Ever since it was unified in 1861, Italy has struggled with its north/south divide. Outdated cliche or not, the north is supposedly affluent and commerce-focused, while Southern Italy is the poorer, less sophisticated cousin, looked down on by their richer northern neighbours. These stereotypes also pervade Italy’s wine. All of the country’s blue-chip regions – Amarone, Barolo, Barbaresco and Chianti to name the most prestigious – are north of Rome.
Times are changing though. Etna, the volcanic region in the north-eastern corner of Sicily, has become one of Italy’s most exciting and hyped wine regions. More will surely follow. From Abruzzo to Puglia and all points in between, fascinating indigenous grape varieties and characterful wines abound. Southern Italian wine is championed by the Radici del Sud (roots of the south) organisation, which organises a massive wine competition and tasting each June in Bari. I collaborated with Radici’s director Nicola Campanile to bring a small taste of this smorgasbord to Amsterdam at the end of April.
With an overarching theme “Orange and Macerated Wines – New Trend or Ancient Tradition?”, the packed room at Terre Lente got to taste four white/orange wines and two red wines both fermented and/or aged in clay. Then we paired them with a beautifully elegant, understated menu conceived and cooked by Nicola himself. This was Italian cooking at its best, with everything focused on the best regional ingredients from Southern Italy. But now let’s talk about the wines.
Cantine Maligni‘s Maia 2021 kicked off the tasting with a typically ebullient and fruity Pecorino. This was our point of calibration – a white grape made in a more or less modern style, but with wild yeasts and no filtration or other processing. Here the skin contact lasted only for the few hours that the wine spent in the press. Hailing from Abruzzo, close to the Adriatic sea, Maia struck me as an elegant reading of the variety, with a nice saltiness on the finish.
Made in the shadow of Vesuvius, Bosco de’ Medici‘s Dressel 19.2 2022 is an amphora-fermented Caprettone. Never heard of it? I forgive you. The variety is usually subsumed into blends such as the region’s better known Lacrymi Christi, as a minor bit-player. Probably indigenous to Campania, Caprettone has the advantage of retaining good acidity – a useful skill in a hot climate. For that reason, it’s also sometimes made into traditional method sparkling wines. But here, Bosco de’ Medici fermented it on the skins in dolia (modern flat bottomed amphorae made in Tuscany) for 21 days, before ageing for four more months in the clay and then seven months in stainless steel tanks. It has great texture and grip, with a creamy, ripe apricot character. Fruit plays second fiddle here though – it’s the interplay of tannins, mineral and herbal notes that offer most of the interest. I’d love to see how this wine evolves given another year or two in the bottle: it felt like it had much more to show.
About the name: Dressel 19.2 is a reference to the 19th century German archaeologist Heinrich Dressel who created a classification of the various different amphorae forms popular around Pompei. Bosco de’ Medici’s dolia correspond to Dressel’s form number 19.2, hence the name.
Perhaps the most outspoken wine of the evening, and a clear favourite for many including me, was Casa Comerci’s Jancu! 2021. Based in Calabria, all the way down into Italy’s heel and near the west coast, Casa Comerci is a tiny, boutique producer who converted their vineyards to organic viticulture back in 2009. I mention that, because somehow their logo and branding suggests a much larger more slick kind of operation.
Here, Greco Bianco (confusingly not the same variety as Greco) was harvested from a vineyard close to the village of Limbadi, and skin fermented for 70 days in stainless steel tanks. No sulphites were added at any point. Attractively rustic on the nose, it has a delicious pickled peach character and wonderfully inviting aromas of dried chamomile flowers and iodine. Lively acidity and light tannins add to the feeling of life and freshness. This is the kind of wine that feels marvellously drinkable to me: joyful and outspoken.
