ITALY – Part Three – The Beautiful South of Italy & Islands

Nick Adams November 2020

We reach the end of the Italy trilogy with a look at the South and Islands. Areas of great history and spectacular scenery – truly agricultural – and amazingly atmospheric. Three memories stand out for me: sitting in the Roman amphitheatre at Lecce where the stone seats had been smoothed out into shell like hollows by years of contact and rigour with Roman backsides: climbing onto the roof of an abandoned farm in Puglia to get a view of the vineyards to find a large family of sunbathing foxes, who immediately jumped off the roof into the vineyard below with the dexterity of a gymnast! Then being stuck on the island of Pantelleria for 4 days when the fog came down and helping to pick the caper crop for a farmer who had been so hospitable with the overdue stay.

As ever, a large area and I pick out some highlights.  

The Scenery

The South of Italy – or “Mezzogiorno” (midday) as it is also referred to – is truly historical and distinctly different and much poorer than the rest of the country. Noticeably hotter, with a Mediterranean climate, more agricultural (40% of all Italy’s olives are grown in Puglia for example) and rugged it has a different feel and culture. The main wine making areas include Apulia (Puglia), Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, and Sicily, including the small island of PantelleriaSardinia is not part of the south but is included in this section for convenience. 

The area has many places of UNESCO world heritage importance such as Pompeii, the Amalfi coast, the Palace of Caserta, and the Roman amphitheatre at Lecce.  For a long period, the south was under both Spanish and French control. The end of these eras was brought about by Garibaldi (the icon of Italian unification) with the “expedition of the thousand” in 1860, leading to the Italian unification in 1861. But even then, there were major differences – both economically and culturally between the South and the North. In 1861 the south’s economy already suffered with issues of poverty and organised crime being widespread. The levy of heavy taxes from the North and economic decline fuelled the exodus of people – many of whom emigrated to new lands such as America. The region was politically at odds – eg voting to keep the monarchy in the 1946 referendum, when the north decreed a republic. 

There is, no surprise, a significant North: South culture and economic divide to this day. Historical influences in the South were more Greek and Arabic than Roman or Italian, not least still seen in the architecture. These historical influences ensure a sense of independence and bloody mindedness  which purely from a wine industry point of view makes for an interesting mix of both acclaimed indigenous grapes and wines, allied to a significant production of styles for “international” grape varieties – most especially in Sicily.

Sicily

A very important commercial area and most famously associated with the influences of the Mafia – and historically the fortified Marsala wine – this is a large island (I never appreciated this fact until I visited and realised how long it took to get around)! Along with Puglia, this is the source of a lot of Italy’s bulk wines (over 70% of production is still exported off the island in bulk). But behind this lies a significant movement towards higher quality and individual expression. So much so that there are now nearly 200 different varieties planted on the island. Areas such as Etna and Cerasuolo di Vittoria have gained international reputations for example. 

One of the surprises about Sicily (given its hot, dry Mediterranean climate)is that it produces more white (roughly 60%) than red wine – a proportion of it still of the “workhorse” character from the ubiquitous Trebbiano grape, but also increased plantings of Pinot Grigio.  But along with improvements in the style of their international wines they have several fine indigenous grapes of note – top whites grapes include:

  • Caricante – especially from the high altitude slopes of Etna
  • Cataratto – in selected areas and producers (but still too often flat and uninspiring)
  • Grillo – both in table wine form and better quality Marsala
  • Inzolia
  • Zibibbo – aka Muscat – maybe tenuous as “indigenous” but the dry table wine styles can be particularly good, along with classic Passito style sweet wines

On the black grape front, stars include:

  • Nerello Mascalese – historically, used to supplement Barolo in the old days! These days the main red grape in Etna Rosso
  • Nero d’Avola – the island’s largest planted especially in the south-east of the island  

Try the excellent Il Passo Nerello from Vigneti Zabù – a fine blend of these two great black grapes with some partial dried grape element 

