The Best Wines of Southern Italy

Southern Italy, that portion of the country south of Lazio, where Rome is found, is one of the most dynamic wine- producing areas of the world today. It offers wine lovers everywhere a treasure trove of excellent wines at all price points, made from a multitude of different, often unique, grape varieties. Unlike some other of the world’s winemaking hotspots, where most wines are made from just five or six grape types, Southern Italy is a vast vinous smorgasbord. To be sure, you’ll find wines produced from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, but also a seemingly endless list of choices made from the likes of cataratto, vernaccia di Oristano (the name of a grape and of a wine), monica, coda di volpe, fiano, uva di Troia, verdeca, gaglioppo, and more—much more. There are also some locally named grapes that are better known elsewhere by more familiar names: Puglia’s primitivo is really zinfandel (a fact acknowledged by some producers, who even label their wine with the American moniker), and Sardinia’s cannonau is actually grenache. Carignan is also grown in Sardinia, and it tells you something of the enological potential here that these are not just the best examples of carignan made anywhere, but also, in some cases, remarkably fine wines.

For an overview of the grapes found most widely in Italy’s south, readers may want to refer to my previous article in Issue 121. Perhaps the Rhône varieties are starting to become more popular in Sicily—syrah in particular, but viognier as well, while roussanne and mourvedre continue to be rare. Otherwise, there is building interest in the local, native grape varieties, as producers are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that they are sitting on a treasure chest of choices. This is borne out by the fact that we are beginning to see a growing number of bottlings from the likes of nerello mascalese, carricante, pascale, monica, nuragus and more, wines that offer jaded palates everywhere a plethora of new fragrances and flavors.

I would urge you to ignore the often self-serving commentaries expressed by some producers about the suspect quality of Italy’s native grape varieties, as you need to realize that famous Italian star winemakers who have enjoyed the media spotlight in recent years have generally done so by working with international varieties such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon—varieties for which real winemaking protocols exist and that just about anyone can follow. It is a totally different matter to deal with a grape like nuragus or uva di Troia, of which little is known, as these had never been the subject of systematic University or other scientific studies until recently. Luigi Moio, the famous winemaker and university professor of enology from Campania, and probably the single greatest expert on southern Italian grape varieties, likes to speak of “varietal enology,” in which the producer has to handle each variety differently. “Unlike chardonnay and merlot, the behavior patterns of which we know or can predict to a great extent no matter where they’re planted, the same is not true of our long-abandoned native varieties,” he explained. “We need to study them much like the French have studied theirs.” Matters such as the best soils, rootstocks, trellising systems, exposures and so on are still a matter of conjecture—and never mind the availability of clones.

A good example of the problems posed by these varieties involves nuragus, an ancient Sardinian variety that was for centuries felt to give wine that was mediocre at best. “Of course the wine was always lousy,” said Fabio Angius, the talented and outspoken director at Fratelli Pala in Sardinia. “Nobody knew what they were doing. When people decided, commendably, to try their hand at it with modern viticultural practices, they logically turned to guyot and spur training systems, the basis of quality viticulture everywhere. Yet, the low natural acidity of the nuragus grape and the hot, sunny climate of our island combined to make this quality-oriented decision the worst one possible. Now we know that to make at least good, enjoyable wines from this variety, the tendone, or canopy training system, is best, because the extra shade is just what the doctor ordered for this variety. The fact is, you wouldn’t choose this canopy management method with most other varieties—at least not if you wanted to make quality wines—as it hinders full ripening of the grapes.”

Exactly what varieties people are working with is another matter entirely. Giacomo Rallo of Donnafugata says: “We have done an inordinate amount of work with zibibbo [also known as the muscat of Alexandria] but we’re still trying to figure it out. Though we are very pleased with the results obtained in the last few years, we are only too aware of the fact that there is more than one zibibbo grape in Sicily: oldtimers here speak of a green zibibbo and a yellow zibibbo. Still others mention a red zibibbo that even I haven’t seen yet! The fact is, we all label our wine zibibbo, but we really don’t know much about it yet. We’re just at the beginning of our learning curve.”

