Vineyards Of Southern Italy

Exploring the rich and diverse wines of this beautiful region

Italy is a vine-swept nation whose wines are famous in every corner of the civilized world. Red wines such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone and Valpolicella are well-known to wine cognoscenti, as are white wines Soave, Gavi, Albana di Romagna, Vernaccia di San Gimignano and the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio. Prosecco is practically a household name in sparkling wines these days.

It seems that Italy’s most famous wines come from central and northern Italy, with Piedmont and Tuscany leading the charge. But this fame and notoriety has begun to trickle down to the southern portion of Italy as well. And it is about time for people to taste the terrific southern Italian wines being made and see just how far this area has come.

Southern Italy officially begins with Campania. Campania is home to the gorgeous Golfo di Napoli (Bay of Naples) and Costa Amalfitana (Amalfi Coast), with the resplendent towns of Napoli (Naples) and Salerno respectively. It is also home to an extremely fashionable wine industry.

The key Campanian grape varieties are Falanghina, Fiano and Greco. Falanghina is southern Italy’s version of Pinot Grigio – with green fruit flavors and good citrus acidity, a hint of tropical fruitiness abounds in this wine. Fiano is more assertive, with a more flowery character reminiscent of pineapple, nuts and herbs. It reminds me of basil in some cases, and it is grown primarily in the area of Avellino. Greco is the true terroir white from Campania. This is grown on tufaceous soil, hence the name Greco di Tufo. This white is almost Chablis-like, with a fleshy white fruitiness and a long, zesty finish. Red wine in Campania is dominated by Aglianico, which winemakers craft into many different styles. It can be a simple, semi-light quaffing red, much like Beaujolais, or it can be made into a deep, brooding, masculine wine that can hold its own against Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Top producers include Feudi di San Gregorio (their whites are leaders of the pack, and the “Serpico” 100 percent Aglianico can be a monster), Mastroberardino (especially for their Taurasi Riserva) and Terredora (for their whites).

Heading over to Puglia, white wines, such as Bombino and Trebbiano, have become much cleaner and are great for quaffing. These wines rarely see our Hawaii shores and are mostly consumed locally in Italy. Puglian reds are usually a blend of Uva di Troia, Malvasia Nera, Negroamaro and Primitivo (aka Zinfandel). These provide nice value wines, as they have neither the following nor breed of their northern counterparts. But Negroamaro and Primitivo have shown much promise as monovarietal wines. They are being made in a thicker style to please those looking for a good bang for the buck. Taurino and A-Mano are worthy producers that are available in Hawaii.

Basilicata is the “forgotten” region. It ranks 17th in vine acreage and 19th in wine produced (out of 20). Whites are rarely exported from this region, but do include Malvasia and Moscato. However, from what I’ve had, they do make some interesting reds from Aglianico, especially grown in the volcanic soils of Monte Vulture. These are forte wines with plenty of tannin and ripe black and blueberry flavors. Vigne di Mezzo “Efesto” is a good introduction to Aglianico from Basilicata.

The “toe” of the very fashionable Italian boot is Calabria. Greco is found here again in almost every white. It is used as both a blender and exclusively for dry whites. The most famous red is something unique. It is called Gaglioppo. It has thick skin, thus can be very dark, but it is not tremendously tannic. It can be ripe, velvety and savory. Librandi is the name to know if you want to taste Gaglioppo. His Librandi Ciro Rosso Classico is the wine that put this area on the map.

Sicilia (Sicily) is a hotbed for exploring new and fashionable wines. Marsala may not be as “haute couture” as it once was, but interestingly enough, the dry white wines that are making a splash today are made with the same grapes, but on their own. Inzolia, Malvasia and Zibibbo (aka Muscat) are all allowed in Marsala, but each one is now being fashioned into dry whites. Inzolia is amazingly aromatic and reminds me of pikake flowers with an added spiciness. Malvasia grown in the volcanic soils of the island picks up an uncanny earthiness that is more than pleasing to the palate. And Zibibbo’s hedonistic aromas of flowers, peaches, apricots and honey are amazing. Nero d’Avola is

Sicily’s most prominent red, which can conjure up black fruits galore, deep flavors akin to Syrah and a robust texture that can please many a red wine hedonist. It is also used in blends to stiffen them up. There are a growing number of high-quality producers. Donnafugata and Planeta (some of my faves come from this winery) are easily the cream of the crop, with Regaleali, Ceuso and Cusumano in hot pursuit. Zisola is a newcomer that makes some impressive Nero d’Avola.

From one island we come to another, Sardegna (Sardinia). Vermentino is the white of the island. Here it can have beautiful fragrances of herbs, flowers, citrus and melons. It always is refreshing and ultra-versatile when it comes to food on the table. Saredegna’s best reds are Cannonau (aka Grenache/Garnacha) and Carignano. The Cannonau can be just as full as its Southern Rhone cousins, with a bit more savory character. Carignano has firm tannins and can be dark and rich. They can still be a bit rustic at times, but when it’s good, you’ll know it. Sella & Mosca, Capichera and Argiolas are standard bearers for the island and excel in both white and red.

These Southern Italian wines have a natural affinity with our own Island cuisine. The fresh, local and simply prepared bounty of the sea is amazing with the whites. And our passion for red meats and game make the reds an easy choice. Our sunny, hot, tropical climate is quite similar to the climates in which these wines have grown. So why not drink a bit of Southern Italy tonight? Salud!

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier.

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