Almost all the Italian wines that are acclaimed by critics hail from north of Rome: renowned wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico, and the Super-Tuscans, such as Sassicaia and Ornellaia. But one of Italy's best red wines comes from a region in southern Italy which is practically unknown to the outside world--Basilicata.
In fact, even most Italians have never visited this remote region, surrounded by Campania to the north and west, Puglia to the east, and Calabria to the south. And yet a grape variety called Aglianico makes it home on the hillsides of mountainous Basilicata, especially around Vulture, an extinct volcano. Those wine lovers who have heard of Aglianico usually know it as the variety that makes Taurasi, Campania's most famous red wine. But Basilicata is Aglianico's Italian home--although it originated in Greece, as did most grape varieties in southern Italy. Aglianico arrived in what is now Basilicata around the 7th century B.C., and shortly after made its way to Campania.
Basilicata traditionally has been one of Italy's poorest regions. It is almost entirely mountainous and very cold in the winter, with few good roads. Until it was awarded its first DOC (Aglianico del Vulture) in 1971, most of Basilicata's wine was bottled in neighboring Puglia, as Pugliese wine. As Burton Anderson reports in his epic, The Wine Atlas of Italy, '…Aglianico from the volcanic heights of Monte Vulture was more often than not the best of the wines they [Puglia] bottled as their own.'
Monte Vulture is in northwest Basilicata. The eastern slopes of Vulture, around the towns of Rionero, Barile, and Melfi, are the sites of the best Aglianico vineyards. The soil, composed largely of deposits from the ancient lava flows, is rich in potassium and tufa, the porous calcium carbonate stone that is ideal for grape growing. The late-ripening Aglianico variety thrives in this soil and climate.
Aglianico in many ways resembles Nebbiolo, the renowned variety that produces Barolo and Barbaresco in Piedmont. Not only are both late-ripening, and capable of growing successfully only in very limited areas, but both are also tannic, acidic varieties which typically require many years before their wines are approachable and mature enough to enjoy. Also, both Aglianico and Nebbiolo-based wines turn garnet in color with maturity. If anything, Barolo and Barbaresco are even more firm and more complex in aroma and flavor than Aglianico wines, and require longer aging. Aglianico del Vulture, for example, can often be enjoyed six to nine years after the vintage; many traditionally-made Barolos require ten to 15 years of maturing, sometimes longer. The other good news in the comparison of Aglianico del Vulture with Barolo and Barbaresco is that most Aglianicos are about half as expensive.
Donato D'Angelo has long been the leading producer of Aglianico del Vulture, and his wines can be found throughout the U.S. The other renowned Vulture producer is Paternoster. For a long time, the wines of D'Angelo and Paternoster were the only two Aglianico del Vultures you could find in the U.S. But on a recent trip to Basilicata, I discovered a half-dozen or more producers whose Aglianico del Vulture wines are now being imported into the U.S. It looks as if this obscure gem from southern Italy has finally been discovered here. These are some Aglianico del Vulture wines that I tasted:
Alovini, Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata, Italy) 'Al Volo' 2001 ($28, Vinopoli Imports; Classic Wines): The Al Volo is Alovini's richest Aglianico; it has spent 12 months in barriques. Tannins are soft, making it quite approachable now, although it should age well for several more years. Good value. 89
Bisceglia, Aglianico del Vulture Riserva (Basilicata, Italy) 2001 ($40, Domaine Select Wine Estates): Mr. Bisceglia, who owns the local bottled water company and many other enterprises, is a prime mover in Basilicata's current upsurge. His 2001 Riserva, aged for 30 months in barrique and bottle, is smooth and balanced, with complex flavors of dried fruits. His Riserva is clearly Bisceglia's best wine. 90
Cantine del Notaio, Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata, Italy) 'La Firma' 2003 ($38, Michael Skurnik Wines): The La Firma is Cantine del Notaio's most ambitious Aglianico (Its less concentrated brother, 'Il Repertorio,' sells for $12 less). The 2003 La Firma exhibits aromas and flavors of blackberries and cherries, combined with a rich texture and rather high alcohol (14.5%). A bit on the ripe, forward style, a reflection of the vintage. 91
D'Angelo, Aglianico del Vulture Riserva (Basilicata, Italy) Vigna Caselle 1998 ($25, Bacchanal Imports; Opici Wine Company): Perhaps because of the extra aging, or simply because D'Angelo is such a fine producer, this Aglianico del Vulture was a standout in the group. Donato D'Angelo has been carrying the Aglianico del Vulture banner practically single-handedly throughout the world's markets since the 1970s. The 1998 Vigna Caselle Riserva has lively, spicy tannins, firm acidity, and delicious, dried cherry aromas and flavors, with a long, lingering finish. A great wine, and a great value. 93
Eubea, Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata (Italy) 'Ròinos' 2003 ($30, Bacchanal Wine Imports): Eugenia Sasso, daughter of Francesco Sasso of Cantine Sasso (one of the more prestigious Aglianico del Vulture producers), has not had it easy being accepted as one of Basilicata's only female winemakers. Her three Aglianico wines are made in the dry, lean, tannic style, but the Ròinos is the richest of the three. The 2003 Ròinos, in fact, although it has the ripe flavors characteristic of the vintage, is quite enjoyable to drink now. 89
Giannattasio, Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata, Italy) 'Arca' 2004 ($32, Bacchanal Wine Imports): The 2004 Arca has firm tannins, is dry and medium-balanced, a pleasant change after the rich 2003s. Rather modern style, less rustic than many of the other Aglianico del Vultures. 89
Paternoster, Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata, Italy) Don Anselmo 2003 ($55, Direct Import, in several stores in NY and CA): The only Aglianico del Vulture which reaches the price of Barolo. Paternoster makes several Aglianico del Vultures, but its Don Anselmo Vineyard bottling is the most traditionally made and its most impressive wine, even in the hot 2003 vintage. Great power and concentration, with a very long finish. An exciting wine. 93
Terra dei Re, Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata, Italy) 'Vultui' 2004 ($20, Empson USA Imports): The Terra dei Re winery was a real discovery for me. It makes three excellent Aglianico del Vultures. Its 'Divinus' might be more impressive and its 'Nocte,' harvested at night, is also very good, but I love the lean, dry, lively Vultui, with its great acidity balanced by its cherry fruit flavors. Also, only 12.5% alcohol, quite unusual nowadays. Its vineyards are 1200 to 2,000 feet high on the Vulture slopes. Note the great price! 90