Italy competes with France to be the world’s highest volume wine producer.
Most of us are familiar with many of Italy’s famous red wine DOCGs or DOCs (Italy’s appellation system) such as Chianti, Barolo, Valpolicella or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo; but these are all from northern or central Italy. The red wines from Italy’s southern region and islands are much less well known and whilst they have suffered in the past from over-production leading to low quality wines, many of the red wines being produced today can hold their own against the better known varieties from up north.
The vineyards of southern Italy do not have an easy life. Often planted in hilly terrain with volcanic soils and baking under a scorching sun for much of the year, it is little wonder that the region is known for its highly coloured, highly flavoured and highly alcoholic red wines. Unfortunately for the region, these wines are not completely in tune with modern tastes and winemakers are having to start producing cleaner, finer red wines with more elegance. Foreign investment and flying winemakers have helped to turn the region’s red wine production around and the DOCGs and DOCs from southern Italy and the islands are starting to gain recognition around the world for the improving quality of the wines.
Puglia, which forms the “heel” of Italy’s boot, is blessed by a terrain of fertile plains which until the 1970s produced a high volume of wine which was deemed fit only to be used for blending. However, in more recent years new grape varieties have been introduced which produce a lower yield of higher quality grapes. There have also been changes in cultivation of the vines and together these changes are improving the quality of red wine being produced.
The region’s most important red wine grapes are Primitivo, the same grape known as Zinfandel in California, Negroamaro and Uva di Troia. The Primitivo grape makes rich red wines which can be highly alcoholic, but the best wines are wonderful. Look out for Primitivo wines from Primitivo di Manduria DOC, where the wines can also be fortified and from Gioia del Colle and Manduria. Uva di Troia, sometimes known as Nero di Troia, is a bright, fruity red wine and is produced in several areas of Puglia (look out for wines from Castel del Monte DOC), as is red wine from the Negroamaro grape which is often blended with other red wines grapes such as Malvasia Nero, Sangiovese and Montepulciano to soften its bitterness.
The other mainland regions of Campania, Basilicata and Calabria have yet to distinguish themselves in the field of red wine making, although there are a handful of good wines to look out for. The black grape Aglianico, which is said to be similar to the Barbera grape, is grown in Campania and Basilicata with some success. Taurasi DOCG in Campania and Aglianico del Vulture DOC in Basilicata are recognised as producing the country’s best red wines from this grape. However, other than these two appellations there is not much red wine worth seeking out in these regions.
The island of Sicily is one of Italy’s most important wine-producing regions in terms of volume, although much of the red wine is consumed on the island. Having once been one of the many regions guilty of over-production of wine, much work has been done to improve the quality of the island’s red wine with an emphasis on indigenous grape varieties.
The best known of Sicily’s red wine grapes is Nero D’Avola which produces a sumptuous wine with rich characteristics of red fruit. Production is concentrated around Agrigento, about half way along the southern coast and in the far west of the island, although some producers have planted vines successfully in the north of the island. Another red wine grape used in Sicily is Nerello Mascalese which is grown traditionally on Mount Etna’s slopes. Look out for Etna Rosso, a slightly spicy red wine and also for sparkling red wines make from the grape. Also keep an eye out for wines made from the Frappato grape which is known for its bright cherry flavour. It is used in the blended red wine produced in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG.
Sardinian red wines are less well known than those from Sicily but there are plenty of easy-drinking wines available. Delicate and smooth wines produced from the Malvasia grape come from Cagliari DOC and the Carignan grape makes some enjoyable reds from Carignano del Sulcis DOC. The Spanish influence on the island has left a number of Spanish grape varieties particularly Cannonau, the Sardinian version of Spanish Garnacha. Look out for these reds from the Gallura region of the island.
One point of interest with Sardinian wines is the medical benefit of the country reds being produced in the mountains around Nuoro. Medical research prompted by the unusual number of residents living to over 100 years old found the wines contained very high levels of a phenolic known for prolonging life. Perhaps there is potential for a whole new direction for Sardinia’s red wine production.
Image by aaepstein.