Learning about Italian wine is a daunting task: There are so many grape varieties, and so many growing zones, that each region of Italy is like a vinous nation unto itself. Where do you begin on such a wacky winemaking peninsula?
My suggestion is to start simple. Start in humble Basilicata. Mastering the wines of Basilicata is like hitting a layup before you step out for three-pointers like Piemonte or Toscana. There is really only one grape variety to learn and only one denomination of controlled origin (D.O.C.). It doesn’t get any easier than Basilicata.
Wedged between Puglia, Calabria and Campania, the rugged and little-traveled Basilicata has yet to get its due in all of the press about the “new” Italian south. Everyone’s raving about the fat and fruity reds of Sicily and Puglia, and yet Basilicata, along with neighboring Campania, is home to perhaps the most noble red grape in the south: aglianico. This dark-toned, powerfully tannic variety creates wines that are not only unique in their flavors but capable of longer aging than most of their southern Italian contemporaries. Aglianico doesn’t always reveal its charms right away — it often keeps them hidden under a robe of tannin — but when it’s on, it has an aromatic complexity and an overall intensity rivaled only by Italian greats such as sangiovese and nebbiolo.
Basilicata’s lone DOC is Aglianico del Vulture — that is, the aglianico grape grown on and around Monte Vulture, a spent volcano at the northern end of the region. Anchored by the winemaking villages of Rionero and Barile, the Aglianico del Vulture zone is characterized by high-altitude vineyards and fairly cool temperatures. This doesn’t exactly jibe with the sun-baked image of the south most people have in their heads.
Basilicata is essentially a lump of Apennines (even though it has both a Mediterranean and Ionian coast), and as Fred Plotkin notes in his excellent “Italy for the Gourmet Traveler,” the capital city, Potenza, is the highest- elevation regional capital in Italy. Monte Vulture sits just north of Potenza, and it is not uncommon for aglianico to be harvested in late October and even November.
In the black, ashy soils of the Vulture zone, aglianico can grow into quite a dark and spicy beast — a tannic, ink-colored bruiser with hints of everything from tobacco to bitter chocolate to black fruits. Aglianico del Vulture has traditionally been a fairly rustic wine that needs time to come around, but, as in most other regions of Italy, producers here have used everything from green harvests (paring back the amount of fruit they produce to ensure fuller ripeness) to shorter maceration times to tame the tannins of aglianico and bring out more of its fruitiness. When handled well, it is one of those rare grapes that not only has powerful fruit flavors but also seems to pull flavor (and thus complexity) from the earth.
Basilicata has always been a poor region, but in recent years it has found its share of new capital, new ideas and new technology. Historic local wineries such as Paternoster and D’Angelo now have considerably more competition, with newer players such as Tenuta Le Querce, Terre degli Svevi, and Cantine del Notaio attracting more attention to this once-overlooked region.
Needless to say, we do not overlook Basilicata. The next time you dig into Mario’s outrageous Ribeye for Two, consider one of these spicy reds to sip alongside it:
Aglianico del Vulture “Re Manfredi,” Terre degli Svevi
A brand from a conglomerate known as Gruppo Italiano Vini (GIV). This is an aglianico that straddles the fence between “old school” (spicy, tannic, rustic) and “new world” (fleshier, fruitier). Great color and depth of flavor.
Aglianico del Vulture “Don Anselmo,” Paternoster
A reserve selection from one of Basilicata’s true originals. Have us decant this one a half-hour or so before you drink it to give its iron-shaving tannins a chance to resolve themselves a bit. Even still, order something rich to tame it further.
Aglianico del Vulture “Il Viola,” Tenuta Le Querce
A softer, lighter style, with more up-front fruit. Nice violet aromas and dark berry flavors.