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The wines of Southern Italy have a come a long way to catch up to those farther north in global reverence. Civilizations have dwelled here since ancient times, and some regions, because of their geographic position, have experienced numerous invasions, with cultural influences from all over. The Southern Italian wine industry has indeed been successful, but for a long time what many people got to drink wasn’t the best of what this part of the country had to offer, and it probably came from a big jug.
The Greeks have been credited with planting some of the most famous local grapes. Falanghina, a refreshing, tropical-fruity white found in Campania was one of the grapes that made up the blend for Falernum, the most famous of Roman wines. So was Aglianico, now renowned for its versatility, ageworthyness and elegance, especially in the volcanic soils of the acclaimed DOCGs Taurasi in Campagnia and Aglianico del Vulture in Basilicata. Greco Bianco and Gaglioppo are the main grapes of red and white Cirò, blends from Calabria that were imported to Greece to toast the athletes in the ancient Olympic games.
The rich volcanic soils found in Southern Italy help grow unique, character-driven grapes such as Greco di Tufo, Coda di Volpe, Fiano and Piedirosso in Campania (the latter found in Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio). Etna, on the island of Sicily, has the dark, rich Nerella Mascarese.
The islands of Sicily and Sardinia have also contributed to Southern Italy’s success. Sicily is best known for Marsala, but its still wines from Nero d’Avola, Cattaratto and Grillo are gaining popularity. Cerasuolo di Vittorio, Sicily’s only DOCG, made with Frappato and Nero d’Avola, is enjoyed in some of the finest restaurants in the world. Being out in the open, there is a lot of international influence on Sardinia’s local grapes. Its most popular is Cannonau, the same as French Grenache or Spanish Garnacha. Other popular grapes are Carignano (Carignan), Cabernet Sauvignon and Bobal. The less popular Niederra, Giro and Monica are the leading indigenous grapes.
Puglia, a.k.a. Apulia, in the “heel” of the boot, is the region that has perhaps undergone the biggest makeover. It was once known primarily for producing high yields and oceans of “plonk.” But in the past few decades, Puglian wine-makers have caught on that lower yields and higher quality will pay off better in the long run. The starring grapes are Primitivo, proven to be the same DNA as Californian Zinfandel, and Negroamaro. The latter is the main grape of Salice Salentino DOC, a value-driven red wine with lots of structure and rich flavors. Uva di Troia, a delicious red grape with a honeysuckle aftertaste is found in several blends and DOC releases.
The wines of Southern Italy may never gain the prestige of its northern counterparts, but so many of them are such a joy to drink. Imported selections have improved a great deal, and are still often offered at very accessible price points. It’s a great place to explore wines with unique flavors and characteristics, as well as try distinctly Italian versions of old favorites. ~Amanda Schuster
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