Last month, I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of traveling to Calabria -- in the “toe” of Italy’s boot -- with my dad and sister, to visit the town where my father was born. Our family moved to Michigan in 1956, when my dad was 16 years old, and this was his first trip back to Italy in 54 years. (Does anyone else find it funny that my family left a country shaped like a boot for a state shaped like a mitten?)
I’d dreamed about this journey for much of my adult life -- seeing for myself the scene of my dad’s childhood stories, meeting my Italian cousins, and gorging myself silly on the region’s delicious food and wine. What excited me most about that last bit was not dining in restaurants, but in people’s homes; eating not what “tourists” would eat (if tourists were ever to visit the quiet, remote town of Soveria Simeri), but what the locals -- my own family -- prepared themselves.
The food genie granted my wish. From one relative’s house to the next, we were stuffed with wonderful chick-pea soup, pasta piena (a lasagna-like casserole made with penne), roasted veal, lasagna, prosciutto, and dozens of arancini (breaded and fried risotto balls). For dessert there were heaping platters of juicy plums and apricots, and after that, cakes.
And then there was the wine: great jugs of homemade vino -- red, rustic… and completely oxidized. After two days of encountering oxygen-abused wines everywhere from family tables to the town cantina, even my jug-wine-drinking dad had to wonder: What’s up with the wine here?
Fortunately, at the local market, we soon discovered a tasty alternative to past-its-prime homemade wine: Ciró.
Although just about every family in Calabria makes wine for its own consumption, not much is made there commercially. Producing just under 8.5 million cases annually, Calabria doesn’t even rank in the top dozen of Italy’s 20 wine regions. The region produces 12 DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines, and less than 3% of Calabria’s production carries that quality designation.
Ciró (pronounced chee-ROH) is the most famous of the 12. Named for the region, located in the foothills near the Ionian coast, Ciró can take the form of a red, white or rosado. However, it is most commonly seen as a red (rosso), made from Gaglioppo grapes. Known as “the Black Prince,” Gaglioppo is a native grape known for its vigorous production, elevated sugar content and medium-to-high acidity. The grape has been cultivated in the region for thousands of years.
The ancient Greeks brought winemaking to Calabria, and Cirò itself has a long history. In fact, the Greek athlete Milo of Croton was reported to drink almost 3 gallons of Ciró wine each day.
Most of Calabria is dry and mountainous, with olive trees and cacti dominating the interior landscape. The inland region suffers cold, harsh winters, but the areas near the coast are hot and dry most of the year. The Cirò wine region is located in the eastern foothills of the La Sila region, which extends to the Ionian coast. The area’s soils consist of marl (a mixture of clay and limestone), clay and sand.
By law, Cirò Rosso wines must be made from at least 95% Gaglioppo grapes, with up to 5% Greco Bianco and Trebbiano grapes allowed for blending. Rosés and whites, which must be made from at least 90% Greco Bianco and up to 10% Trebbiano, are also made in the region, but are much less common than the reds.
In style, Cirò Rosso is fruity, yet can be quite tannic and full-bodied. The basic model we bought for 3 euros at the market in Soveria was light in color and medium-bodied, fruity with a nice bit of tannin and acidity. It was a very good companion to our daily afternoon snack of bruschetta made with ripe local tomatoes and freshly picked basil.
Cirò Rosso is generally meant for consumption within three years of the vintage -- although some of the oak-aged versions can last longer.
There are about a dozen producers of Cirò, but by far the most famous is
Librandi, a four-generation family winery based in Cirò Marina, in the province of Crotone. The winery produces Cirò Rosso, Bianco and Rosado -- all made without oak. Through extensive research, experimentation and replanting, Librandi is working to upgrade regional vineyard practices to reduce yields, introduce new varieties for blending, and increase quality. Calabria is not known as one of Italy’s great wine regions, but Librandi is working to change that.
Fattoria San Francesco is another producer of note, which makes a few different versions of Cirò, including one that spends a year in small French barrels.
Price-wise, Cirò usually runs between $12 and $16 in U.S. retail shops. Your best bet in finding them is to visit a local wine merchant specializing in Italian wines, or to check Wine Searcher. You may also come across Cirò on the wine list of your favorite southern Italian restaurant.
Obviously, the wine pairs well with southern Italian fare -- roasted meats, salumi, tomato-sauced pasta dishes and pizza. And if you really want to serve it Italian style, wait until the food is on the table before pouring. As we learned during our visit to Calabria, wine is served with food -- period. If you’re not eating, you’re not drinking wine!
But with all the fantastic food at our disposal, our glasses were rarely empty.