Getting in on the Ground Floor: Aglianico del Vulture

BY ERIC GUIDO | MAY 28, 2024

This year’s tastings in Vulture were my most comprehensive ever. This region is easily Italy’s top underdog, with producers creating exciting varietal Aglianico from a diverse mix of locations and terroirs, taking full advantage of the variety's ability to communicate a sense of place. The wines of Vulture show the inherent characteristics of Aglianico, with an immaculate balance of primary fruit, regal tannins and stimulating acidity, all while remaining remarkably different from their neighbors in Campania. 

Barrel aging cellars cut into the tuff soils at Basilisco.

The towns of Barile, Venosa, Rionero, Ripacandida, Ginestra and Maschito all yield an outstanding selection of wines, each place imparting its unique stamp of terroir. Top producers within each of these townships make wines from single vineyards and parcels that elevate Aglianico even further. The diverse terroir of Vulture mixes volcanic lava flows upwards of 600 meters in the township of Barile, while in Ginestra, we find ash, volcanic sand, rocks and calcareous clay. When the now-dormant volcano Vulture erupted, it created a wide range of soils in the surrounding areas. Lava is predominant in sites close to the crater (which sits around 500 meters in elevation in Maschito) but then transitions to a complex mix of soils in more peripheral areas. This is the reason for the region's many different interpretations of Aglianico. The variety finds the perfect home in Vulture’s soil also because of its ability to retain water and the mild conditions that allow Aglianico to reach polyphenolic ripeness. Moreover, the constant wind currents that tear through Vulture create ideal ventilation to help ward off disease and moderate temperatures in warmer seasons. 

In my recent piece on Campania, I explained that the region's reds could compete with Italy's longest-lived and most important wines. I feel the exact same way about Vulture, yet here we have much lower production, with producers concentrated in a smaller area. In many cases, there is even more value to be found in Vulture.

Similar to Campania, parcels of 70- to 100-year-old vines spread throughout the towns of Vulture, which are caringly tended by producers like Basilisco, Elena Fucci, Grifalco and Cantine del Notaio. In the most traditional cases, these vines are intermixed with fruit and olive trees and trained using a cane system known as Capanno (which means "shed”), requiring meticulous attention and constant maintenance. Vulture is a region with a rich history of vine-growing; only 25 years ago, large producers and co-ops dominated the industry. Today, there’s an unmistakable energy as winemakers work toward the future. 

The secluded nature of the location has limited the attention that Vulture's producers receive and deserve. While Basilicata attracts a massive number of tourists to its beach towns, Vulture itself is a vacation destination exclusively for hikers and nature enthusiasts; visiting the crater lakes and parks is the only draw to the area. The lack of infrastructure had cut off the region from much of Italy up until only decades ago. Even visiting a town such as Barile, it is remarkable to observe the cultural and physical similarities of its inhabitants, as this is a part of Italy that remains largely untouched by the outside world. Frankly, coming from a melting pot of cultures myself, I find this quite unsettling.

Elena Fucci's Titilo Vineyard.

While Vulture has been producing fantastic wines for over two decades, exploring the region still feels like getting in on the ground floor. Prices of a small number of bottlings have increased over the years – and deservedly so – yet so many wines still offer tremendous value.

In contrast to Campania, in Vulture, producers have found a way to bottle a more accessible style of Aglianico without sacrificing its depth and complexity. The main factors that have led to the emergence of fresh-styled, widely appealing Aglianicos, are the terroir and the difference between clones. Vulture’s Aglianico is known for being more vigorous and productive, with slightly larger bunches. Here, producers rely on stainless steel, concrete or amphora to soften the variety’s contours and allow its natural acidity to mingle perfectly with a core of vibrant dark fruit. Granted, global warming has likely assisted in emphasizing the primary fruit components enough to stand up to Aglianico’s tannins. However, producers have realized that pushing their fruit to extreme ripeness and overwhelming it with oak isn’t the solution to making an appealingly fresh wine. As a rule of thumb, the Aglianico del Vulture DOC is where consumers find the most value from the region by way of fresher-styled wines made from fruit sourced throughout the villages. Think of this as the Rosso of Vulture, requiring just nine months of aging in the winery in any vessel of choice. The Aglianico del Vulture Superiore and Riserva DOCGs make up the majority of the single-vineyard and old-vine bottlings, requiring 12 months in barrel followed by another two years in bottle. Many producers, such as Basilisco, take this even further and mature their Aglianicos much longer to release wines closer to their optimal drinking window. 

