New Releases from Southern Italy

Southern Italy has always been a rich hunting ground for the savvy wine lover, as this large wine production area offers a treasure trove of fine wines at affordable prices. The very best wines can be compared to many Barolos and Brunellos in quality yet cost much less. And there are countless very good wines that are downright inexpensive.

Southern Italy includes the mainland regions of Campania, Basilicata, Puglia and Calabria, plus the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Although you'll find the likes of cabernet, merlot, syrah and chardonnay in Italy's south (mostly in Sicily), these regions are also blessed with an amazing range of indigenous grapes, some of which (e.g., aglianico) can be ranked among the finest red varieties in the world. Many others are close to top rank: nerello mascalese and fiano come to mind. This bevy of distinctive grapes allows for interesting wines that are different from anything made anywhere else in the world.

Each region in Italy's south is characterized by one or two main varieties that are so local that they are not found to any large extent in other regions (save for aglianico, which is shared by Campania and Basilicata) or, indeed, in the rest of Italy. So when you buy a bottle of southern Italian wine, you are most often buying a regional product. At a time when so many "internationally styled" wines seem interchangeable no matter where they're from, even when they're made with different grapes, the idiosyncratic nature of southern Italy's wines suits them well to export markets that are thirsty for wines that are neither boring nor too similar to each other.

That said, I was a little underwhelmed this time around by my tastings of the wines from Italy's south. Undoubtedly, the wines have improved greatly in terms of cleanliness. In fact, 20 years ago an article on the wines of southern Italy would have been only half as long as the present one, since there were simply too many rustic wines that could not be recommended to consumers in export markets. All that has changed now, and the likelihood of picking a lemon from southern Italy is now rare. However, as producers upgrade their technology, vineyard and cellar practices, their wines seem increasingly to be riper and more chocolatey, with a low-acid mouthfeel. The result is that many taste good but lack the vibrancy that would make them stand out. Some of the top wines are also less distinctive than they ought to be, showing less of the site-specific character I have found in previous vintages.

On the positive side, there are some amazingly interesting and very well-made wines available, and some that are on the brink of becoming international stars. Sicily's Etna region has simply boomed in the last five years, with the perfumed, pale red wines made from nerello mascalese all the rage. Previously forgotten varieties such as minutolo, nuragus, nero di Troia and others are gaining a greater foothold among producers and consumers, who now actively ask for them. And of course there's aglianico: when made as aglianico del Vulture (in Basilicata) or Taurasi (in Campania), it can rank with the greatest wines in the world.