How Southern Italian wines can now vie with the best
Masterclass “A showcase of Southern Italy’s finest” – Richard Ballantyne MW
It wasn’t so many years ago when the wines of Southern Italy were being sent up to the North to bolster up some of the weaker efforts of Italy’s more prestigious wines. Indeed, varietals such as Fiano d’Avelllino and Falanghina were regular components of the mix in the Vermouths of Cinzano and Martini and the like as cheap wines that could be readily made more palatable by the addition of those lovely Alpine herbs. However, since global warming has really been noted and noticed and with EU subsidies to help local farmers, there has been a sea change in quality with local autochthonal grape varietals vying with some new plantations of international varietals.
At a recent seminar in London, Richard Ballantyne MW, gave a Masterclass on some of his favourite wines from the settentrionale.
Richard tutor tasted 10 wines from the region, all currently available in the UK and here are my impressions of them.
Richard started in the wine business at the tender age of 18, joining his father’s wine business in Wales in 1991. Despite studying electronic engineering, he always knew his career path would lead to wine. In 2011, Richard joined wholesaler Matthew Clark as their Wine Development Specialist for London in the new business team, and a year or so later became regional account manager for Armit Wines where he spent four years working with the great retailers and wholesalers of the UK with a portfolio heavy with the great producers of Italy. Following this he worked with his former mentor Nicolas Belfrage MW at Vinexus Ltd, a London based Italian wine specialist. Richard is now director of Noble Grape: a wine retailer in South Wales. Apart from being hooked on Nebbiolo, Richard is greatly interested in wines which show ‘authenticity of style’, wherever they may come from, but invariably this leads him back to his home turf of Italy.
For the purposes of this masterclass, Southern Italy covers 5 of the 20 Italian Provinces, Calabria, Basilicata, Campania, Puglia and Sicilia. Without going into great detail, between them they cover almost 30% of Italy’s denominated and named regional vineyards (DOP/IGP). Wine choices are enormous with up to 72 different grape varieties being officially permissible.
Wines from Southern Italy generally lack subtlety, but this is in keeping with the cuisine of the South when spices, chilli, and other fierce flavours are the norm. This is offset by depth of flavour but there are wines with a good degree of subtlety too, although these are generally premium wines.
- Santa Venere Vescovado Bianco 2017 IGT Calabria.
The grape varietal here is Guardavale and there is not much of it about – only 33ha – although it is also known as Uva Greca and thought to be genetically identical to Greco Bianco di Cirò. It’s also certified organic. After vinification for 15 days at 14C, it is then aged for 5 months in stainless steel and 2 months in bottle before being released commercially. On the palate it displays good upfront fruit with reasonable persistence – it’s an easy drinking wine with some creaminess. Wine behind the label (WBTL) rating ★★✩ RRP £15. Value for money (VFM) App rating – Reasonably priced.
- La Guardiense Falanghina del Sannio Selezione 2017 DOC Sannio – Campania.
From the largest producer of Falanghina in the world, this co-operative is now producing benchmark Falanghina under the direction of Ricardo Cotarella, one of Italy’s best oenologists. Around 20 days in stainless steel before bottling and release, Cinzano’s loss is the wine lover’s gain but whilst this example is showing good fruit and freshness on the mid palate, there is a touch of bitterness on the finish. More for food rather than quaffing. WBTL rating ★★ RRP £12 VFM – reasonably priced.
- Joaquin Vino della Stella 2015 DOCG Fiano d’Avellino – Campania.
Limited edition wine from hand harvested grapes maturing for 60 days in stainless steel and going through partial malolactic fermentation. This is a wine with a good deal of elegance and balance between the fruit and the acidity, which points to its provenance from old vines although the bottling under this label only commenced with the 2006 vintage. There is a savouriness about that makes in a very good food wine. WBTL rating ★★★✩ RRP £33. On a price/quality criteria this comes out as overpriced on our VFM App.
- Donnafugata Frappato di Vittoria Bell Assai 2017 DOC Vittoria, Sicilia.
