Why Study Southern Italian Wine?
Not all beverages are created equal. Water is essential to life. Beer refreshes, relaxes. Coffee excites, motivates. Factory-produced soft drinks stimulate the body through refined sugars, reoriented the taste buds towards the pursuit of more sweetness. Tea made at a high level can reveal agricultural practices, worldview, even location (It’s not incidental that matcha comes from Japan, a culture that famously blurs the line between connoisseurship and fetishism in what it consumes).
And then there is wine.
It’s a liquid so precise in its flavours that a well-trained mouth can sense which plant surrendered its grapes to produce it, where that plant was located, in which country, region, village, who made it, how, whether he or she stored it in stainless steel, wood, concrete or simply put it into the bottle early, and even the year the those grapes lived their brief life.
It’s nothing short of remarkable.
Like art, literature, travel, it’s how much of the world seeks pleasure. I don’t mean to say in its refreshment, calories or even alcohol, but in appreciating the subtle differences inherent in the glass. Want to understand a specific place in Western civilization? Start with its wine: much can be learned. Does a culture seek subtle refinement? Bravado? Cultural legitimacy? All of this is contained in its wine, as sure as reading the plaques on its monuments.
But all of this is an argument in favour of getting to know wine in general. And all of the above is also true of Southern Italian wine, only more so. The South is where Italian wine started. It’s where it’s had the longest history, the most time for the proper grapes to find the proper sites. And the local food has grown up next to- and has been informed by- the local wine, longer than anywhere else in all of Italy.
Depending on how you view acts of government, laws were passed nationally in 1982 rendering it illegal to chapilitize Italian wine -with exceptions made in fortified and traditionally-made sparking wines, the practice known as ‘lo zuccheraggio’ in Italian. (Even today, wineries must report all table sugar that enters the winery, even the tiny little packets of cane sugar stirred into plastic cups in front of the espresso machine).
Those that see the world as painfully benevolent insist that the laws were passed to create a ready market for Southern Italian wine, which enjoys full ripeness, year after year. And that these southern producers could then sell their high alcohol wines to Northern Italian wineries, who often lack the body due to elevation and the more northerly climes, to round out their biological shortcomings. Put another way, many, many northern Italian wines would be thin, weak and pathetic if their producers didn’t ‘cut’ them with Southern Italian wine, right in the winery. Not only is this widely done, it’s perfectly legal.
Others, myself included, would see the law as the modern version of sharecropping, where the underpaid southern agrarian worker sells off his product to Northerners, who inevitably earn a great deal more on the transaction.
Why is this compelling to you? Because in the last ten years, this is changing faster than any of us thought possible. In most parts of the south, the abandonement of the ‘cutting wine’ market and the adoption of modern technique is happening within a handful of years.
The results can be stunning.
Take nerello mascalese, a finicky diva of a red grape grown on the active volcano of Etna on the island of Sicily. As you go up the volcano, the grapes ripen later and later into the year. The fact that the soil is the product of millions of years of lava flow means that every patch is composed of slightly different minerals. Combine, finicky red grape (think ‘pinot noir’) with ripening rings that dictate weeks or even months of different harvest dates, coupled with the strikingly archaeologically-different soils, plot after plot, it makes for one of the most intriguing wines in the world.
Or take Calabria’s gaglioppo, again a late to ripen grape that thrives for months without rain, making the wine that used to legally round out Barolo and Barbaresco. Modern producers are now ‘over’-macerating the pulp with the skins, making rough and mouth-searing wines, that when given years in the bottle to mellow, are unlike any other wine on earth. They are mysterious, haunting, like fruits ripening right under your nose, the way colours change in a prism.
Or take Basilicata’s Aglianico, grown on the spent volcano of Vulture, a stunningly beautiful mountain that looks like God bred the Mediterranean with the mountains of Switzerland. Giant, brooding, dark and almost menacing in the glass, it’s one of the world’s great varietals, perfect for your next high-end steak. Or to lay down for your children’s wedding and graduations.
Or the salty whites of the west coast of Sicily, where the wind and almost African sun have dehydrated sea water for so long that the soil itself is salty, producing whites that make your mouth gush with saliva, first sip. They’re refreshing, immediate and go with seafood in ways that few other wines do.
And why have you never heard of these grapes? Why have you only thought of Southern Italian as bargain Tuesday night wines?
I don’t know, but it’s my life’s work to change this. And it’s why I created our wine programme. It’s why I bicycle the entire south of Italy each year, tasting and tasting and tasting.
I’d love to pour these wines for you, to show you this part of the world is so very special.