- Q & A
Italy - Southern Italy and Sicily
The north has made great strides forward in winemaking techniques; the south is some way behind, although it is catching up fast. Italian wines of real distinction are less numerous in the south than in the north and, generally, are the results of the efforts of individual winemakers rather than of topography. Even so, topography is vital in the south. It is the cooler upland and mountain terrain that makes serious winemaking possible in this sun-baked part of the Mediterranean.
On the western side is Campania, centered around Naples. In the north is the home of Falernum, an ancient wine of great renown. It has recently been brought back to life as Falerno by the Villa Matilde estate, employing equal respect for historical authenticity and modern winemaking know-how. The white is from the Falanghina variety, the red from Aglianico and Piedirosso, three southern grapes of indisputable pedigree, which are used in Campania to great effect. Piedirosso shows its class even more clearly in the same estate's reincarnation of Caecubum (Cecubo), another wine that once kept the ancient world enthralled.
Other producers taking an interest in realizing the potential of local varieties include Mustilli and Vinicola Ocone. Otherwise Campania is dominated by the company Mastroberardino, based inland near Avellino, in the center of the region. It practically had a monopoly on production of the wines of the area: smoky, minerally, white Greco di Tufo (from Greco); intriguing, floral, vegetal, white Fiano di Avellino (from Fiano); and slow-maturing, coffee and damson-like, red Taurasi (from Aglianico), but now a number of small growers, notably of Fiano di Avellino, are trying their luck at producing wine themselves, with increasing success.
Calabria forms the toe of Italy. Although vineyards are scattered widely throughout, there is only one wine, Cirò that is seen much outside the region. This is primarily due to the vitality of one company, Librandi. Cirò comes in red, white and rosé versions. All three are big, powerful wines.
Basilicata, the instep, also tends to be a one-wine region: Aglianico del Vulture, from the Aglianico grape grown high on the cool, east-facing slopes of the volcanic Mount Vulture. It is a full red that is tough when young but steadily softens to an impressively spicy, earthy, smoky and chunky wine, expressed most fully by Fratelli d'Angelo and Paternoster.
In Puglia, the heel of Italy, there is a wealth of wine names. The wines may be divided essentially into four groups. There are reds from the north (for example, San Severo), made with Montepulciano and Uva di Troia; reds from the center (such as Castel del Monte), made mainly from Uva di Troia; reds from the south, made with Puglia's most promising grape, Negroamaro (Salice Salentino, Copertino, Brindisi) or from Primitivo (Primitivo di Manduria); and whites, notably the light, fresh Locorotondo, from Verdeca. It is rare to find more than one producer per wine zone exploiting its potential to the full.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and it is probably the most misunderstood. For years Marsala meant little more than some thick, sweet, strangely flavored, alcoholic wine whose place was in the kitchen. It was left to one man, Marco De Bartoli, to fight a hard, lonely battle to keep supplies of true, high-quality Marsala available.
His greatest weapon was Vecchio Samperi, a dry, naturally strong, long-aged, fine, nutty wine produced from the best grapes in the area, made to show what Marsala was like before fortification by the addition of grape brandy became compulsory and sweetening commonplace.
Marsala comes in a number of styles and there is a plethora of explanatory terms on the label. Oro (gold), Ambra (amber) and Rubino (ruby) indicate color. Fine (one year), Superiore (two years) and Vergine (five years) are some of those indicating aging. Dryness or sweetness (secco, semi-secco, dolce) may also be shown, apart from Marsala Vergine which is always dry. In essence, though, it is made by adding a small amount of grape brandy and a variable amount of cotto (grape must reduced by heating to a thick, sweet syrup) or other approved sweetening agent (not sugar) to a normally-made wine and then aging in large barrels until the various elements are well amalgamated. Real Marsala can be a very high quality fortified wine, in the same league as the finest Sherry or Madeira. There is not all that much made, but signs are that the more dynamic companies such as Curatolo and Florio are putting a little more weight behind these top wines. Marsala flavored with egg or anything more exotic no longer bears the name and is called Cremovo.
Sicily's satellite islands, Pantelleria and the Aeolian archipelago, produce mainly traditional passito wines, sweet wines made from grapes laid out in the sun after picking to dry out and concentrate their flavors.
Otherwise Sicily is alive with development and innovation, resulting in some quite delightful wines. Whites are in the forefront, based usually on the native Catarratto or more aromatic Inzolia grapes. Wine names tend to be producers' brand names: Terre di Ginestra, Corvo, Regaleali, Planeta, Rapitalà, Libecchio, Cellaro, Settesoli, Donnafugata and so on. Reds, from Nero d'Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Frappato and Perricone, are catching up fast and the same brand names apply, with the exception of the rich, vibrant Cerasuolo di Vittoria, from an area around Vittoria in Sicily's southeast and best handled by the estate C.O.S. Sicily also produces a number of refreshingly fruity rosés, the Nerello Mascalese variety being ideally suited to this task.