Daniel Thomases on Southern Italy

Italian viticulture began in Southern Italy, brought there by early Greek colonists whose extensive settlements conveyed the first fruits of a true urban civilization to the country. Their temples remain as testimony of their presence in what was once known as "Magna Graecia." So do their vineyards (low, head-pruned bush vines featuring varieties such as aglianico, greco, grecante, and malvasia nera), as well as a way of life in which the vine, along with the olive, are of central importance in the local landscape, diet and economy.
Southern Italy still accounts for a substantial percentage of Italy national wine production. If Apulia and Sicily no longer produce the annual 14 million hectoliters (3.7 billion gallons) of wine of a decade and a half ago, recent vintages still total 10 million hectoliters, and the overall production of the Italian South, 26 million hectoliters, is a third larger than that of all of Spain.

Considering the amount of wine produced, the favorable climate and soil, and the many interesting varieties with which growers have to work, it might be expected that the wines of this part of Italy would be well known and appreciated in major markets. This is anything but the case, however, and the reason is fairly simple: large parts of the South continue in a tradition of bulk wine production that has lasted for centuries. Production is primarily of full, dark, alcoholic wines intended for blending in markets to the north (Italian and non-Italian: the port of Sete on France's Mediterranean coast was once a major destination for tanker ships departing from Sicily). If Tuscany and Piedmont have become-or would like to become-Napa and Sonoma, the South has remained mired in a viticultural reality resembling that of the Central Valley, producing mostly blowzy, alcoholic wines with little fragrance, style, or class.

It should be added at this point that the South of Italy in general, and not only its viticultural sector, is distinctly poorer than the rest of the country, with unemployment rates often close to 20%. Entrepreneurial dynamism is not exactly coin of the realm, and, up to now, relatively few small and medium-sized producers have chosen to risk bottling their own wines, to test the waters of the market. Negociant houses and cooperatives dominate the scene, and blending wine remains, in the majority of cases, their daily bread.

The 1990s, nonetheless, have seen some significant changes in this picture. Estate bottling has increased, wines of some excellence have begun to appear, and it is becoming clearer which viticultural areas and varieties have the greatest potential. A brief overview of the various regions is therefore in order.

A word first about climate. As might be expected, large parts of the South are quite warm. Winter as such barely exists, the vegetative cycle of the vine begins early, and July and August temperatures are regularly above 90 degree. The latter condition is not always a good thing: unrelieved heat, without any evening or nighttime freshness, can be deleterious for aromas and acidity, and relentlessly hot daytime temperatures, in the absence of rainfall (another problem that regularly afflicts these region), can lead to severe stress as the vines shut down and photosynthesis stops. Sugars accumulate due to evaporation of water from the grapes, but tannins remain aggressive and aromas and flavors become cooked. These are not universal problems, vintage after vintage, but it is best to resist easy formulas such as: intense heat + sunshine = quality grapes.

Topography can often be as significant as latitude in this part of Italy. Beginning in the Abruzzo and Molise and in the central part of Latium, a chain of high hills and mountains forms a central spinal column that extends southward virtually as far as the coast of the Ionian Sea between the toe and the heel of the Italian boot. The viticulture of this part of the South-Basilicata, the historic inland zone of Campania, and parts of Calabria-is one of high plateaus or low mountain slopes, and vineyards from 1,800 to 2,500 feet above sea level are by no means uncommon. The central part of Sicily is, in some cases, even higher. Anyone who has visited the freezing cold cellars of the Taurasi or Aglianico del Vulture zones in January is likely to find fairly ridiculous the common image of Southern Italy as a balmy, near-tropical paradise. Late-maturing grapes such as aglianico or greco are, in fact, often the last in Italy to be harvested in a normal vintage.

Vintages, therefore, are significant here as elsewhere. In general terms, 1995, 1997, 1999, and 2000 were considerably more successful than 1998, which was plagued by severe heat stress in August and then heavy rain in early October. The 2000 vintage, though the major red wines are still at least a year away from the market, seems to have been of particularly high quality. The red wines I've tasted in the cellars and the white wines now beginning to appear on the market are some of the ripest and fullest in many years. An unusually hot 25-day period from mid-August to September 10 did wonders both for the concentration and for the tannins of the red grapes, giving the wines the fullness and suppleness characteristic of the great vintages.

