New Releases from Southern Italy

Most cosmopolitan American wine lovers are considerably more knowledgeable about the wines of Southern France than they are about Southern Italian wines. But the six regions that comprise the southern third of Italy offer a world of wine styles on their own, and in massive quantities to boot. Apulia alone (Puglia in Italian) reportedly produces more wine than Australia, and Sicily produces even more (much of this production, to be sure, is bulk wine). Southern Italy as a whole produces more wine than Spain.

In recent months I sampled a few hundred wines from Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia (I have also included notes on the wines of Di Majo Norante in Molise). My tastings covered everything from warm, inviting, southern-style reds that are perfect for early drinking, to structured, powerful reds that demand cellaring, to scented, minerally and surprisingly fresh white wines with a complexity that comes from the soil rather than from oak barrels. As hot as much of Southern Italy is, it produces a far wider range of interesting white wines than France's southern tier.

Most red wines from Southern Italy, especially from south of Campania, show a distinctly warm-climate character: roasted and sometimes dried fruit notes; spice and herb notes reminiscent of the garrigue of Mediterranean France; and fat, sweet middles followed by somewhat coarse tannins. As in other very warm regions, many wines come from fruit whose sugars skyrocketed before their skins truly ripened, and thus there are many, many wines that are both roasted and green, often with notes of menthol and herbs and rustic, drying tannins. When these wines are reasonably well balanced and priced right, they rank among the world's most compelling red wine values. Of recent harvests, 2001 was the best for Southern Italian red wine in terms of overall quality and balance, while in 2000 many areas had to contend with extreme heat.

Red wines to look for. Among the highlights of my recent tastings were numerous structured, full-bodied, ageworthy wines made from aglianico, the noble grape of Italy's South - at its best in Campania and Basilicata, as well as in the northern portion of Apulia. Examples from Campania's Taurasi zone can be particularly brooding and cellarworthy; Aglianico del Vulture, grown on volcanic soils in the northern corner of Basilicata, is also frequently impressive. The best of these wines, with their deep colors and often strikingly primary aromas and flavors, defy any conception of "southern" wine. I also enjoyed numerous wines based on piedirosso, a grape that frequently shows dried herbal notes that call to mind the garrigue-scented wines of Mediterranean France.

Other varieties of note are gaglioppo, the dominant red grape of Calabria, producing full, rich, high-alcohol wines, often with a roasted quality. The best known example of gaglioppo is Cirò. Negroamaro is at its best in the Salento area at the southern end of Apulia, sometimes bottled by itself but also frequently blended with other indigenous varieties. In this very hot and fairly flat region, negroamaro is typically full-blown and somewhat rustic, with a distinctly baked character. Sicily's most intriguing red grape is nero d'avola (also called calabrese), which in cool spots can provide full wines with surprising aromatic complexity and structure. Nero d'avola is commonly blended with local varieties or even with international grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which are increasingly being planted in Sicily as well as elsewhere in Southern Italy. And, of course, fans of zinfandel will want to try Southern Italy's primitivo (now widely considered to be essentially the same variety as zin), which produces dark, full-flavored, high-alcohol wines in Sicily, Apulia and Basilicata. Sardinia is the home of cannonau (the local name for grenache) and carignano.

Southern Italy's white wine stars. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of fresh, characterful, soil-inflected whites I tasted from regions like Campania and Sicily. By all indications, wines such as Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo and falanghina are enjoying strong demand these days in the U.S. market, and not just at Italian restaurants that specialize in pairing indigenous wine and food. Greco and fiano in particular have long been popular in this country owing to their freshness and distinctiveness. Greco is typically appley and broad but adamantly dry, with plenty of body and texture, while Fiano is normally more firm, delicate and complex, with hazelnut and mineral nuances. The 2002 vintage, so difficult for much of Spain, Southern France and Northern Italy, yielded some surprisingly successful white wines from Italy's south. (Red wines were much more variable, as some of the September rains penetrated to Southern Italy, but Sicily enjoyed a warm, dry harvest.) Falanghina is currently producing white wines of character, and these are often excellent value. Sicily also produces large quantities of fresh and interesting white wine, including some chardonnays. Getting quality fruit from high-elevation vineyards in Sicily has never been a problem. What was necessary to bottle fresh, stable wines was simply the financial means to afford modern gentle presses, temperature-controlled fermentations, and aging in stainless steel.