Southern Italy is fighting back against the dominance of the north with a wealth of delicious red wines from native and international varieties. PAUL FRANSON reports

Southern Italy is fighting back against the dominance of the north with a wealth of
delicious red wines from native and international varieties. PAUL FRANSON reports

LONG overshadowed by northern Italy’s reds, the red wines of Italy’s southern Mezzogiorno are increasingly stepping into the spotlight. The area long supplied mostly forgettable wines sold locally from spigots or shipped north to beef up weak vintages, but more and more southern wineries are joining the few pioneers who have made notable wines in the past.

These wineries, both new and revived, seem to have taken much inspiration from the New World – to exploit their natural gift of sunlight, they’ve made massive improvements in viticulture and winemaking to produce fresh new wines with the prominent fruit flavours so popular with wine drinkers everywhere.

These changes are particularly apparent in Puglia and Sicily, already two of Italy’s largest wine-producing regions. There, outside investors, new blood at old wineries and local entrepreneurs are revolutionising their local wine worlds.

Northern wine companies are among those changing the south. Many companies have bought land in the south to reduce costs – Puglian grower Giovanni Cantore says land in his region costs t15,000 per ha (hectare), compared with t250,000 in Tuscany – but they are also bringing in expertise and attention.

Antinori bought 100ha in the hilly Murgia DOC near Castel del Monte in 1998 for its Tormaresca venture, then 500ha south of Brindisi on the coast in 1999, in order to produce both value wines and stars. Likewise, Verona’s Pasqua bought 100ha in Manduria and has also partnered with Fazio Wines to produce wine in western Sicily. Feudo Principi di Butera in southwestern Sicily is a promising new venture from Vicenza’s Zonin wine empire, which also owns Masseria Conte Martini Marissimo in Puglia.

But many of the most important innovators in southern Italy are local. The latest generation of local wine families, educated and widely travelled, are investing in new planting and equipment and hiring respected wine consultants such as Riccardo Cotarella and Severino Garofano to produce vastly improved wines. Examples include Tenuta Rapitalà and Dei Principi di Spadafora in Sicily, and Accademia dei Racemi, Taurino and Candido in Puglia.

Other innovators include wealthy entrepreneurs with no wine heritage emulating the ‘California’ model to make excellent wine by investing in vineyards and consultants. They include Luigi Rubino, whose new Tenute Rubino in Puglia boasts 160ha of new vines and a modern winery. Giovanni Cantore first planted 300ha of vines and is now making wine, an unusual progression in Puglia. Another newcomer is California winemaker Mark Shannon of Fusione, whose A Mano wine has received worldwide attention.

Even traditional cooperatives like Settesoli Winery in Sicily and Agricola Pliniana and Cantina ed Oleificio Sociale di Manduria in Puglia are making better wines and bottling it instead of just selling it in bulk. Calatrasi in Sicily, which was a coop until it was bought by the Micchichè family, has even hired three Australian winemakers. It also owns land and a winery in Puglia.

Wineries in Campania, one of Italy’s most populous regions, produce some of southern Italy’s best and best-known wines, many from traditional grapes. Cantina del Taburno, for example, is a coop that produces exceptional wines including Bue Apis from 180-year-old Aglianico vines.

By contrast, neighbouring Calabria and Basilicata produce much wine, but little has attracted international attention. Among the few wines that have are Paternoster’s Aglianico del Vulture from Basilicata and Librandi’s Gravello from Calabria.

Regional confusion

Southern Italy is divided into many, mostly unfamiliar, wine-producing areas. Though many wines are classified into DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), that alone gives little indication of quality. There’s only one DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) – Taurasi in Campania – and some of the best wines are IGTs (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).

One source of ongoing controversy is whether wineries should plant international varieties such as Cabernet and Chardonnay, or stick to the grapes that have grown there for thousands of years.

Many producers offer international varieties to appeal to a wider audience, and many blend these grapes into local varieties for the same reason. ‘Introducing international varieties was a way to avoid risk,’ notes (Ms) José Rallo, from Sicilian winery Donnafugata.

In a similar vein, Pasqua is growing both local and foreign grapes in Puglia. ‘We came here for the indigenous varieties,’ notes oenologist Giancarlo Zanel, but he adds that some international varieties perform better in Puglia than in Northern Italy. ‘Chardonnay grown here is more like California or Australia.’

Making a compromise is Antinori’s Tormaresca venture in Puglia, which blends Merlot into Negroamaro for its basic Rosso Puglia, and adds Cabernet to Aglianico for international-style Boca di Lupo.