To return to the grapes themselves, however, the following is a brief list of the most important varieties in the different regions of Italy's South:

Campania: Aglianico is considered by many to be the nebbiolo of the South, a wine of great power and grip, long on the palate and slow-evolving in the bottle, and one that greatly rewards the wait. Piedirosso was until recently considered a minor variety, and is clearly less suited to bottling on its own. It often gives mourvedre-like notes of earth, bark, mushroom, olive, and Mediterranean herbs (what the French call garrigue and the Italians macchia), and unquestionably adds aromatic complexity in a blend with aglianico. Both varieties frequently pick up mineral tones on the volcanic soils of the region. Greco and fiano are the two major white varieties, the first fruitier and softer, the latter more minerally, herbaceous and intense.

Basilicata: Aglianico is the region's only variety of any significance.

Apulia: Negroamaro, which dominates the triangular area formed by Brindisi, Taranto and Lecce known as the Salento, gives warm and alcoholic wines characterized by brambly, jammy fruit, leather and wet fur, thyme and oregano. Farther north there is some aglianico in the higher areas bordering on Basilicata, and uva di Troia to the north and south of the regional capital of Bari. This latter grape is something of an untested variety whose dark and tannic wines have, until now, been used almost entirely for blending. But the occasional fine bottle, first from Rivera and now from Santa Lucia, indicates that there are other possibilities as well, and some of the consulting enologists who have begun to work in the region have expressed real interest in the grape. Calabria: Gaglioppo, the region's principal quality variety, is not unlike negroamaro in character, though its wines are lighter in color, softer, and shorter-lived. Good bottles are often Rhone-like in their fruit, warmth, and slight pepperiness. Areas closer to Basilicata typically grow some aglianico as well. Sicily: Nero d'Avola, once principally cultivated in the island's southeast, gives an archetypal red wine of the South: dark, full and alcoholic. Nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio are fruitier, less intense, and more perfumed, at least partly due to the fact that they are grown in vineyards high on Mount Etna, where altitude and cooling breezes from the sea give an entirely different style of wine. Inzolia, the region's most significant white grape of quality, gives ripe and honeyed wines of a certain weight and volume and has shown an affinity to oak aging.

Sardinia: The two best red grapes, cannonau and carignano, are, not surprisingly, Spain's garnacha and carinena: for a lengthy period, the island was under the domination of the crown of Aragon. Vermentino, the major white variety, may also be of Spanish origin, though it is now cultivated principally along the northwestern coast of Italy (Liguria and Tuscany) and in Provence. Lemony in flavor and resinous on the nose, it gives one of Southern Italy's best white wines in Sardinia.

In vinification as well, the South has a way to go in catching up with more advanced parts of Italy. That many of the local winemakers are both competent and hard-working cannot be doubted, but much of their professional life has been spent making wines for blending rather than for bottling, using very high fermentation temperatures to maximize the alcohol and vigorous pumping over to extract as much color as possible. These are obviously not the criteria for wines of freshness, elegance and class. Accordingly, the arrival on the scene of consulting winemakers from outside the region is obviously a welcome phenomenon. It would be unfair and ungenerous, however, to neglect the decades of work of men such as Severino Garofano, trained at the enological school of Avellino and for 25 years a major force for good in Apulia, and Campania's Luigi Mojo, son of a wine producer, trained at Bordeaux, and professor of enology at the University of Naples when not working as a consulting winemaker. At the moment, the two most influential figures from outside the South now working in the area are Giacomo Tachis and Riccardo Cotarella. Tachis is better known for the wines he has created in Umbria, but he has been turning out benchmark bottles for close to a decade further south, first in Campania and more recently in Sicily. Cotarella, the dean of Italian enologists, had a revolutionary impact on Tuscan wine as the former head winemaker for Antinori. He has long favored the use of international varieties alongside native Italian grapes. His role as advisor to the regional governments of both Sicily and Sardinia has had a major influence on developments on these islands, particularly on the former where blends of classic Sicilian varieties with cabernet and syrah are now quite common. Whether this is the best road to take is a debatable point, and it may well be that consumers will be increasingly interested in specifically southern Italian aromas and flavors rather than those that can be found all over the world. But, taken singly, many of these new wines are unquestionably successful on their own terms and will give much drinking pleasure to those who choose them.

In the long run, a more modern approach to winemaking may be significantly more important than the specific varieties from which the wines are made. Southern Italian wines need to become fresher and less alcoholic, to express more directly their fruit and varietal character, and to combine depth and concentration with suppleness of texture.

Cleanliness is another issue that must be confronted and resolved: the large number of wines with pronounced sweaty saddle and animal notes indicates that serious problems of cellar technique and of spoilage yeasts (brettanomyces above all) are still holding back progress through much of the South. At the same time, however, the many distinguished wines now available demonstrate that these problems are far from insuperable and that this part of Italy, with the proper commitment on the part of growers and winemakers, will increasingly produce wines that compete with the country's best.