The Best of Central and Southern Italy

(including 208 wines under $25)

By Antonio Galloni

I tasted an amazing range of wines from central and southern Italy this year. The sheer variety these regions encompass is truly amazing. Readers who are limiting themselves to the wines of Piedmont, Tuscany and other better-known regions in the world are missing out on some of the most exciting wines on the planet. Unfortunately I also ran across a number of frankly disappointing wines (to put it kindly) that show there is still much work to do in many of these emerging regions. Still, all things considered, the finest wines of the center and south remain well worth seeking out. Best of all, more than 40% of the wines in this article are priced at under $25 a bottle. Readers who want to learn more about the center and south will find concise summaries of each of the regions in my article of April 2009.

It is impossible to generalize about vintages across the whole of central and southern Italy. If there is one rule of thumb that holds true for most of the mainland it is that the 2008s are more mineral-driven, mid-weight wines while the 2009s show a plumpness that is the result of the heat wave that spread across much of Italy in the middle of August. The 2008s are hit-and-miss while the 2009s are more consistent across the board.

The Essential Grape Varieties of Central and Southern Italy

Italy can be a daunting country to get a handle on considering the seemingly endless number of grape varieties that are planted throughout the peninsula and islands. I hope readers will find this primer to the most important varieties of central and southern Italy of use. Of course in a country with well over a thousand native varieties there are many more than just a dozen or so that merit attention, but this list is a good starting point for readers making an initial foray into these regions and their wines. Honorable mentions go to Greco di Tufo (Campania), Falanghina (Campania), Pallagrello Nero (Campania), Casavecchia (Campania), Piedirosso (Campania), Primitivo (Puglia), Lacrima di Morro d’Alba (Marche), Frappato (Sicily) and Insolia (Sicily). Sangiovese is found widely throughout central Italy, most notably in the Marche and Umbria, but in these regions it most often plays a supporting role rather than the lead, as it does in Tuscany.

Taurasi is often called the "Barolo of the South" and Aglianico is the grape that makes it all happen. For most of us, Campania elicits images of the sun-drenched Amalfi coast, flowers, citrus and the essence of the Mediterranean lifestyle. Further inland, though, an entirely different microclimate rules. High-altitude vineyards, many planted on volcanic soils, and a cold, harsh climate are the perfect setting for the late-ripening Aglianico, which reaches its peak of expression in these hills. At its best Aglianico yields wonderfully complete, structured wines capable of extended cellaring. Examples include the Taurasis of traditionally-minded wineries such as Mastroberardino and Lonardi, and those of more modern producers like Molettieri and Caggiano. I tasted a number of entry-level Aglianicos that make an outstanding introduction to this great, noble grape, including Colli di Lapio’s Irpinia Campi Taurisini Donna Chiara, Molettieri’s Irpinia Campi Taurisini Cinque Querce, Cantina del Taburno’s Aglianico del Taburno Fidelis and Terredora’s Aglianico, all of which are priced around $20. Aglianico also thrives when blended with Piedirosso, another ancient Campanian variety, in wines such as Galardi’s Terra di Lavoro and Masseria Felicia’s Etichetta Bronzo.

Further south and east, Aglianico reveals different shades of its personality in Basilicata’s Vulture district, where the wines are a touch more approachable yet rustic at the same time. Cantina del Notaio and Elena Fucci are great sources for rich, textured wines from the Vulture, while traditionalists might prefer D’Angelo. Feudi di San Gregorio is far better known for their wines from Campania, but their Aglianico del Vulture is a true steal at $15 a bottle. In Puglia the potential of Aglianico has only been scratched, but there, too, the results can be exciting. Rivera’s Aglianico Riserva Cappellaccio is a fabulous example of the heights Aglianico can reach in Puglia.

