The far south of Italy is a treasury of native grape varieties, especially noble reds. Puglia offers Primitivo, now famous as a kissing cousin of Zinfandel, as well as the still relatively unknown Negroamaro. Basilicata presents the long-aging, structured Aglianico del Vulture, a very close relative of the grape that makes the deservedly much-honored Taurasi of Campania.
As guests of the American importer Frederick Wildman and the Italian company GIV (Gruppo Italiano Vini) earlier this month, five American journalists and sommeliers made a trip as much in time as in space, from the baroque urbanity of Lecce in Puglia to the rural beauty of the countryside outside Venosa in Basilicata. Both places are time-stopped: Lecce is a jewel of 17th-century architecture, and Basilicata possesses an archetypal rural landscape. It is still referred to by its residents as Lucania, its name since pre-Roman times. That’s what the Roman poet Horace, who was born there, called it, and if Lucania was good enough for Horace, it’s good enough for me. I suspect the rolling, vineyard-dotted landscape of its high, volcanic plateau still looks much as it did to his eyes, and I’m certain that the roads are no better – maybe worse – than they were under imperial Roman rule.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: Puglia first.
An easy drive out of Lecce on the road to Taranto lies the sprawling Castello Monaci estate, approximately 375 acres of vineyards and ancient olive trees. It’s a real castle, and a big one. It started life as a monastery – hence “Castle of the Monks” – became a serious castle, and is now reincarnating itself as a glamorous agriturismo and event space. Its line of basic wines, however, is anything but upscale in price, even though all offer a very respectable level of quality. If you’re looking for value wines, wines that are as easy on your wallet as they are on your palate, Castello Monaci gives you a whole spectrum of choices, all priced at a very comfortable $13.
- Simera (Salento IGT) is a nice blend of Chardonnay and the native Verdeca – good fruit, a little heavy on Chardonnay-tropical-fruit flavors (this is a warm, sunny land) but soft and pleasing and a fine companion to fish and spicy antipasti. All the Castello Monaci wines in fact showed as very food-friendly, so you can take that as a given.
- Kreos (Salento IGT) blends mostly Negroamaro with a bit of Malvasia nera to make a surprisingly successful dry and elegant rosé. I hadn’t expected such delicacy from grapes that are normally power hitters.
- Maru (Salento IGT) highlights Negroamaro (100%) in its dark guise – black cherry and tobacco in the aroma and the mouth, with good structure. The 2008 tasted very young – drinkable, but sure to improve with a little age.
- Liante (Salice Salentino DOC) mixes 80% Negroamaro with 20% Malvasia nera to make a slightly fuller and rounder wine than the Maru, one that will take to stronger foods with equanimity.
- Pilùna (Salento IGT) is all Primitivo, with a very Zinfandel-like brambly nose, juicy blackberry/mulberry fruit, and a slight, enjoyable prickle in the mouth – straightforward, good, and fun.
Over in Basilicata – not very far as the crow flies but a few hours as the road curves – the Re Manfredi estate is presided over by the affable and accomplished Nunzio Capurso, who was for years managing director of Melini, GIV’s Chianti giant, as well as directly responsible for its top Tuscan wine, the splendid Chianti Classico Riserva Selvanella. Now, in addition to winemaking at Re Manfredi, he is still president of the Chianti Consorzio and vice president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio – so this is a significant, experienced Northern winemaker who is now indulging his deep passion for Aglianico, a wine he refers to as “the Barolo of the south.”
I couldn’t agree with him more. Aglianico – the vine dispersed northward by Roman legions – may well be the ancestor of both Nebbiolo and Syrah, though the evidence is far from complete. I’ve loved Aglianico for years, both in its Campanian versions (Taurasi, Falerno rosso) and as Aglianico del Vulture. In both guises, I believe it’s one of the greatest of the noble red grapes, capable of wines of the amazing depth, complexity, and longevity – so for me it was a delight to find a northern winemaker whose work I deeply respect so excited by Aglianico.
We were visiting on November 13, and the harvest had finished only a few days before – “Here we have always the latest harvest in Italy, because of our very cool nights,” Capurso said. That very long growing season, with its great day-to-night temperature shifts, is what lets the Aglianico grape reach its richest, most aromatic maturity. Capurso had prepared half a dozen wines to demonstrate that.
- Aglianico del Vulture DOC 2005, from 20- to 30-year-old vines. A stemmy and earthy nose; on the palate, good dark fruit with abundant soft tannins, and a long, tobacco finish. Very good but very young: You can drink it now, but it will be even better in three or four years. “In a minimum of ten years, this wine will be at its best,” Capurso says.
- Aglianico del Vulture DOC Serpara 2001. Serpara originates from a small, high vineyard of older vines, always hand-harvested and vinified and aged separately. Although still evolving, the 2001 is already quite complex, its dry plum fruit marked with significant minerality – very, very fine. This will easily be a 20-year wine.
- Serpara 2003: showing more fruit in the nose and the palate, also more tannin and less acid. More forward and readier than 2001.
- Serpara 2004: excellent dark fruit and tobacco flavors – a lovely, complex vintage. This one can evolve and improve for another decade and easily last a decade beyond that.
- Serpara 2005: tobacco/mineral/blackberry nose; good soft fruit, a trifle closed; nice acid/tannin balance. Still fine, though not as complex as ’04, and easier to drink now.
- Serpara 2006: In the aroma, tobacco first, then black fruit. On the palate, dark, berry-ish fruit, soft and round; well balanced and gentle but still big – another wine to cellar.
Cellaring is the key to Aglianico. It’s a grape that really reflects harvest differences and that needs time to bring all its components into balance – not a wine for the casual quaffer, but one for the serious wine drinker who prizes excellence and has the patience to wait for it. For their quality, these wines are also bargains – $39 for the basic Aglianico, $42 for the single-vineyard Serpara.
These are what I think of as true collectable wines – not for investment (much as I revere Aglianico, I doubt it will ever attract the big-money boys: thank whatever gods may be!) but for the kind of appreciation that only your palate can collect. Put some bottles of ’01 or ’04 or ’06 Serpara away and forget you have them for ten years: then open one with dinner and congratulate yourself on how shrewd you are and what a great investment you made.