Vines planted in the ash soil near Mount Etna

Pantelleria

Low grown Muscat vines on Pantelleria 
And the air-dried grapes as used in Ben Ryé
  • This small island is nearer the north of Africa than Sicily. Here you really see the Arabic influences in the architecture – and in the main grape variety, Muscat (of Alexandria) or Zibibbo as it is called locally. It is believed the Arabs brought the grape to the island originally (as a food source). The other main crop is capers and these are as highly prized as the top Muscat grapes. Dry and windy the Muscat are mainly low (bush) trained and often dried passito (dried grapes) style to make rich and intense dessert wines – which are some of the best in all of Italy. A fantastic example is the hedonistic Ben Ryé from Donnafugata – sweet and luscious with intense dried stone fruit character 

Puglia (The “Heel”)

Along with Sicily and Campania, Puglia (or Apulia) is the most important region in the south. It is also a large agricultural region – for example producing over 40% of all Italy’s olives.  Jutting out into the Adriatic Sea there is significant cultural and physical divide between the north and south of the region. The north is much hillier and likes to link itself towards the central part of Italy – the south is flatter and far more agricultural. Puglia was an easy and cheap source of bulk wines, but it has done a lot to lift its profile and reputation with higher quality DOC and IGT wines. 

The climate is again very Mediterranean with plenty of hot sunshine, but also some moderating sea breeze effects, especially in the south which is in effect peninsular. The soils are broadly limestone, with iron rich quartz. 

In the last 20 years or so the region has seen a rash of new DOCs and new DOCGs, starting with Primitivo di Manduria in 2010. 

This area has developed a worthy reputation for several local varieties – most notably PrimitivoNegroamaro, Uva di Troiaand to a lesser degree Malvasia Nera. White wine production is limited but the local Verdeca grape can produce some interesting examples. Greco and Fiano white grapes are also making an appearance in the region, both of which hold more potential than the more workhorse and quaintly names Bombino Bianco! And of course, one of the main (ampelographic) interests in Primitivo has been confirming that the variety is indeed the same as Zinfandel in California.

There are 33 DOC(G)s in Puglia (4 of them DOCGs), with arguably the most famous being Manduria, Copertino, Salice Salentino, Squinzano and Brindisi.

Do try the older vine Primitivo Manduria example from the excellent Co-operative San Marzano and for a treat their exuberant “Riserva 62” made from select parcels of over 100 year old vines 

Campania (the “Shin”)

The Amalfi Coast 

Of all the southern areas of Italy Campania is arguably the most dynamic and the one producing the highest quality – with certain delimited areas and producers challenging many more of the revered areas in the north. In addition, the level of consistency of production is high. It is also one of the most beautiful areas, with the Amalfi coastline being a classic example. 

Campania’s reputation and resurgence on the international stage has come about only in the last 25 years and many new producers continue to emerge to this day. And in many ways the key to success starts with the quality and individuality of the native grapes.  In fact, this is an area where international grape varieties play almost no role whatsoever. Star performers are:

White grapes

Fiano, Greco and Falanghina 

Black grapes Aglianico (often referred to as the “Nebbiolo of the south”)

Famous wines

Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo – whites

Taurasi and Aglianico di Vulture – reds 

Taurasi

The first DOCG in the south and considered by many as the finest Cru in the whole area and greatest expression of the Aglianico grape. One of the ironies of the region is that of the 340ha delimited area to date only about a ½ has been planted. Named after the town of Taurasia, which is at 360m altitude, the main vineyard area continues further as far up as 700m. 

Wine Trust are in the process of reviewing the Campania category and sampling as we write so please watch out for new listings soon from this area.

Sardinia

Classic Sardinian beach and sea!

in recent times Sardinia has become something of a tourist hot spot, with its fine artisan foods, clear blue water, magnificent beaches, and scenery.  There are three main grapes grown on the island – Cannonau (which is Grenache) and Carignano(Carignan) black varieties and the white Vermentino, which arguably makes the best wine on the island. 

This grape is ironically often planted facing due North to offset the effects of the heat on the island and preserve vital acid levels and enhanced development of refined fruit flavours. There is also a good diurnal range on the island (ie day high, night low temperatures), which assists in this process. Top examples here are as good as any in Italy or France (where it is often called Rolle).

Try the new listing from Antonella Corda with its mildly exotic fruit notes and herbal touches.

So, we reach the conclusion of this summary introduction to Italy. It is such a vast and intriguing country that I hope this whistle stop tour provides a taster and incentive to read and taste more from this amazing country – and when we are allowed out to play again to travel and experience things first hand. 

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