The Best of Central and Southern Italy

by Antonio Galloni

The regions of central and southern Italy offer consumers an incredibly wide panorama of wines that cover a veritable kaleidoscope of grape varieties and styles. As outstanding as the top wines are, I must caution readers that overall quality is highly irregular, even within the portfolios of the better producers. This is one critical element that separates the center and south, as opposed to regions likes Tuscany and Piedmont, where as a general rule producers are much more consistent. The good news is that the wines of the center and south remain very reasonably priced. These wines are unlikely to attract the feverish, sometimes speculative, interest of recent Tuscan and Piedmontese vintages, and therefore remain wines for the true consumer who intends to actually drink the wines.

Given that quality is more variable, focusing on the best producers is ultimately more rewarding than obsessing over vintages. When it comes to the top reds, consumers are likely to find 2003s, 2004s and smattering of 2005s on the market. In most regions the difference in quality between 2003 and 2004 is relatively narrow when compared to Tuscany and Piedmont. 2003 and 2004 are both outstanding, with the 2003s offering more plumpness and fruit and the 2004s showing more clarity, freshness and the structure to develop beautifully in bottle. The 2005s are smaller-scaled, slender wines that lack the generosity of the 2003s and the complexity of the 2004s. I would look to purchase 2003s for nearer term consumption, 2004s for medium to longer-term drinking and the 2005s opportunistically when favorable pricing presents itself. Among the whites, 2006 and 2004 are terrific vintages for fully-flavored and complex wines, with the usual caveat that choosing carefully is key.

Its been a few years since these regions have been covered in these pages, so some introductory comments are probably in order. While it is impossible to focus on every single region in central and southern Italy, these are some of the areas that are making particularly notable wines that are well worth seeking out. The most interesting wines in Umbria are being made in the region around Montefalco. The indigenous Sagrantino yields wines that are big, muscular and tannic. At times the flavor profile can veer towards the rustic, gamey side. A handful of producers are making wines of true distinction in a variety of styles, from traditional to modern, that show superb purity of fruit and well-balanced tannins. Quite a few estates make also make a Rosso di Montefalco in which Sangiovese takes a major role and is complemented by Sagrantino and Montepulciano. These can also be terrific. The sweet Sagrantino passito, made from dried grapes, can be a compelling wine. The wines from Montefalco will offer their best drinking when paired with rich foods that can stand up to the tannins. Game and grilled meats, especially those with a higher fat content, seem the most natural matches.

I tasted a large number of incredibly delicious Montepulcianos from Abruzzo, many of which I would be delighted to have on my dinner table. Here too, the range of styles covers everything from super-traditional to rich, modern, French-oak aged wines. When it is farmed to low yields and made with careful attention in the cellar Montepulciano achieves an attractive plumpness in the fruit that is absolutely irresistible. In the hands of the top producers Trebbiano can also offer lovely drinking. Best of all, the wines remain reasonably priced. Abruzzo is easily one of most undervalued regions for high quality wines in Italy today.

Campania is without question one of the most fascinating regions in southern Italy for both a rich oenological history that stretches back several thousand years as well as its extraordinary range of whites and reds. The volcanic soils yield compelling wines with unique mineral and ash notes. Among the reds, Aglianico, the grape used in Taurasi, is establishing itself once again as a variety of major potential. Although it is often called the “Nebbiolo of the South,” the time is clearly here for Aglianico to assert itself and be acknowledged on its own terms as it needs no comparison to other varieties. Aglianico is a late-ripening variety that at its best offers notable complexity in its range of aromatics and flavors. The flavor profile tends towards a dark expression of fruit, with prominent ash, smoke, tar, white pepper and dried meat overtones that are characteristics of these terrains. The top wines are powerful, structured and capable of developing notable complexity in bottle. The Aglianicos of Campania are often richer and more structured than the generally accessible wines being made in the Vulture district of Basilicata. The whites are equally fascinating. Falanghina, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino can be distinctive whites of unmistakable class and personality. Although the vast majority of production is of mass-market quality, consumers who focus on the top estates will find a number of terrific bottlings. These wines will offer their finest drinking when served with the fish and seafood dishes for which Campania is justly famous. Falanghina is a perfumed, fresh white perfect for an aperitif or summer meal, while Greco and Fiano are more serious wines with greater focus and plenty of minerality.

As is often the case with wines of the South, my overall impression is that the culture of making serious wines is quite young, speaking of modern times, of course. Producers seem to feel that the only way to attract attention for their wines is to make them as big and concentrated as possible, and then to package them in the largest and heaviest bottles available. There is very rarely any correlation between these factors and true quality, in fact in many cases the relationship functions in the inverse! My hope is that over time producers in Campania will follow in the footsteps of their colleagues in Tuscany and Piedmont in discovering a more enlightened style of better-balanced, elegant wines, rather than relying on sheer power and size alone.

Consumers who haven’t yet discovered the wines of the Sardinia are missing out. These are some of the most intriguing wines being made anywhere. The Vermentinos offer delicious drinking, but the reds may be even better. Cannonau (Grenache), Carignano, Bovale Sardo and a host of other local varieties are capable of yielding superb wines imbued with unmistakable personality and complexity. Many of the island’s top sites are planted with pre-phylloxera vineyards and these older vines are the source for some of Sardinia’s most compelling wines. The more famous bottlings are expensive but there are a number of reasonably priced wines that are sure to offer plenty of enjoyment

Sicily is another region steeped in a rich historical fabric that continues to amaze. Its recent oenological development seem to have taken two paths; the extensive planting of international varieties and the rediscovery of the potential of indigenous varieties, most notably Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese. Its hard to know what the future holds for Sicilian wines made from international grapes. The wines can be excellent to be sure, but with a very weak US dollar, increased competition from other lower-cost regions and the simple fact that these wines have less regional identity than many of their counterparts, it seems unlikely these wines will find a large, sustainable consumer base over the long-term. In most cases the native Inzolia, Catarrato, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese produce more interesting and complex wines. The white varieties, including Inzolia and Catarrato, yield perfumed wines meant to be drunk young. Among the reds, Nero d’Avola can show some rustic, gamey elements but at its best it is capable of variety of expressions ranging from delicate, feminine wines to super-ripe opulent offerings. The most exciting region in Sicily, and perhaps Italy, is Mount Etna, where a small number of producers have re-discovered the very unique terrains that lie below this storied volcano. These are the highest-altitude vineyards in Europe. The late-ripening native Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio produce medium-bodied, aromatic reds that stylistically and texturally share much in common with Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. Readers who haven’t spent time yet with the wines from the Etna owe it to themselves to do so. The top wines will challenge long-held assumptions about what Sicilian wines can be all about.