If you stop to realize that it has only recently become apparent that Sicily’s nero d’Avola, one of the island’s most-studied varieties, actually has about one hundred different sub-varieties, some radically different than others and each wanting its specific soil and microclimate, you realize the magnitude of the task that lies ahead. Still, there are many dedicated, passionate producers who are devoting their lives to this very aspect of Italian wine, and we will all be better off for their work in the long run. Adds Angius: “The important thing to know is that native grapes in Italy are all the rage now, and everyone wants to make wines from them, even people who never believed in them and uprooted all their old vines. Suddenly now, everyone is making wines with them, and I ask how that can be. A nuragus or carricante that smells of chardonnay or sauvignon ought to raise a few eyebrows.” In a world in which black-hued Brunellos can score perfect or close to perfect marks, it may be difficult to get that message across.

There are also a few other problems with the wines from Italy’s south that need mentioning. One is that some producers make more than one range of wines, each with its own name, and differences between the various bottlings are not immediately clear. For example, it’s easy to be left wondering what the differences are between three negroamaros from the same winery, especially since there is usually little information on the labels to explain these differences. Another problem is that quality can be quite irregular within a winery’s lineup, something that is less common with the better producers from Piedmont, Friuli or Tuscany. Though this is not true of the best southern producers, in many cases wineries that make one outstanding red wine may also make four or five that are average at best. But truly rustic or defective wines are no longer commonplace.

The good news is that it’s not just rediscovered grapes that are at the basis for improved wines from Italy’s south, but also better winemaking and greater attention to detail in both the vineyards and the cellar. In fact, the wines of southern Italy have never been better, and many of the bottlings I’ve reviewed in this article would find their place in a hypothetical list of Italy’s 200 best wines. Aglianico, in particular, is Italy’s next hot grape (in fact, it’s one of the world’s great grapes), and there are myriad fine wines in the marketplace from which to choose. Other wines are gathering admirers: in particular, the ones made in the area of Sicily’s Etna volcano with nerello mascalese, a grape that is remarkably adept at translating even minuscule changes in terroir into the glass, much like pinot noir or riesling. It is not by chance that the Etna wine production area is now being called the Burgundy of the Mediterranean. Another variety, Campania’s fiano (a white grape that gives the wine of the same name), is now becoming an international variety, with increased plantings in places as far from Italy as Chile, Australia and California.

Vintages are also remarkably consistent in Italy’s south, so there is little vintage variation to spoil the fun. Even 2002, a uniformly bad year everywhere in Italy save for Alto Adige, was quite good in the south. Both 2006 and 2007 are very fine: many pretty, lusciously ripe, fruity wines were made, with ’07 possibly enjoying a slight edge in quality as ’06 got almost too hot in some parts of the south, especially in Sicily. You may still find wines from older vintages in stores. Those from the 2003 vintage are plump and fruity, though generally not as overripe and jammy as wines from other parts of Italy. The ’04s are uniformly excellent and are endowed with atypical complexity and aging potential, while the ’05s are sleeker and lighter due to a relatively cool, long growing season. Still, it’s hard to beat the dynamic duo of ’06 and ’07. Open-minded readers are likely to find that many of these wines are both good value and very food-friendly, with the best of them delivering wholly new and exciting tasting experiences.

Rome-based Ian D’Agata has been writing and lecturing about wine for more than 20 years and is currently the director of the International Wine Academy of Rome. Among his writing credits, he has written parts of several editions of Gambero Rosso’s Italian wine guide and has co-authored a number of wine books, including one on Italy’s native grape varieties. D’Agata’s in-depth reports on the wines of Southern Italy, Northeast Italy and the Tuscan Coast have appeared in past issues of the International Wine Cellar.