The stories that most moved me in 2018 were from parts of Italy that are less developed and less affluent, but sunnier, more agricultural and more soulfully Italian. In other words, the south.
Italy is still going through a decades-long wine renaissance—rediscovering its myriad native grape varieties through better viticulture and winemaking. And when it comes to investment in wine, the south generally trails the rest of the country.
I have some theories about this. One of them starts with the notion that southerners—though short on cash—have been spoiled by ideal growing conditions. Southern Italy seems to effortlessly produce some of the sweetest-smelling and most succulent fresh produce in the world, from lemons and blood oranges to figs and tomatoes.
Same with wine grapes. Almost every variety ripens in often-rainless growing seasons. (Although 2018 was a wet exception for much of the south.) It’s no secret that ripe southern grapes and wines were long used to fortify wines from more northern areas throughout Europe—a practice that continues in some table wines.
But the southerners’ wealth of sun and natural ripeness left them without much need for sophisticated viticulture or for conserving wines for bad years, unlike areas that couldn't count on a quality crop every vintage and really had to work to get ripeness.
In Italy, modern wine culture started in the north and has gradually moved south. That explains why you still find more refined wines—and enologists—above the knee of the Italian boot, at Rome, and more rustic wines below it.
Southern Italy has amazing potential. But potential means nothing unless you have people doing something about it.
What makes southern Italy exciting these days are the pockets of people making things happen.
Some of the most inspiring southern places I’ve been in 2018:
Last spring, I visited Sicily’s Mount Etna to check in on the changes in a dynamic wine scene I’ve watched develop for more than a decade. Etna has become the envy of all of Italy—attracting winemakers from Tuscany and Piedmont, as well as Australia and California. It’s now at a critical stage of deciding where to go next. As Etna’s eruptions reminded us just in the last week, Etna itself isn’t just about “volcanic soils,” it’s a live volcano on which the patchwork of terroirs can change with a volcanic blast.
So where is the next hot southern wine scene? For me, it might lie around Basilicata’s long-dormant volcano Mount Vulture, an area known for its chewy, powerful Aglianico del Vulture reds. In the last two years, a group of young winemakers has banded together and is starting to get known for a new wave of fresher wines from a mix of altitudes and soils.
On a smaller scale in Puglia, producers in the high-altitude appellation of Gioia del Colle are making Primitivo (Zinfandel) wines that defy the image of jammy Zin. The wines are lively and fresh but barely available in the U.S. That is something that I think (or at least hope) will change.
When I speak to Italians about the Lazio region around Rome, I get the same reaction—an indifferent shrug over its ubiquitous red, Cesanese. But Cesanese can be delicious when it’s given a bit of care. The same goes for some of Lazio’s other indigenous varieties often dismissed by world-weary Romans. Some producers have had success by selling their wines in northern Europe or the U.S. before returning home. It’s hard to be a hero in your own backyard—especially when its Rome.
Campania is the quintessence of the south, from anarchic Naples to the inland Irpinian hills and the stunning rugged Amalfi coast. This fall I stopped in at Marisa Cuomo for some of that coast’s most intriguingly local white wines—grown on ancient terraces with big blue Mediterranean panoramas of sea and sky. It’s more “air-oir” than terroir. A southern dream.
What are your favorite southern wine places in Europe? (Please share).