Terre di Gratia’s Dama d’Oro 2019 inhabits a similar outspoken orange wine territory, but hails from western Sicily, near Palermo. Here, the local Catarratto is given the skin contact treatment for 4 days. Again, this wine was just made in stainless steel tanks, before bottling unfiltered. It has a deep amber/orange colour that belies the short skin contact. Catarratto often has very upfront fruit, and a pithy apricot character, but here it felt a bit more like ripe or cooked yellow plums. I enjoyed the firm tannins in this wine, but I would say that this vintage needs to be drunk up. It had more freshness when I first tasted it in autumn 2022.
Terre di Gratia is one of the larger producers included in this tasting, with about 100 hectares of vineyards, all worked organically. Perhaps the scale of their operation makes them a bit more risk averse than some of the smaller options. I say this noting that Dama d’Oro, unlike all the other wines represented here, was fermented with an inoculated yeast, albeit one that they say has been isolated locally in Sicily. The winery explains their decision thus: “This allows us to use a local strain of yeast, perfectly adapted to climate and grapes, but guarantees the quality and production safety of a selected yeast”.
Aglianico is a very high quality red variety grown all over Campania. In its most well-known forms, as Aglianico del Vulture DOCG or Taurasi DOCG, it is usually aged for long periods in oak. That made our tasting of Cantina della Colina’s Aglianico Terre 2020 particularly interesting as it was an opportunity to experience the variety in a much more naked guise. Here it was fermented and aged only in amphora (fun fact – Cantina della Colina use modern amphorae made by the same Tuscan producer who supplies Bosco de’ Medici). Even without oak, this wine showed Aglianico’s tarry, brooding character to great effect. Structurally it’s pretty supple and accessible for the variety, but a slight simplicity about the wine again suggested that this demands a bit more bottle ageing to show at its best. Unfiltered and organic.
We finished with a rare taste of history. Vinicola Savese Pichierri is a family winery based in the Sava sub-region of Puglia (in between Taranto and Lecce) with four generations of history. They’ve been described as “the last of the old guard”, as they retained a very old Puglian tradition of vinifying and ageing wines in small clay amphorae known locally as capasoni. These slim vessels each hold around 250 litres of wine, and they are completely sealed after fermentation. The winery has impressive stocks of wine from decades past, much of which is still patiently sitting in the capasoni and waiting to be bottled.
The Capasonato 1984/1985 blend was bottled in 2011, and is made from the region’s most important grape Primitivo. Nowadays, the neighbouring Manchuria sub-region is top dog for some of the most elegant and serious Primitivo in Puglia, but a century ago Sava held that crown. Vittori Pichierri late harvested the grapes before they fermented spontaneously in the capasoni, which were then sealed with clay for their long maturation period. The label has a curious indication of the alcohol: “17% + 2.5%”. Basically, the wine achieved 17% alcohol after fermentation (yes, Primitivo can do this with ease) and then through gradual evaporation of water over the years, it concentrated and gained around another 2.5% ABV.
Effectively then, this is a kind of naturally created vino licoroso – no fortification, but it achieved the same level of alcohol as you might expect in a port or madeira. So how does it taste? Impressively fresh, with the nose suggesting sweetness, with roasted or baked plum, honey, rosemary and other dried herbs. That sweetness hardly manifests itself in the mouth. Yes, this is a late harvest style but I would say it is almost dry on the finish, with very little sugar remaining. It is wonderfully complex, of course quite ‘porty’ and ripe but showing Primitivo’s trump card which is that ability to handle very high alcohol without losing the impression of acidity and freshness.
One of the participants at the evening asked me, quite logically, why the alcohol had increased with age. “Surely alcohol evaporates faster than water?” he said, quite rightly. This is true under some conditions, however factors such as the ambient temperature and humidity can drastically affect this balance. A similar phenomenon can be observed in very long aged madeiras, which also often increase in alcohol by a degree or two over a period of half a century or more.
If this whistle-top tour through the wine regions of Southern Italy whetted your appetite, there are plenty of opportunities to dive deeper. For readers in Amsterdam, Terre Lente sells some of the wines described in this article. If you can make it to Bari, the public tasting that concludes Radici del Sud each year is well worth attending. Otherwise, talk to your favourite local wine merchant and find out which treasures from the south they might have on the shelf.