Other wineries believe indigenous varieties excel in their climates and shun foreign varieties, even those from other parts of Italy. Many prefer to make distinctive wines that taste nothing like the hundreds of Cabernets and Merlots made all over the world.

Mastroberardino in Campania, which has planted indigenous varieties alongside the ruins of Pompeii, is an advocate for using local grapes, and president Fulvio Filo Schiavoni of coop Il Consorzio Produttori Vini in Manduria has even published a book on his beloved Primitivo.

Just as local varieties are grown together with imported vines, grape growing is also in transition. Many vines grow in traditional bushes, but recent plantings reflect worldwide trends to vertical espalier training, dense spacing and careful canopy management as well as matching rootstock to varietal and location.

Likewise, most older cellars include vast concrete tanks, but the newer ones include temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks. Few traditional wines used to see significant oak, but many southern winemakers now age their best wines in small oak barrels.

Puglia

Though many producers make excellent wines in Puglia, perhaps most interesting is Accademia dei Racemi, a collection of six estates owned and managed by Gregorio Perrucci and his wife Elisabetta Gorla. Their winery sits side by side with his family’s large bulk winery, but makes only fine wines under such brands as Felline, Sinfarosa and Pervini. Felline Vigna del Feudo is one of the stars of the south, a blend of Primitivo and Montepulciano with a little Cabernet and Merlot. Perrucci was the first to label some of his wine as ‘Zinfandel’ and join California’s Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) association. His Sinfarosa Primitivo di Manduria/Zinfandel is widely praised.

Some of Puglia’s large, long-established wineries are also being upgraded. Taurino produces some of Puglia’s best wines from 150ha of vines, mostly Negroamaro with Malvasia Nera. Severino Garofano is the winemaking consultant. Its production is about 150,000 cases, including Taurino Patriglione and Notarpanaro of traditional blends.
Francesco Candido is also one of Puglia’s largest producers at almost 200,000 cases. Founded in 1959, it owns 160ha in the Salice Salentino DOC. Blending Montepulciano or Cabernet instead of Malvasia Nera into many of its Negroamaros, it makes modern oak-aged wines as well as traditional types.

Agricole Vallone near Brindisi is owned by two sisters, Maria Theresa and Vittoria Vallone. They have expanded the property they inherited to 660ha and have taken steps to produce high-quality wines. Their big Graticciaia is produced from late-harvest grapes that are slightly dried and has been compared to Amarone.

Leone de Castris, a big producer of Salice Salentino, is noted for its Donna Lisa Riserva. Owned by the same family since the 17th century, it makes 300,000 cases from its 380ha of owned vines and bought fruit. The winery is best known, however, for its Five Roses rosé.

Campania

As in other parts of southern Italy, winds of change are blowing across historic Campania, site of Naples, Capri and the Amalfi Coast. Since the area was once a Greek colony, it’s not surprising that the leading red grape is Aglianico. The best-known wine is Taurasi DOCG from Irpinia northeast of Naples, the traditional location for the best red wines.

Aglianico is also a key component of many other leading wines such as Feudi di San Gregorio’s Serpico, which includes a bit of Merlot for balance. It’s a wine as big as any from California. The winery, regarded as one of the south’s best producers, also makes Merlot Pàtrimo and a small amount of a Syrah called Syriacus with the help of winemaking consultant Riccardo Cotarella.

Cotarella also works with Villa Matilde, Fattoria Galardi, as well as with photographer Silvia Imparato at Montevetrano, whose tiny production of Colle di Salerno has achieved a cult status. The Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Aglianico is similar to the best from Tuscany.

Villa Matilde, owned by a brother and sister team, makes, among other wines, intense but balanced Vigna Camarato of pure Aglianico from a vineyard sandwiched between the extinct volcano of Roccamonfina and the Tyrrhenian Sea. Galardi produces small quantities of its intense Terra di Lavoro from Aglianico and Piedirosso, another indigenous grape that lends fruitiness to the austere Aglianico.

Mastroberardino, a leading producer of Taurasi, is dedicated to preserving indigenous grapes while Terradora di Paola is owned by another branch of the Mastroberardino family. Both make exceptional Taurasi, Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi and Terredora Fatica Contadina.

Sicily

Though surprisingly, Sicily produces more white wine, its reds of primarily Nero d’Avola are generally more interesting.

The traditional leaders are Tasca D’Almerita, which has made wines at its huge Regaleali Estate since 1830, and Duca di Salaparuta, which produces Corvo. The latter is now being revived by a new owner, Illva Saronno, while Tasca D’Almerita remains one of Sicily’s best producers of both value and high-end wine from vineyards at 300–700m in the coldest area of Sicily. Its Tasca d’Almerita Rosso del Conte of Nero d’Avola and its Cabernet Sauvignon are among the island’s best wines.

