When the mercury soars and the heat sears my clothes to my skin, my mind starts to wander farther than it usually does. This week I’m in southern Italy — mentally, at least. The family budget doesn’t allow for a Mediterranean journey this summer, but with a corkscrew in one hand, a good guidebook in the other and a swimming pool to sub for the sea, I can drink my way from the Amalfi Coast down the heel and toe of the boot, across the slopes of Mount Etna and the rugged hillsides of Sardinia.
Southern Italy is a fascinating wine region to visit even in this way, because it offers a wide variety of wines: whites can be crisp, refreshing and exotically perfumed, while reds can be fun and juicy, tasting of the sun, or structured and firmly rooted in the soil the grapes sprang from.
And what grapes. Names such as Aglianico, Fiano, Falanghina, Nero d’Avola and Vermentino adorn these labels, attesting to Southern Italy’s unique regional character. Some, such as Grechetto and Greco, speak of ancient origins. What better way to spend a few hours than traveling through space and time simply by pulling a cork?
My guidebook for this trip is “Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy’s 89 Finest Wines,” by Joseph Bastianich (Clarkson Potter, 2010). I might not have the same wines Bastianich extols, but I feel as if I am with him in Sardegna (Sardinia) when I read his description of the island and its people:
“At heart, Sardegna is a savage, rural place. The mountainous zones have nurtured legends of people living between reality and fantasy, legality and lawlessness, solidarity and solitude. The essence of Sardinian winemaking can be found here: where the sun beats down on the hard, dry soil; where towns are still linked together by unpaved roads; where farmers tend to their fields on horseback; and where sheepherding is still commonplace.”
This scene is all the more vivid as I sip the 2010 Costamolino, a Vermentino from Sardinia’s leading winery, Argiolas. Its heady aromas of sea air, brush and citrus conjure a Mediterranean landscape in my mind.
On the mainland, in Basilicata — the “arch” of the boot, connecting the heel of Puglia and the toe of Calabria — we find Aglianico, the primary red grape of southern Italy and its best expression from the vineyards around Mount Vulture. These volcanic soils endow the wines with impressive structure and acidity, to suggest age worthiness, yet the region’s warm climate gives them a lush ripeness that makes them irresistible when they are young. A few years of aging might be ideal; the I Sassi Aglianico del Vulture 2007 is a lovely summer wine for meats from the grill, with velvety cherry flavors and a hint of wood spice from the barrel.
Bastianich calls Aglianico “the Nebbiolo of the south,” comparing it to the great red grape of Barolo in Piemonte. And that suggests another reason I enjoy exploring these southern Italian wines. Barolo could be considered Italy’s equivalent of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, but if we equate Italian wine just with Piedmont or Tuscany, we are missing out on the wonderful variety offered by these less familiar regions and their traditional grape varieties.
The regional wines of Italy may have a few millenniums of winemaking experience behind them, but only in the past 20 to 30 years have modern winemaking techniques sparked a rise in quality and brought these wines to our markets. In that way, they are not unlike the regional wines of the United States: fascinating to explore for their variety, and often thrilling to discover.