I first visited southern Italy 30 years ago, on a road trip with Italian wine expert and author Nicolas Belfrage MW, Simon Loftus (former chairman of merchant Adnams) and Andrew Caslin (then of merchant Lay & Wheeler).
Motoring through Campania, Basilicata and Puglia, we paused at designated wineries, and when we reached Reggio in Calabria to board the ferry to Sicily we were told to tip the windscreen washer if we wanted to preserve ours intact.
Arriving in a small village on Sicily’s east coast, two young men in sharp suits, bristling with mobile phones, entered the restaurant as it emptied at dusk. They were followed by a dozen Armani-clad men and women, the white-haired elder commanding attention at the head of the table.
When we later asked our guide who they were, he replied quietly: ‘All I can tell you is that they’re in the life-insurance business.’
For scenes such as these, the local food, the beauty of the landscapes and the wonder of cities such as Lecce, the trip was memorable. For the wines, less so.
As Belfrage wrote in his 1985 book, Life Beyond Lambrusco, ‘There is a great profusion of different vine varieties throughout the Mezzogiorno, and therefore a great profusion of different wines, many of which are of little or no commercial interest.’
Later I was to visit Sardinia, experiencing the fresh fish market in Cagliari and the extraordinary Ardia – the far more hazardous, rural version of Siena’s Palio horse race. The local Vernaccia kept you refreshed but that was about it.
How times have changed since those early days of wine and Puglian rosés.
Quality, consultants and native grapes
As production of southern Italian plonk dropped dramatically in the 1980s and early 1990s, producers had no alternative if they were to survive but to start focusing on quality.
From those oceans of rotgut rosso, oases such as Mastroberardino, Librandi, Feudi di San Gregorio, Regaleali, Donnafugata and Planeta sprung up.
Producers stopped ripping up their vineyard heritage of native grape varieties as it dawned on them that certain varieties (albeit not all) were capable of producing quality wine if they were reinterpreted.
How? By planting in the right location, restricting yields, picking at the right time, better handling in the cellar and taking on consultants.
On that latter score, Giacomo Tachis and Franco Bernabei in Sardinia, Riccardo Cottarella in Campania and Salvo Foti, Alberto Antonini and Carlo Ferrini in Sicily have all contributed to the south’s quality drive.
From big, ripe and tannic iterations, reds made from Nero d’Avola in Sicily, Primitivo and Negroamaro in Puglia and Cannonau and Carignano in Sardinia are being given a modern, brighter makeover. Aglianico above all is changing out of sight in Campania and on volcanic Monte Vulture in Basilicata.
The red grape that Sicily hangs its world-class hat on is Nerello Mascalese, pioneered by Benanti and Girolamo Russo at Etna in Sicily and latterly the likes of Alberto Graci, Marc de Grazia’s Terre Nere, Frank Cornelissen, Silvia Maestrelli, Andrea Franchetti, Pietradolce and Carlo Ferrini – not forgetting Simply Red singer-songwriter Mick Hucknall.
Today’s demand for fresher white wines is also bringing out the best in Sicily’s Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto, Campania’s Greco, Fiano and Falanghina, while Verdeca in Puglia, Vermentino and Vernaccia di Oristano in Sardinia are taking on a new lease of life.
As the benefits of the Mediterranean diet have been brought home to us, washing it down with its vinous counterpart has never been more enjoyable.