The biggest excitement in Sicily, however, is among boutiques, many run by young generations of wine families focusing on quality. Sicily’s hottest winery is Planeta, a marketing-oriented firm run by three young cousins. Its Santa Cecilia Nero d’Avola has been described as ‘squeezed Sicily’, while its Merlot has confounded those sceptical that the variety could excel in southern Italy. Likewise, the ancient Abbazia Santa Anastasia on the north coast is producing exceptional wines including Litra, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nero d’Avola.

Though they’re new to many, southern Italian wines are worth a try. Some are great value, others truly great wines, and they’re just the beginning. Chances are the south will one day make an even bigger impact as consumers discover the wines’ appeal.

Paul Franson is based in the Napa Valley, and writes about wine, food and travel.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

Puglia hasn’t yet been discovered, and that’s not too surprising. It’s hot in the summer, and not as scenic as many other parts of Italy. That said, it contains a wealth of history in areas like Manduria, which was a thriving city before Rome became important.

Masseria Bosco is a friendly agritourism inn in a restored rural farming complex near Manduria. The town has an interesting archaeological park, and nearby Oria features a castle built by Frederick II in the 13th century. Tel: +39 0999 704 099. Fax: +39 0999 704 190. www.masseriabosco.it

La Fontanina is a four-star hotel with a gourmet restaurant near Ceglie Messapica. It’s 12km from the Adriatic Sea, and half an hour from the historic port of Brindisi, from Castel del Monte, and from Alberobello and its magic ‘Trulli’ houses with their cone-shaped stone roofs. Tel: +39 0831 380 932. Fax +39 0831 380 933. www.lafontanina.it

An outstanding restaurant featuring local food is Trattoria Pantagruele in Brindisi. Its English-fluent owner can guide patrons through local dishes featuring seafood, fish and vegetarian specialities. Tel: +39 0831 560 605

Campania, of course, features some of the world’s greatest holiday destinations, including Capri, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. All are crowded in the summer, but fine off season. Capri, though very popular, is pleasant even during the season after tourists depart on the last ferry at about 7pm. It’s also uncrowded away from the centre of town since the island doesn’t allow visitors to bring cars and most tourists won’t walk far.

One recommended hotel on Capri is La Canasta just a short walk from the piazza. Via Campo di Teste. Tel: +39 0818 370 561. Fax: +39 0818 376 675. Email: canasta@capri.it

Locals can recommend restaurants that won’t be overrun with tourists; one delight on the way to Tiberius’ villa is La Savardina serving its own wines from pitchers. A little out of the way but popular with Italians is Da Paolino, set in a citrus grove. Tel: +39 0818 376 102. Fax. +39 0818 375 611. Email: dapaolino@capri.it

SOUTHERN ITALY’S BEST REDS

Southern Italy is best known for its wine values. But it also produces some exceptional wines worthy of comparison with those of any region. Here are some consistent standouts.

Puglia

Agricole Vallone Graticciaia
Felline Vigna del Feudo
Leone de Castris Salice Salentino Donna Lisa Riserva
Sinfarosa Primitivo di Manduria/Zinfandel
Taurino Patriglione and Notarpanaro

Campania

Feudi di San Gregorio Pàtrimo and Serpico
Fattoria Galardi Terra di Lavoro
Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi
Montevetrano Colle di Salerno
Terredora Fatica Contadina
Villa Matilde Vigna Camarato

Sicily

Abbazia Santa Anastasia Litra
Planeta Merlot and Santa Cecilia Tasca d’Almerita Rosso del Conte and Cabernet Sauvignon

SOUTHERN ITALY’S STAR RED VARIETIES

Aglianico (Hellenic) is one of the many grapes brought to the area when it was a Greek colony. It’s the primary grape in Campania and in the Castel del Monte area in central Puglia. It makes a big, long-lived wine.

Negroamaro (black bitter) is grown in the southern Salento Peninsula, the favoured grape in Salice Salentino. It makes a dusty-tasting wine with notes of leather and earth, even the barnyard, on the nose and palate. These can dominate the fruit, and so the grape is often blended with fruity Malvasia Nera.

Nero d’Avola (black from Avola, an ancient city near Syracuse) or Calabrese, is a chameleon that can produce anything from light rosés to intense, ageworthy wines. In its most characteristic, it offers rich blackberry flavours with touches of demerara sugar and cinnamon.

Primitivo (early) excels around Manduria near Taranto. The DNA-identical relative of California’s Zinfandel is typically high in alcohol with intense dark plum and spicy flavours. It is made in styles from fruity table wines to sweet dessert versions.

Written by Paul Franson