that helped keep maturation regular. The red grape harvest started at the end of August and continued through September under ideal conditions. The results are fruit-forward and racy wines with elevated acidities to balance. As for the 2021 vintage, expect lower production numbers throughout Puglia from a combination of an unusually cool and rainy spring, frost, hail and, in many cases, drought during the summer. That said, the year was warm outside these events, with harvests starting within the regular averages. From the limited number of wines tasted so far, the 2021s are big and rich, with high alcohols but also acidity to balance. 

I tasted all of the wines for this report in our offices in New York City through May and June of 2023.

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