Jeroboams Education is a new series on our blog providing you with the lowdown on the most iconic wine producing regions of the world. Led by our super buying team, Peter Mitchell MW and Maggie MacPherson will introduce you to the key facts and a little history of all the regions you recognise but perhaps don’t know too well. To help really further your education, why not drink along? Browse our Southern Italy selection.
The pace of life in the south can be very slow and the region is amongst the poorest in Europe. Sun baked throughout the growing season, one would instinctively assume this was red wine country, but alongside some rich and powerful reds there are also, in Campania, interesting whites and not only that, whites that are fresh tasting and high in acidity. This is due to a combination of vineyard sites, often at altitude, and the indigenous varieties grown here that positively thrive in hot weather. Campania is also home to one of the most age worthy wines of Italy and arguably the old grand cru of the south in Taurasi. Basilicata, Molise and Calabria each have one DOC of distinction and Puglia, for years the underbelly of Italian wine producing oceans of poor quality wine, now has a handful of good DOC’s, some ambitious producers and even at the lower end is making more characterful and commercial wine, often under the IGTs Puglia or Salento.
Whilst wine has not been made here for quite as long as it has in Sicily, this is the region on the mainland where wine was first likely made (in modern day Campania) probably before the 3rd century BC. At the height of the Roman Empire, the wines of Campania, mostly made around the bay of Naples, were the most sought after by the wealthy aristocracy of Rome, notably Falernum. In common with the rest of Italy, wine continued to be made for mostly local consumption for the next 2 millennia, with little interest in the wines outside of their local regions.
In the 1970s Antonio Mastroberadino began almost single-handedly to champion Campanian wines, especially Taurasi, which were of such a high quality that they were noticed internationally and the emergence of the region onto the world stage began. Poverty ridden Molise mostly remains a backwater whilst Basilicata and Campania are making tentative steps towards estate bottling and some quality production and slowly achieving limited international status. In the 1970s and 80s most Puglian wine was quietly tankered north to add colour and alcohol to weedy (but more famous) wines (and not just in Italy) or was used as the base for Vermouths and aperitifs. An increasing amount also went for distillation via EU subsidy and none of this encouraged a quality mindset.
The 90s saw ‘flying winemakers’, often from hot new world countries, arrive and start to make cheap inoffensive varietal wines in the mould of their home nations and vast swathes of Chardonnay in particular were planted to satisfy supermarket buyers in the UK and Germany. While Puglia still produces large amounts of bulk wine, which overshadows the unique quality wines made from indigenous varieties by conscientious estates,recent years have seen a fall in demand (and production) of bulk and more focus on quality, but the wines still struggle for international recognition.
International varieties are quite widely planted in Puglia for cheap IGT wines and are also present in other provinces in a limited way (more so in Molise) for blending. Sangiovese is also widely grown in Puglia for bulk wines and there is plenty of Trebbiano, mostly in Molise. Below are brief summaries of the key indigenous grapes of the south that give regional wines their character.
Coda di Volpe
So called because its bunches are said to resemble the shape of a Wolf’s tail, Coda di Volpe is grown only in Campania and local legend has it that it was the variety that made Falernum, the greatest wine of the Roman era. Whilst un-provable, it is certainly an ancient variety that has been planted around the bay of Naples for centuries at least. It is the mainstay of Lachryma Christi del Vesuvio as well as being produced as a varietal wine in Sannio, Irpinia and Taburno DOCs. Wines tend to be full bodies with moderate acidity, some salty minerality and flavours of peach or red apple. Around 550 hectares are planted.
Another Campania variety that lays claim to being the ingredient of Falernum, Falanghina covers two distinct varieties, one grown around Naples and the other around Benevento. It produces quite aromatic wines with good acidity, notable body and flavours of stone fruits, notably of peach. It appears as a varietal wine in several DOCs and is used in blends of others. Also grown in Molise and Puglia, there are around 3,000 hectares planted (91% of this in Campania)
One of the most ancient of Campania varieties said to originate in Avellino and grown there for at least 800 years (but quite probably since Roman times), Fiano almost died out after phloxerra before being rescued commercially in the 1970s by Mastroberadino. It is now found in the Marche, Basilicata, Sicily and Australia, but the greatest concentration remains around Sanio and Avellino in Campania where it makes the mineral laden, dry and crisp Fiano di Avellino. These can be quite austere on release, but with age develop a waxy texture and apple and nuts flavours.