Sagrantino is found in Umbria and Montefalco in particular. For most of its life Sagrantino was vinified as a simple dessert wine meant to be enjoyed during the Easter holidays. Today, Sagrantino is best known as a grape that yields big, often tannic, dry red wines. Marco Caprai is the leader of the modern school in Montefalco. His impeccably tended vineyards are home to numerous experiments in clonal research and vine training that are carried out with the aim of fully understanding this complex grape. Còlpetrone and Tabarrini also favor a more overt, fruit-driven style of Sagrantino. Giampiero Bea is the quintessential traditionalist in Montefalco. His wines are at once ethereal and powerful, and are Montefalco’s answer to the Brunellos of Gianfranco Soldera. Milziade Antano is a great source for Sagrantinos that meld elements of modern and traditional schools, with a leaning towards the classic. Sagrantino is also blended with Sangiovese in Montefalco Rosso. Readers will find quite a bit of value in Montefalco Rosso and pedigreed wines capable of developing beautifully in bottle in the finest Montefalco Rosso Riservas. Lastly, the sweet Sagrantino di Montefalco, called passito, is one of Italy’s most unique red dessert wines, a kind of Recioto di Amarone with more of a tannic spine.

Cannonau, Italy’s version of Grenache, is at home on the island of Sardinia, where the sandy terrains offered these vines natural protection from the decimation of phylloxera. Cannonau takes many shapes, from accessible, entry-level bottlings such as Argiolas’s Costera and Feudi della Medusa’s Cannonau di Sardegna all the way up to some heavier hitters, including Argiolas’s Turriga, Tenuta Soletta’s Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva Keramos and various old-vine bottlings from Dettori. At its best, Cannonau delivers incredible aromatic and fruit intensity while avoiding heaviness.

Carignano is the other thoroughbred Sardinian red grape. Like Cannonau, Carignano survived the ravages of phylloxera thanks to terrains heavy in sand that prevented the spread of the disease in the vineyards. The best Carignanos convey incredible depth in their fruit, with notable clarity and sculpted precision. At times Carignano is found blended with other native varieties including Monica and Bovale Sardo. Reference-point Carignano and Carignano-based wines include Argiolas’s Isola dei Nuraghi Is Solinas, Feudi della Medusa’s Isola dei Nuraghi Arrubias and Santadi’s Carignano del Sulcis Superiore Terre Brune, all of which are magnificent.

Nero d’Avola is one of Sicily’s great red grapes and thrives in a number of spots, including the valley between Pachino and Noto, on the southeastern corner of the island, and the southern coast of the island. At its finest Nero d’Avola possesses gorgeous inner perfume, silky tannins and the ability to develop well in bottle for a number of years. Nero d’Avola finds many shades of expression, from lighter, more ethereal styles such as Tasca d’Almerita’s Lamurì to richer, bolder wines such as those of Gulfi and Benanti. The most famous Sicilian red is Tasca’s Rosso del Conte, a Nero d’Avola-based blend. Other wines that successfully blend Nero d’Avola with indigenous and international grapes include Ceuso’s Ceuso, Donnafugata’s Tancredi and Mille e Una Notte and Benanti’s Majora and Lamorèmio. Of course, Nero d’Avola is capable of delicious entry-level wines too. Colosi and Valle dell’Acate both make compelling, tank-aged Nero d’Avolas that deliver incredible quality for the money.

Nerello Mascalese is found on Sicily’s Mount Etna, where it is often found blended with its cousin Nerello Cappuccio. Over the last few years Nerello Mascalese has emerged as one of Italy’s most fascinating red grapes. The rugged vineyards of the Etna are the highest in Europe. In these hillsides Nerello Mascalese yields intensely perfumed, weightless wines that have more in common with Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo than they do with virtually all other Sicilian reds. Not surprisingly, virtually all of the island’s top families have rushed to acquire plots on the Etna. The Etna’s top estates are Andrea Franchetti’s Passopisciaro and Marc de Grazia’s Tenuta delle Terre Nere, both of which produce a number of single-vineyard Nerellos that have begun to create awareness for the distinctive qualities of these pristine old-vine parcels.