Frappato is a delicate Sicilian grape and the main component in the Cerasualo di Vittoria appellation. This example has spent 8-9 days on its skins at 24C before being transferred to stainless steel tanks for 4 months prior to bottling. It’s a lightish wine with cherry like flavours and a reasonable length on the palate, but I feel one could do better at the price tag of £27 for this wine. WBTL rating ★★ RRP £27 VFM – Considerably overpriced.
- Agricole Vallone Susumaniello 2016 IGP Salento (Puglia).
Another rare autochthonal varietal recently revived by Vallone grown on 10ha of Albarello vines. The wine spends 15 days in stainless steel followed by 3 months in concrete vats. It’s lightish and smooth but perhaps lacking a little bit in complexity, it is still a good value everyday drinking wine. WBTL rating ★★ RRP £12 VFM – Reasonably priced.
- Pietradolce Etna Vigna Barbagalli 2015 DOC Etna – Sicilia.
The wines from Etna are now considered among the wine press and the cognoscienti as the sexiest in Southern Italy and the quality of this wine is undoubted. From Albarello pre-phylloxera Nerello Mascalese vines from a single vineyard on the Contrada Rampante – the northern Slopes of the volcano – this is a big wine but with lots of finesse and supple tannins. It is aged in 500L French tonneaux for 14 months and whilst it is approachable now, it will reap the benefit of long cellaring. It’s got a big price tag and you probably could get better quality wine for the price, or the same quality wine for less, but it should be something that every wine enthusiast should try at least once in their life. WBTL rating ★★★★ RRP £75 VFM – Considerably overpriced.
- Sergio Arcuri 2012 Piu Vite Riserva 2012 DOC Cirò – Calabria.
100% Gaglioppo from 1 hectare of vines planted in 1948, fermented spontaneously (no SO2) and spending 15 days on skins in cement before transferring to underground cement vessels for 4 years, makes this a pretty unique wine. It displays great complexity and finesse – deep and unctuous on the palate and the fact that it is not released until 4 or more years after the harvest makes it immediately drinkable but can also repay further cellaring. Although rated in our VFM app as overpriced it is just on the cusp of being considered reasonably priced and if it were a few pennies less it would have been, especially as the extra white star rates it as a superior wine at a given rating. WBTL rating ★★★★✩ RRP £35 VFM – Overpriced.
- Cantine del Notaio L’Atto 2016 IGT Basilicato.
This is one of a number of crus of Aglianico from this young go-ahead producer – not its most prestigious, but its late harvest gives it just a little edge in smoothness although lacking a bit in complexity. The wine is macerated for 5 or 6 days and then transferred to French oak to age for 12 months. WBTL rating ★★✩ RRP £16 VFM – Reasonably priced.
- Cantina di Venosa Terre di Orazio 2013 DOC Aglianico del Vulture – Basilicato
After spending 10 days in stainless steel, it is put into 25 hectolitre Slavonian casks. It’s a fairly simple and quaffable wine, smooth with reasonable persistence on the palate but a little on the light side. Nevertheless it doesn’t lack finesse and is a good example of what can be achieved from the area. WBTL rating ★★✩ RRP £13 VFM – Reasonably priced
- Jorche Primitivo di Manduria Riserva DOC 2015 Puglia.
Produced from 40 year old vines, it spends 12 months in barriques and capusani (amphora). It’s a hefty 16% abv and reminiscent of some of the heady Californian Zinfandels to which the Primitivo is supposed to be its antecedent. The wine displays deep black summer fruit characteristics and also gives the impression of greater age than it is, so is a perfect accompaniment to mature Game. WBTL rating ★★★★ RRP £35 VFM – overpriced but again on the cusp of being reasonably priced.
All in all, this is a fascinating introduction to the wines of Southern Italy. The quality and diversity is now of an excellent standard compared with what was available even a decade ago. The only thing that makes me hesitant about the place in the market of these wines is that they are not as competitive as some wines from other regions in the world and they may therefore struggle to make a serious mark in such an open and competitive market as the UK.
For an explanation of the WBTL wine ratings, go to https://www.winebehindthelabel.org/ratings/
For information on how the Value for Money Wine App works go to https://www.winebehindthelabel.org/blog/the-pro-version-of-our-value-for-money-wines-app-is-now-here-and-available-to-download/