A few years ago, when I was living in Italy doing research for “Vino Italiano,” a number of people told me that I could skip over Calabria if I was looking to save time. Still one of the poorer regions of Italy, Calabria has yet to become part of the modern wine revolution that has swept through neighboring regions such as Sicily and Puglia. Despite having a dozen official wine appellations (known as DOCs), Calabria is really only known for one significant DOC wine: Cirò, so named for a town on the Ionian coast that dates back to the days of the Greeks.
There are, in fact, a number of ancient Greek towns along Calabria’s arid coast, among them Sibari and Crotone. Some vintners assert that Cirò wine was the award of choice for victorious athletes in ancient Olympics competitions. Calabria was then the centerpiece of what the Greeks called Enotria (Land of Wine), but these days wine takes a back seat to olive oil and citrus fruit (including citron and bergamot).
Nevertheless, I did not skip over Calabria, but then again, how could I? My grandfather’s family (and probably your grandfather’s family, too) was from there! So what if there were only a handful of decent wines to drink? I had to see the homeland and report back to Gramps, who never got the chance himself.
The most striking thing about Calabria, of course, is its exceptionally rugged geography. To look at its positioning on a map, you go in expecting an arid, almost desert-like southern state. It’s easy to forget that the Apennine mountains extend all the way down the Italian peninsula and out onto Sicily. In fact, it’s almost as if the mountains bunched up like a sock down here in the toe of the Italian boot: Only about ten percent of all the land surface in Calabria qualifies as “plains,” and the center of the region is dominated by a thickly forested range known as the Sila. Agriculture is confined to the fringes of the region, most of which are steep, rocky slopes that spill quickly into the sea. It’s no surprise that people prefer to plant olive or citrus trees: in these precipitous conditions, they’re much easier to deal with than vines.
As beautiful as Calabria was, however, I can understand why my ancestors (and those of so many others) got the hell out of there. How can you make a living in such a vertically oriented place? I give a lot of credit to the many people who do, particularly the vintners of Cirò, who’ve kept humble Calabria on the international wine map with their spicy, softly contoured red wines. Though there are sparks of interest in other parts of Calabria, Cirò is really all you need to know for now.