I have a feeling Montepulciano is the next grape to explode in a big way. Montepulciano has demonstrated incredible versatility in yielding important wines in both traditional (Emidio Pepe, Valentini) and modern styles (La Valentina, Masciarelli, Oasi degli Angeli’s Kurni). The best Montepulcianos can evolve positively to age twenty and beyond with no problems whatsoever. Like Barbera, Montepulciano seems to be especially well-suited to French oak, as the skins have very little tannic material. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo, often called simply Cerasuolo, is one of Italy’s finest appellations for rosés. Best of all, Montepulciano is a fabulous wine for the dinner table. At home in Abruzzo, Montepulciano is also found widely in the Marche, where it forms the backbone for Rosso Conero and, to a lesser extent, Rosso Piceno.

Negroamaro is one of the indigenous varieties of Puglia. It is a quirky red grape, but one that merits a wider audience. These are almost always mid-weight wines. The tell-tale characteristic of Negroamaro is a sweet, medicinal bouquet that in the best wines is beautifully balanced with the darkish fruit. Negroamaro is often found blended with Primitivo, Italy’s version of Zinfandel, in wines such as Cantele’s Amativo and a number of Salice Salentino bottlings from producers such as Cantele, Cantine due Palme, Castello Monaci, Masseria La Rosa del Salice and Leone de Castris. Some pure Negroamaros well worth discovering include Tormaresca’s Maìme and Mille e Una’s Capitolo Laureto.

The white Fiano is planted widely throughout central and southern Italy, but the grape reaches its apex in Campania and in particular Avellino, where it is known as Fiano di Avellino. It is perhaps the richest and most full-bodied of Campania’s white grapes. Ripe peaches, tar, ash, game, leather, earthiness, menthol and licorice are just some of the nuances that can be found in Fiano di Avellino. Some of the best producers of Fiano (in all of its appellations in Campania) include Colli di Lapio, Fattoria La Rivolta, Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Quintodecimo and Terredora. To tell the truth, I struggled to pick just one white grape from Campania. An equally compelling case can be made for the perfumed, floral Falanghinas and the mineral-driven Greco di Tufos. Suffice it to say, Campania is one the most fascinating regions in Italy for both whites and reds.

The white Verdicchio is found in the Marche. Many of the best wines come from around the town of Jesi and carry the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico denomination. At its best, Verdicchio is a clean, mineral laced wine with expressive yellow stone fruits (apricots, peaches) intermingled with floral, minty notes. A number of producers including Sartarelli and Fattoria di San Lorenzo make slightly late-harvest Verdicchios that show the more opulent side of the grape. Although most Verdicchios are best enjoyed young, one of the best kept secrets of this beautiful grape is that top wines can evolve beautifully in bottle for a decade, sometimes longer. A well-stored bottle of aged Verdicchio is a treat. Recommended producers include Bisci, Bucci, Fattoria di San Lorenzo, Sartarelli and Umani Ronchi.

Vermentino flourishes in Sardinia, where it is capable of a variety of expressions. I tend to prefer the fresh, unoaked versions that emphasize the grape’s sweet, perfumed aromatics and candied fruit that are the result of the grape’s tendency to ripen fairly late. Vermentino is the perfect summer wine and also pairs beautifully with raw fish and pretty much all seafood and shellfish. Some of my favorite Vermentinos include those of Argiolas, Feudi della Medusa, Pala and Capichera. Vermentino is also found on the Tuscan coast and Liguria.

Carricante is a white grape found on Mount Etna. The potential of Carricante is only now being rediscovered, so it is harder to generalize about the grape’s attributes. Some wines, such as Benanti’s Pietramarina are remarkable for their Chablis-like minerality and focus. Other producers, including Franchetti and Tenuta delle Terre Nere, make Carricante in a richer style that can at times be reminiscent of white Burgundy. Either way, Carricante is an important grape with tons of character.

A Word on Scores

I recognize it is human nature to scan the latest articles for the highest-scoring wines, but I hope readers can resist that temptation (at least to some extent) when it comes to the wines of central and southern Italy. A large number of the wines in this article scored 88 or 89 points but they are no less worthy of your serious consideration than wines scoring 90 points, particularly since many of these slightly under 90-pointers can be had for very modest sums. I also tasted quite a few wines under $15 that scored 86 and 87 points which may turn out to be even better relative values. The best of the wines in this category are clean, well-made offerings with good varietal character and no glaring flaws that should not be overlooked.