Italy is a complicated wine-producing nation. Not only is it the world’s single biggest producer by volume, but with over 20 wine regions and almost a hundred regionally used synonyms for the same grape, it takes sharp attention to detail to begin to understand the country.
With this level of complexity, as far as wine is concerned, the Italian peninsula can be split into the “aristocratic” north, the “agricultural” centre and the “peasant” south. Although this can be seen as a touch anachronistic, there is truth in the monikers due to the historical spread of the famous and “high ticket” wines from this beautiful country.
Northern Italy is home to multiple famous wines that have significant provenance and, in most cases, a cultlike following, such as Barolo from Piedmont, Amarone from Veneto and Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino from the central province of Tuscany. My advice, however, is to direct your gaze to the deep south for a really interesting glass.
Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia are the three provinces of Italy that make up the toe, instep and heel of Italy. Although historically these regions have suffered from great poverty, it is also a part of the country that is breathtakingly beautiful. If you have seen the most recent Bond film, the opening shoot-out was filmed in the stunning town of Matera, in Basilicata and the diminutive conical stone-roofed “Trulli” of Puglia is also a sight to behold.
That said, the true gems of these southern areas are their wines; ancient grape varieties that predate even the Romans.
Arguably the most famous of these southern stunners is the Primitivo grape (literally meaning “the primitive one”) of Puglia. The darkness of this grape’s skin and its sugary pulp make it a generous and well-loved workhorse of the Pugliese winemaker.
Italy’s mountainous “toe” is the province of Calabria, an area dominated by two grape varieties; Gaglioppo, a red and Greco, a white. The most famous is the Greco which came with the early settlers from Greece and found its calling when air-dried before pressing to produce a high in alcohol, succulent sweet wine known as Greco di Bianco.
Then we get to Basilicata, the “instep” of Italy that produces very exciting wine at the moment, specifically from the Aglianico del Vulture grape. This intensely flavoured and well-structured red wine has tremendous ageing potential. It has been so highly lauded in recent years that the Aglianico del Vulture Superiore has been recently promoted to DOCG — Italy’s highest quality level for wine and a superb signpost of the quality being produced.
Establishing a reputation with often hard-to-pronounce and unfamiliar grape varieties is desperately hard and a long, drawn-out process. Please don’t be shy though, as your favourite merchant (if they’re worth their salt) should be able to point you in the direction of a superb value southern Italian that will have you zipping back for more.