A high quality variety most famous for Greco di Tufo is also known as Asprinio and is found mostly in Campania with limited plantings also in Puglia, Molise, Lazio and Tuscany. It is a late ripening variety that gives wines of great body and power, but with limited aromatics, normally of apricot or peach. It has high acidity and can age well. There are around 1,000 hectares of Greco in Italy.
Pronounced Aye-anico, this world class grape is alleged to be a Greek variety originally, although no proof still exists of this. It is a late ripening variety that thrives on the cooler sunny mountains of inland Campania and Basilicata. It is also found in small quantities in the other southern provinces, Australia and California. It produces wines of deep colour with dark plum fruit, notable acidity and full tannins, which require skill and care to manage, lest the wine be too hard. The finest examples come from Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture and require some bottle age to show of their best. There are nearly 10,000 hectares planted in total.
Not to be confused with the widely planted and very ordinary Bombino Bianco, this produces a soft, light coloured and juicy wine as well as some appetising rosato, mostly in the north of Puglia. There are 1,200 hectares planted.
There are two varieties that go by this name, by far the most planted being Malvasia Nera di Brindisi, found throughout Puglia and also in limited quantities elsewhere. It is an important junior blending partner in southern Puglia, although not seen as a varietal wine, where it brings sweet fruit to softening the bitterness of Negroamaro. Around 1,800 hectares are planted.
Potentially good quality variety most associated with Abruzzo, but also a mainstay of the wines of Molise where it is the senior blending partner in most of the wines… Wines are deep coloured with full tannins and have an affinity for oak.
One of Puglia’s most important varieties and the key part of DOCs such as Salice Salentino and Nardo it is believed the name is a contraction of negro (black) amaro (bitter) a reference to its deep colour and the appealing hint of bitterness on the finish of its wines. Full of dark fruits and with velvety tannins before the dark chocolate finish, it can make excellent wines, although care must be taken not to over extract. It is also responsible for some fine, powerful rosato. There are over 12,000 hectares planted, 99% of it in Puglia.
The same variety as California’s Zinfandel, which in turn is actually a Croatian variety called Tribidrag, it has been grown in Puglia for over 200 years, although the area under vine decreased dramatically in the 90s with falling demand, only for plantings to began to grow again recently as it has regained some fashion. Primitivo produces wines that are very rich, full bodied and high (sometimes painfully so) in alcohol. The best examples, from old bushvines, manage to have a little elegance to compliment the power, but they are very much a marmite wine.
Uva di Troia
Often now named as Nero di Troia (producers saw the success of nero’d’Avola and wanted some of the action), this variety is found almost exclusively in northern Puglia, especially in the DOC of Castel del Monte, where it is the dominant variety. It is capable of high quality, with floral notes of violet, liquorice and dark fruits, however it has quite a charge of very fine tannins and so is often blended to make it more approachable on release. Single varietal wines can be superb but warrant ageing in bottle.
The Regions of Southern Italy
Climate and Topography
This far south the climate is generally hot and dry throughout the growing season, with wet winters replenishing water levels. Into the Apennines, where much of the finest wine is made, altitude plays an important role in ameliorating the summer heat and white wine with high acidity is commonplace. This is a generally mountainous province with three distinct soil types. There are volcanic sandy soils around Naples and towards Salerno, much planted with Falanghina, alluvial sediments on the plains inland of Naples (much of Irpinia and all of the Sannio DOC occupy this). The final type is a porous limestone (tufa) in the hills of Irpinia, where Taurasi, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino come from.
The main DOC and DOCGs
Campania has 15 DOCs and 4 DOCGs:
Key info: Vineyard area: 449 Ha; Varieties permitted: Aglianico; Production in cases (2018): 74,440.