While there are still many throwback, large-scale, hauntingly dark wines within the region, with each passing year, more small-production and family-run wineries move toward refinement and purity. The larger producers seem to be catching up as well, but there’s still much work to do. In Vulture, the potential for expansion of Aglianico has plenty of room, but unfortunately, it isn’t the focus. Expansive tracts of new vineyards growing white and red varieties feed large production projects inside and outside the region, including one 300-hectare property of Gewürztraminer, for example. This threatens the identity of the region, presenting a significant problem for the DOC and DOCG. Many large-scale producers bottle IGT reds and whites instead of prioritizing the region's tradition of making varietal Aglianico. By not supporting the variety, they are limiting its exposure to the world.

Vulture has solely been focused on Aglianico, but each year, an increasing number of producers experiment with white wines. The first examples are made with Aglianico vinified as a white wine. Readers find notes from producers such as Madonna delle Grazie, Strapellum, Tenuta Lagala and Tenuta Marino in this report. Today, these attempts aren’t life-changing, but they are quite unique and worth trying, typically possessing a glycerol/honeyed feel with dominant notes of white flowers and almonds. The best of these wines can be quite pleasant. Considering the volcanic soils and cool climate, a few producers are already experimenting with Fiano. Donato d’Angelo recently planted a Fiano vineyard that will come into production in a couple of years. Basilisco’s Fiano Sophia was refined only in stainless steel before the 2020 vintage, while now matures in a combination of amphora, barrique and tonneau. The 2021, which was resting in stainless steel prior to bottling, is mineral-intense, floral and refined yet spicy. Hopefully, time will yield more options.

Cellars dug into the volcanic cliffs of Vulture.

Current Vintages

The mountainous Vulture area, with vineyard elevations above 600 meters, yields vintages that greatly differ from those of the surrounding regions. To the east and west, influences from the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Seas bring constant ventilation. I don’t recall a day on my previous trip that wasn’t windy. These winds help ward off disease in wet years and cool the area in warmer years, while the volcanic tufo absorbs and holds water, slowly releasing it in dryer seasons. This combination perfectly explains why Vulture has been successful recently. In Vulture, a vintage like 2022, which most producers in Italy would call hot and arid, is generally a balanced year.

The 2022 reds show an elegance, depth of fruit and potency that speaks to the warm vintage, yet they maintain fantastic balance, freshness and regal structure. The season started with a frigid and dry winter. Things changed quickly in the spring with warmer temperatures and significant rain, which built up water supplies in the soils for the months ahead. June, July and August were hot and dry, with two weeks of intense heat in July. However, while warm, the rest of the summer season did not cause stress to the vines. Significant diurnal shifts and ventilating winds at night further aided the health of the plants. September and October brought much cooler temperatures and regular precipitation, which slowed fruit maturation and allowed for a traditionally late harvest from October into November. If anything, it was essential for producers to time their harvests around the autumn rains, yet I haven’t encountered any wines showing signs of dilution. I’m very excited to see what the later-release wines will reveal. This is a vintage to watch. 

The 2021s entering the market are racy and vibrant, with masses of ripe fruit and gripping tannin. I was pleasantly surprised during recent tastings, as the best 2021s are structured and balanced for a long evolution. Still, readers should be aware that there is more variability from producer to producer. Basilicata suffered through a brutal winter in 2021 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 strong diurnal shifts. By the end of August, cooler conditions prevailed and lasted into the fall, allowing grapes to regain balance. 

It will be interesting to follow both 2021s and 2022s over time, as both show excellent potential for the cellar as well as near-term appeal.

I tasted the wines for this report in Basilicata in March of 2024.

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