Although the Aglianico grape is one of Italy's noble grapes, ranking in quality alongside Barolo, it is scarcely known outside southern Italy. TOM MARESCA profiles the black grape.
That the Aglianico grape qualifies as a lesser-known grape variety speaks volumes either for the insularity of the anglophone wine world or for the failure of the Italian wine world to realise its potential – or both. Aglianico is a noble grape, probably one of the noblest, despite an informal consensus that it has not yet realised its potential, with one telling exception: two decades ago, Victor Hazan (in his book, Italian Wine) nominated Mastroberardino’s 1968 Taurasi Riserva – a 100% Aglianico wine – as the greatest Italian wine of the century. His may have been a solitary voice in the wilderness, but his candidate is definitely still in the running, as anyone fortunate enough to enjoy a properly stored sample of that great vintage will testify.
When I last tasted it, the 30-year-old wine was round, full and harmonious, with the kind of flavour profile – deep, unsweet black fruits, dark tea,coffee-and-tobacco tones – that made clear why some people call Aglianico the Barolo of the south. Its primary fruit flavours had long departed, but in their place stood the full battery of evolved flavours that only the greatest red wines are capable of. I’ve had similar experiences with great Bordeaux and Burgundy and with great Barolo and Barbaresco – similar, but not better. But until recently such achievements were few and far between for Aglianico. Indeed, the variety came perilously close to becoming an extinct species. The Mastroberardino family, led by the scholarly Antonio Mastroberardino (who considers himself as much an archaeologist of vines as a winemaker), preserved and propagated the species, which may be the oldest of Campanian vines. Popular opinion declares the grape’s name to be a dialect version of the word ‘Hellenic’, indicating an origin some 2,500 years ago when southern Italy was a Greek colony known as Magna Graecia or Oenotria (Greater Greece or the Land of Wine). Some recent studies have questioned that etymology, but no one has questioned Aglianico’s antiquity. Recent DNA analyses have indicated that Aglianico may be a variety ancestral to such grapes as Syrah, Teroldego and Negro Amaro. As Antonio Mastroberardino has said on numerous occasions: ‘Aglianico has been grown in Campania for thousands of years. It made wine for the Romans. For centuries it has proliferated but was almost destroyed by phylloxera and was on the verge of extinction until my family acted.’
For some decades after World War II, the Mastroberardinos’ faith in the variety constituted a lonely witness, but the moment is once again propitious for Aglianico. Before phylloxera, Aglianico was one of the most widely planted varieties throughout the south of Italy. After phylloxera, the grape survived in small quantities in more or less isolated areas, principally around Rionero del Vulture in Basilicata, around Avellino, Benevento, Caserta and Salerno in Campania. The wines of two of those areas always commanded respect within Italy and among a handful of connoisseurs abroad: Aglianico del Vulture, of which D’Angelo was the major producer, and Taurasi, of which the Avellino-based Mastroberardino was the most important producer. It’s probably not stretching the truth to say that for a few decades in the late 20th century, those two accounted for 90% of the Aglianico wines on the Italian market and 99% of the Aglianico wines sold abroad. The wines’ commercial and critical success gradually encouraged other producers to try a similar path.
Aided and abetted by clonal studies undertaken in cooperation with the University of Naples, growers old and new began to renovate their vineyards, a process still ongoing and likely to continue for some time yet. They also began to modernise their cellar techniques. And they started bringing into the traditional-minded Aglianico heartland some of Italy’s best and most up-to-date consulting oenologists – notably Riccardo Cotarella, who has scored fantastic successes with estates such as Feudi di San Gregorio, Villa Matilde, and Montevetrano.
The upshot of all this is that Aglianico, both as a monovarietal wine and in a blend with other grapes, is scorching hot in Italy – so much so that right now, Montevetrano (a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Aglianico) has become one of the most expensive wines in Italy, and certainly one of the most scarce (the small estate produces only the one wine, and its production has just about reached 17,000 bottles, less than 1,500 cases a year).
Less rare but equally successful are 100% Aglianico from Ocone (Aglianico del Taburno) and Terredora (both a Taurasi and an Irpinia Aglianico), the Taurasi Radici from Mastroberardino, Vigna Camarato from Villa Matilde, and Taurasi from Feudi di San Gregorio. Aglianico blends worthy of serious attention include the above-mentioned Montevetrano and Villa Matilde’s Cecubo. Outside Campania, in Basilicata, significant Aglianico producers now include Martino and two excellent coops, Consorzio Viticoltori Associati del Vulture and Cantina Riforma Fondiaria di Venosa, as well as the long-established houses of D’Angelo and Paternoster. Even further afield, in Molise, Di Majo Norante is producing an impressive 100% Aglianico, and in Puglia Rivera is having success with an Aglianico Castel del Monte.
Tom Maresca is an expert on Italian wines.