The finest wine on the mainland south of Tuscany is a powerful and tannic red with high acidity and great nobility. Fearsome in youth, it requires bottle age to show its full majesty, when it develops dark cherry, tobacco and often meaty aromas. Vineyards are found in 17 villages at altitudes of up to 700m. The wine must be aged for at least 3 years before release (with at least one of those in wood). Just 30 years ago there were only 10 growers here and one producer marketing wine – Mastroberadino – now there are some 50 producers active and well over 200 grape growers providing them, although production is still dominated by just 2, Feudi di San Gregorio and Mastroberadino.
Fiano di Avellino DOCG
Key info: Vineyard area: 411 Ha; Varieties permitted: Fiano (min 85%), Coda di Volpe, Greco, Trebbiano (max 15%); Production in cases (2018): 175,600.
The DOCG covers 28 villages on hilly terrain around the town of Avellino and produces a wine of minerally intensity with high acidity that is capable of improving in bottle for up to 20 years, developing nutty and smoky notes. Powerful, yet restrained on the nose, these can be amongst Italy’s finest whites.
Greco di Tufo DOCG
Key info: Vineyard area: 638 Ha; Varieties permitted: Greco (min 85%), Coda di Volpe (max 15%); Production in cases (2018): 326,700.
Geographically small but more intensively planted DOCG in the north of the Fiano di Avellino DOCG that produces wines with a similar minerality and intensity, but more obvious fruit and richness. With apple skin and peach flavours and a distinct note of honey, Greco should be instantly appealing, but not without ageing ability.
Key info: Vineyard area: 1,164 Ha; Varieties permitted: For Red, Aglianico, Barbera, Piedirosso, Sangiovese, Sciscinoso; For White, Coda di Volpe, Falanghina, Fiano, Greco, Malvasia, Moscato, Trebbiano; Production in cases (2018): 538,900.
A DOC since 1997, Sannio is home to modern wineries and is located on alluvial plains to the north of Taurasi, Avellino and Tufo and makes classic Campanian wines that may lack some of the intensity and minerality of the best examples from the tufa soils, but tend to be very good value. Falanghina from here has also shown great promise and has its own DOC Falanghina di Sannio. Within its boundaries also lies Aglianico del Taburno DOCG.
Key info: Vineyard area: 176 Ha; Varieties permitted: For Red, Aglianico, Piedirosso; For White, Caprettone, Coda di Volpe, Falanghina; Production in cases (2018): 100,200.
The vineyards lie on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and were assumed to be of little interest until Antonio Mastroberadino started making seriously good wine here in the 70s. Reds from here are based on Piedirosso and have a smoky minerality but can be a little unforgiving, whilst whites are based around Coda di Volpe and are generally best consumed young, although age-worthy examples exist. If of high enough natural alcohol the wines are entitled to the name Lachryma Christi (del Vesuvio). In practice the majority of wines qualify and are sold undr the Lachryma name.
Other DOCs of note include Capri, Costa d’Amalfi and Ischia, all of which specialise in Falanghina as does Campi Flegrei which lies on the northern outskirts of Naples.
Climate and Topography
Molise lies on the Adriatic coast between Puglia and Abruzzo and is mountainous, sparsely populated and extremely poor. Sun baked and arid during the growing season, it is somewhat cooler in the mountains inland.
Molise has four DOCs, one for the whole province Molise DOC and three smaller ones, Biferno, Pentrod, Isernia and Tintilla del Molise, the only DOC for the rare native Tintilla grape. The first three are based on Montepulciano for reds and Trebbiano for whites, although varietal bottlings of authorised varietals are also allowed, these mostly being of Fiano and Falanghina for white and Cabernet Sauvignon and Aglianico for reds. For years the only producer of note was Di Majo Norante, although one or two others have now joined them.
Climate and Topography
Puglia is very hot throughout summer and remains mild in the winter when most of the rainfall comes. The Salento Peninsular is cooled somewhat by the seas on either side of it, although this remains one of the warmest production regions in Europe. This is one of the few parts of Italy that is substantially flat with no mountains are at most a gently undulating countryside. This is also one of the world centres of Olive production and there are many more Olive trees than vines to be seen.
