At one point in my education I had five roommates, all from Calabria, all ear-nose-throat docs in training. Like most southerners that study away up north, they always returned to our student apartment with boxes and boxes of foods and wines from home. They brought loaves of gray-crumbed and black-crusted bread the size of car tires, which lasted for weeks. They brought entire cases of reused Peroni bottles filled with thin and watery tomato sauce. And they brought reused water bottles of red wine, which they loved and would pour with great ceremony on special occasions. And I was always eager to drink their wine with them, even if it seemed more like fermented prune juice… that had been left open for a week. It was Cirò, and to me it tasted like wine made by teenagers, prisoners or castaways, a beverage that was technically wine, but made under the most impromptu and desperate of circumstances.
And Cirò is where I am now, a city on the west coast of Calabria, on the Ionian sea, about half way up the inside of the ‘toe’. Taking the time and care to really taste the wines here (versus just assuming that I already knew the wines of Cirò), and now talking with the local wine makers, first-hand, I’m learning that the wines of Cirò really began to blossom when you could begin to taste what was under the all that oxidised prune juice.
The natural progression is always the same, says Valentino Zito, owner of Vinicola Zito, here in Cirò Marina. First the technology changes. Then wine makers decide to put pressure on the board. Then the discipline changes. Then the technology changes again and more changes come, but always slowly, more slowly than any of us would like.
I had asked him about the changes in Cirò, a wine so famous in Calabria as to be thought of as the wine of the region, a part of Italy where nearly everyone you meet still makes his own wine and is eager for you to try it * (See below).
Valentino was referring to the relationship wine-makers have with the DOC, or board that oversees who can and can’t label their wines as DOC, or as a ‘typical’ wine from that region, a title that always implies more that it states.
About ten years ago they changed the laws (the DOC laws, often referred to as ‘the discipline’, or the standards a winery must follow in order to sell wine under that region’s name, i.e. Chianti, i.e., which grapes may be use, the min-max for sugar levels at harvest, how long the juice stays in contact with the skins, the fermentation length, the time in oak, the time in a bottle before release, etc). And since those changes, Cirò has become a much lighter, less cooked wine. We refrigerate now, he says, pointing to the thick belts that ring his stainless-steel fermentation tanks. We harvest very late, often going into October (nearly two months after the vast majority of southern wine producers harvest), so the weather is already cooler. We water-cool the fermentation tanks and the wines really benefit from it. A lot, he adds, perhaps remembering how his wines used to taste (He actually says, assai, the southern slang for ‘a whole hell of a lot’, which makes a strong impression, the little southern boy that grew into a man that really cares about the wine he makes.)
In tasting the wines of Cirò, it’s the lightness, the savouriness that surprises me, as all the reds I know from here in Southern Italy are all high-alcohol powerhouses, jammy, fruity and most as thick as motor oil. That a spicy and light and almost pinot noir model exists, makes southern wine seem all the more varied.
How much do you sell abroad, I ask.
You can find Cirò all over the world, he says, but we’re having problems really penetrating the North American market, as our wines are so light in colour, and spicy versus fruity, the way North Americans like their wine.
Does that bother you?
Not at all. We’re in the process of changing the discipline, to be able to add 20% of other grapes to classic Cirò rosso. We’ll likely be adding 20% Nero d’Avola, to add colour and fruitiness.
Mondo vino, I ask, referring to the film, a cult favourite of most wine makers I know, the film’s crux that American taste is destroying diversity in the world’s wine.
No, it’s not like that. Cirò makes perfect sense here in Calabria, in that it’s a light and spicy wine to go with our hearty fish and vegetable dishes, especially in the warmer months, when you wouldn’t want a heavy behemoth. But that’s locally. You drink local wine differently than you do the kind you import.
What do you really, really think of gaglioppo, the grape used to make Cirò rosso?
I think its time has come. It’s a very old grape, most likely Italy’s oldest. I think that with today’s new technology Cirò is one of most interesting wines in Italy, even if the reputation hasn’t caught up with the quality…
….Verus something like Pinot Grigio, where the quality hasn’t kept up with the reputation. It’s become trendy without meriting it.
Exactly. I don’t feel that way about Cirò, and I don’t even mean my Cirò, but the general state of wine-making here. You can’t trust me, I love my own wines. But let’s put it this way, I think most wine drinkers outside of Italy would get even more pleasure from their Italian wine, drinking even my competitors’ wine, rather than a lot of the rest of the stuff exported from Italy… at 5 times the price.
We chatted for an hour or so and I thanked him and as we exchanged contact info, he loaded up my front bicycle basket with his Cirò classico superiore. Within minutes of being back on my bike, it started to rain and I ended up opening a bottle, alongside a bottle of Librandi’s Magno Megonio, (their winery is just up the street and I did a tasting there just a few hours afterward), a 100% magliocco, a southern grape I’d never even tried before. I drank the wines with some chain-smoking Rumanian teenagers, who found the fact that I both owned my own business AND still preferred to travel Italy by bicycle, completely incongruent facts. I continued on up Calabria’s Ionian coast, thinking that Southern wine makers are among the most generous people I’ve ever met, in every sense. I thought about Valentino as he lingered to talk with me, clearly not eager to climb back onto his tiny fork lift, to hoist more boxes of wine, to do all of the constant hard work involved in making wine. As I rode away, I watched him switch the thing into gear, me thinking that wine for a man like Valentino will always be something more than the thing you order in bars when you’re tired of gin and tonic.
*A note on accepting any of the frequent invitations to taste someone’s homemade wine in Calabria: Learn to smile politely and make some pleasant, slightly vague comments such as, ‘Sa proprio del sole’, or ‘You can really taste the sun’ is a good one. ‘Andrebbe bene con qualche tipico piatto piccante’, or ‘this would go well with a spicy, local dish’, meaning that you’d hope to burn out your taste buds before tasting this kind of wine again. The real lesson though, of slow travel in Calabria is the profound contrast between such nice, generous and eager people and how little they have, compared to the rest of Italy.