The Wines of Southern Italy

Southern Italy is an increasingly interesting place for wine lovers to visit, virtually or in person.  Italy's south has always been home to many great wine buys; and the fact many southern Italian wines are unique and idiosyncratic only adds to the area's attraction.  Unfortunately, for the longest time far too many wineries were simply going through the motions, churning out wines that were dirty and unpleasant or already tired and oxidized at time of bottling, particularly the whites.   Some producers decades ago chose to plant varieties such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot bianco in what are generally very warm production areas, and that decision only made matters worse.

Another problem with the south is that some of the bigger outfits were also just happy to mass-produce large volumes of well-made but ultimately boring wines that spoke little about the unique grape varieties growing there.  Obviously, sense of place has been even harder to come by.  In this light, it is self-explanatory that Sicily has long pushed for a generic Sicilia appellation (or denominazione in Italian), and now there is also the new, large and generic Terre Siciliane appellation.  Only an estate like Gulfi steadfastly stuck to analyzing the different crus for nero d'Avola by bottling wines from as many as five different vineyards, but encouragingly it appears that some other producers are beginning to bottle single-vineyard nero d'Avola wines as well.

The same considerations apply to the other southern Italian regions.  For example, in Basilicata the producers have always been content with a very extensive Aglianico del Vulture denominazione, seemingly without wondering whether the soil from which many Vulture wines are made is really volcanic or not.  But it's one thing to produce an aglianico wine from the volcanic slopes of Barile, and quite another from Venosa or Acarenza, two areas that didn't see much lava come their way.  Both areas can make outstanding Aglianico del Vultures--and have, over the years--but the wines will be quite different, each with a story to tell.

It seems to me that there are good marketing possibilities there to latch onto by creating different types of wines based on diverse geology and microclimates (such as is the case with Margaux and Pauillac, for example), but for the longest time nobody in Italy ever thought along those lines.  Happily, there are signs that that mindset is finally starting to change.

These considerations aside, the fact is that there's lots to cheer in southern Italian wines today.  Simply put, beginning with the 21st century, things have never been better.  As in Central Italy, never before have we had so many good wines to choose from, and so many exciting new wineries emerging, often powered by 20-something men and women bitten by the wine bug.  People are paying greater attention to their local native varieties and finally doing something with them, rather than just planting and using useless (at these latitudes) chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

For example, take Sicily's cataratto bianco, for the longest time the island's most abundantly cultivated grape variety, though now in sharp decline.  Only in the last couple of years have producers finally started differentiating between--and bottling separately--the cataratto bianco biotypes, of which there are three well-recognized types.  Though we have long known that the lucido and the extra-lucido biotypes are of higher quality than the comune biotype, bottles of wines made with the single biotypes have only recently appeared.  I remember asking producers ten years ago why nobody wanted to try their hand at bottling these higher-quality biotypes on their own, if for no other reason than to see whether the wines really were better.  But in those sorrier times such suggestions were alien to almost everyone I talked to (and not just in Southern Italy, it should be noted).

Simply put, my exhortations about native grapes and their potential importance to the local territory and the financial well-being of wineries always fell on deaf ears.  People weren't ready to hear about the potential importance of native grapes, and besides, nobody had enough vines of single biotypes to work with (practically all of the older vineyards had been planted haphazardly with a mix of biotypes).  Mercifully, all this appears to be changing, and it's high time.

Similarly, a growing number of producers is turning to making better wines from famous denominazioni, such as, for example, Passito di Pantelleria.  Another positive example is the rebirth of Malvasia delle Lipari, potentially one of Italy's best sweet wines.  Nothing makes me happier than to see estates now making a Malvasia delle Lipari wine from some of the other little islands of that mesmerizingly beautiful archipelago (not just Salina but finally from Vulcano too).

Clearly, Italy's south continues to make outstanding wines, both red and white, such as the many Taurasi and fiano or greco wines; in fact--and make no mistake about it--these are some of Italy's very best wines.  For sure, there are few greater Italian reds than Campania's Taurasi or Basilicata's Aglianico del Vulture, when made by competent, conscientious producers.  Fiano, from Campania, is probably Italy's single greatest white grape variety, with stellar wines that age surprisingly well.  So grab your wine glasses and start your engines: southern Italy has something for everyone.

One final word about scores.  Some readers who have extensive experience of outstanding pinot noirs, chardonnays and sauvignon blancs might be skeptical when they see little-known Italian varieties also garnering high scores.  Although it is not my intention to suggest, for example, that southern Italian white wines are on a par with great white Burgundies, I do believe that many wines made from less-known varieties (and not just in Italy) often get the short end of the stick when it comes to wine ratings.  In my effort to bring relatively obscure Italian varieties and wines to the attention of wine lovers inside and outside Italy, I take care not to overstate the virtues of varieties that are not capable of making truly distinctive wines.  On the other hand, I do make it clear in the tasting notes when and if I see the potential in some of these varieties, and of course many of them do hold out terrific potential. 

Unlike most wine writers who only visit Italy a couple times a year, I live in Italy and have been tasting wines made from native Italian grapes intensively for the past 15 years.  I have a very good idea of what each can and should deliver in the glass.  Unfortunately, many of the best wines are made in minuscule quantities by small family domains, and bottles may be hard to find outside of Italy (though the more serious U.S. importers do a remarkable job ferreting out interesting wine estates).  The risk is that once a variety becomes popular, many enthusiasts only get to taste versions made by larger, often more industrial producers, the wines of which hardly speak of the varieties involved.  So please read my notes carefully because they are your best way of getting to know what these unique and sometimes still-rare grape varieties are capable of delivering.

So, in keeping with the IWC's long tradition of scoring wines sensibly and not throwing around 95+ scores like confetti, many of the wines rated 90 points or higher in this report are worth more than just a look.  Already, grape varieties such as fiano and aglianico rank with the best in the world (and are being increasingly planted outside of Italy), and their status will become increasingly apparent as the number of well-made wines from each variety grows.  There are many other interesting varieties yet to be discovered.  Although these undiscovered wines may show aroma and flavor profiles far removed from what most people are accustomed to, I am confident that many not-yet-household-names will prove their worth in the years ahead.