The main DOC / DOCGs
Puglia has 28 DOCs and 4 DOCGs although only a handful have significance outside of their immediate surroundings.
Castel del Monte DOC (includes DOCG for Riserva, Nero di TroiaRiserva and Bombino Nero)
Key info: Vineyard area: 408 Ha (plus 123 Ha as DOCG); Varieties permitted: For Red, Aglianico, Bombino Nero, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Montepulciano, Pampanuto, Uva di Troia; For White, Bombino Bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc; Production in cases (2018): 296,700 (plus 58,000 as DOCG).
Just to the north of Bari on gently undulating land, this DOC is most known for its deep coloured reds based on Uva (Nero) di Troia. They can be quite savoury and have more structure and freshness than you would expect and some of the Riservas are worthy of the DOCG status.
Salice Salentino DOC
Key info: Vineyard area: 1,948 Ha; Varieties permitted: For Red, Negroamaro, Aleatico, Malvasia Nera; For White, Chardonnay, Fiano, Pinot Bianco; Production in cases (2018): 918,900.
This is historically a DOC for robust red wines based around the Negroamaro grape, softened with some Malvasia. More recently white wines have been allowed under the DOC either as one of the three permitted single varietals, or as a bianco blend of Chardonnay, Fiano and Pinot Bianco, although Fiano is the only one of these suited to this torrid climate. Aleatico may also be used to make a varietal red wine and dessert and spumante wines are also allowed under the DOC, however the vast majority of production is blended red Salice (of at least 75% Negroamaro). Riservas must be aged 24 months, with at least 6 in barrel and are a huge step up in quality from the basic brew. Good Salice combines herbal sweet dark cherry fruit and a bitter note similar to dark chocolate and can be very notable value, however much of the large production remains a bit rustic.
Primativo di Manduria DOC
Key info: Vineyard area: 1,948 Ha; Varieties permitted: Primativo (85% minimum) +OANRG; Production in cases (2018): 2.219 Million.
One of the success stories of Puglia, although this DOC encourages overblown wines, with a minimum permitted alcohol of 13.5% (14% for Riserva) that regularly sees wines of up to 16% or more being released. The style tends to be very rich, with flavours of raiisins and very soft tannins. It takes skill to make a wine that still has a sense of freshness, although when achieved, they can be memorable. Many locals report that this is also a highly prized source of juice in the Veneto for under the table boosting of weedy Amarone.
Key info: Vineyard area: 358 Ha; Varieties permitted: For Red, Malvasia Nera, Negroamaro, Susumaniello; For White, Chardonnay, Fiano, Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc; Production in cases (2018): 127,800.
Much of the chardonnay based wine made here is shipped in bulk and sold as IGT, however some characterful reds based around Negroamaro, and not dissimilar to those of Salice, are being made, along with robust dry rosatos. As with Salice, it pays to look out for red Riservas that have had two years of ageing.
Of the other DOCs of Puglia, Nardò DOC neighbouring Salice and on the gulf of Taranto is rarely seen but has shown real potential for powerful structured Negroamaro with some finesse. Gioia del Colle DOCis the original home of Primitivo and makes around 40,000 cases a year of a potent version of the grape whilst San Servero DOC in the far north is making some interesting reds from Montepulciano.
Climate and Topography
This mountainous province is sparsely populated and synonymous with the extreme poverty of the deep south. Driving through the province you are struck by how desolate, unindustrialised and also beautiful it is. Unlike in much of Italy, vineyards are a rare sight and production is just 0.2% of the national total at 1 million cases with 80% of this is red.
The main DOC / DOCGs
Basilicata has 4 DOCs and one DOCG.Only one is of any importance.
Aglianico del Vulture DOC / Aglianico del Vulture Superiore DOCG
Key info: Vineyard area: 375 Ha/84 Ha for Superiore; Varieties permitted: Aglianico; Production in cases (2018): 191,100/6,009 Superiore.
Around an hour north of the only major city, Potenza, on the slopes of an extinct volcano on the border with Campania lie the 400 or so hectares of Aglianico del Vulture, currently the only wine of note from Basilicata. At up to 600m altitude, the vineyards benefit from cool nights and the wines here have a breeding and nobility to them and great ageing potential. The best vineyard sites are high on the slopes, but many wines are a blend across different vineyards. New oak is present and can give the wines more generosity when released, but the greatest examples are long aged on old botti and then further in bottle. Whilst they may not have quite the majesty of Taurasi, the best come close and are much keener priced. Like Taurasi, they can be fearsome when young and really benefit from a few years or more in bottle.
Climate and Topography
The toe of Italy is even more mountainous than its neighbours, with most of the agriculture located towards the littoral. Inland this is rugged country of forests and mountains and the region is home to (and often under the influence of) the N’draghetta, a crime syndicate more fearsome than the Mafia. Wine was never especially commercially important here, with other agricultural products (notably tomatoes) driving the local economy.Covering less than 2% of agricultural land, the vineyard area has shrunk by over a third in the last 20 years as the market for bulk wine has decreased and the province now accounts for just over half a percent of national production. Although it feels like there is potential here, few wines are seen outside of their locality, the only exception being Cirò, which has real character and a deserved small export presence.
The main DOC
Basilicata has 9 DOCs, only one of which has any importance covering 85% of all of the DOC land in the province. In addition to this, if travelling in the area it is worth looking out for the vanishingly rare Greco di Bianco DOC, a dried grape dessert wine made around the town of Bianco in the far south. In 2018, just 990 cases of this were made.
Key info: Vineyard area: 452 Ha; Varieties permitted: For Red, Gaglioppo; For White, Greco Bianco; Production in cases (2018): 383,000.
Located on the shores of the Ionian Sea, the vineyards of Cirò are ancient and benefit from the moderating influence of the ocean, which drives breezes through the vineyards every day in the summer months. Red, which make up the majority of production, are based on Gaglioppo a highly original grape of intense pastille fruit flavours, pale colour and noticeable tannin. This is now often blended with a small addition of Cabernet or Merlot to add colour and improved cellar techniques are now seeing some serious wines being made. Whites are of Greco Bianco which has a phenolic, apple skin quality, honeyed notes and powerful acidity. Some rosato is also made, with more character and structure than most of the current bland Provence copies made around the world. A Classico version exists for the vineyards located in the communes of Cirò and Cirò Marina.
Puglia made 108 million cases worth of wine in 2019, putting it second only to the Veneto for regional production and surprisingly, 53% of this was white wine. Less surprisingly, only 7% was DOC quality and 18% IGT, leaving the 75% majority as table or bulk wine (against a national average of 35%). Wines from the region remain cheap internationally and even the best examples remain affordable. Campania made 15.6 million cases, with 48% white and only 27% either DOC or IGT. Whilst Campanian wine from renowned estates or well known DOCs commands a good price and has decent presence on export markets, it remains very good value. Molise made 5 million cases in 2019, nearly three-quarters of it red and most made in co-operatives. Little is exported. Calabria produces 3.7 million cases, most of which is relatively cheap and rarely exported whilst Basilicata makes just a million cases a year, making it one of the least productive provinces. In Aglianico del Vulture it has one wine with an international presence.
In much of the south there is little variation in vintages and many of the wines are not destined for long ageing, but there are vintage variations, perhaps mostly felt in Campania. Below is a brief summary of the last few years.
2010: An outstanding vintage with long life ahead.
2011: Hot year. Whites are past their best, the reds are showy but lack precision.
2012: Some great reds, though a few were too alcoholic and grippy. Whites were a bit flat.
2013: Fresh & vibrant whites, less successful reds that were a bit lacking in ripeness.
2014: Much better than much of Italy, the wines are relatively light, but fragrant and well balanced.
2015: Wet winter followed by a hot & dry summer. Whites lack perfume, reds are massive but should age well.
2016: Lighter and elegant wines. Taurasi and Fiano can be excellent.
2017: A very dry year with a hot summer. Grecos superb, Fiano good. Fine reds.
2018: Difficult weather with plenty of rain led to a decent vintage, but reds lack the concentration for long ageing. Good year for Fiano.