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Armchair Travels: Sebastian Payne MW on the allure of southern Italy

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Sebastian Payne MW Sebastian Payne MW / 15 May 2020

I loved Sarah Knowles' description of VinItaly, Verona's annual wine fair, attended by growers from all over Italy and buyers from all over the world. The handsome, efficiently run, crowded stand of our supplier, Hofstätter, in the clearly numbered Alto Adige hall is a world away from the small two-man booths on the fringes of the Exhibition, reserved for growers from Basilicata or Sardinia. They get a small fridge for samples, a short counter and perhaps a couple of plastic chairs, but the welcome is warm and the wines worth a visit.

Southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno, like the Midi of the south of France – names evoking midday sun and, perhaps, the torpor that can go with it – is far away from the bustling efficient businesses of the north. These days, however, there are some smart wines being made by several growers in Basilicata, Calabria and Puglia and it has been a delight discovering the best and brightest for The Society.

Things were rather different when I first visited Puglia in May 1983, but I was fascinated already by the possibilities for wines made from negroamaro and primitivo, the champion local red wine grapes. I was there because the Italian government, in an imaginative but unrepeated fit of activity, had subsidised a dozen Masters of Wine, each to explore a different wine region. I chose Puglia. I had not realised how big a challenge it was. Castel del Monte and San Severnoare a long drive from the towns of the Salento peninsula and the Gargano promontory is quite a diversion too. Based at the inaptly named Hotel Jolly in Bari, I hired a small Fiat and soon learnt the local rules of the road. Traffic light signals were optional. Large vehicles took precedence over smaller ones, which in turn took precedence over scooters. Pedestrians came last. Misleading or absent road signs were as normal as potholes. One morning I got up at 6am and was negotiating a Salento town at about 7.30am when nosing out the car at a blind crossroads, I collided with Anna Goduta, driving her husband's new car, writing off both vehicles. Though she was unhurt she was distraught and will remain on my conscience till I die. I was saved from being lynched by her friends and neighbours by the local vigili urbani. I told them why I was there. One of them had a cousin who was a wine producer, so he gave me the address and I promised to visit him. I was fined 1200 lire and free to go. Avis, amazingly, delivered a brand new Renault 5 to replace the Fiat, within an hour. I was learning that southern Italy has different priorities.

Small but perfectly formed – the Fiat 500 is ideally proportioned for navigating the streets in the Calabria region of Southern Italy
Small but perfectly formed – the Fiat 500 is ideally proportioned for navigating the streets in the Calabria region of Southern Italy

The wines I tasted, though often poorly handled, were full of character and flavour. Puglia's amazing history as a commercial hub since Greek, Roman and medieval times added to the picture. There were wonderful cathedrals next to shabby streets. At Otranto I could walk on a Norman mosaic of Alexander the Great, King Arthur and the Queen of Sheba (now protected). Local fruit and vegetables were delicious. The best wines were red, negroamaro and primitivo to the fore. Most customers came for cheap, powerful wine. Origin was unimportant and most was sold in bulk. The whites from Locorotondo were full but neutral, mostly going to the Piedmont vermouth producers. The reds went all over Europe, often to be re-baptised when blended with reds from chillier vineyards further north.

The pretty town of Locorotondo in Puglia
The pretty town of Locorotondo in Puglia

That was nearly 50 years ago.

Today, producers like Vallone show the exciting potential of negroamaro from the mature bush vines on their splendid estate. Their Brindisi Rosso, full of warm ripe flavours, is a staple at home for us. Graticciaia made from their best negroamaro, briefly sun-dried on straw slats, grattici, on the ramparts of their masseria at Castel Serranova, and aged in large oak, is a world-class red. When Australian winemaking friends visit they expect me to serve it. The ramparts which were once a necessary protection from frequent pirate raids, provide this useful service as well as a grand view to the sea. Gregory Perruci of Pervini in Manduria inherited his winery, specialising originally in selling primitivo in bulk. He still has some invoices which might bring a blush to some famous producers further north in Italy and France. He has a profound understanding of different aspects of primitivo grown on red or black soil or sand, and knowledge of where the best old vines are grown. Primitivo is a powerful wine but with care, he makes it softer, spicier and more elegant, without losing its rich fruit. The Society's Primitivo di Manduria is a lovely example. His Dunico from sandy soil close to the sea which we sometimes ship is gorgeously opulent. Perruci was probably the first to see potential in susumaniello when he found some old vines interspersed with negroamaro. But when he bottled it under the grape name, he was fined because the grape was not on the national register. This bizarre anomaly has been rectified. Vallone, too, now makes excellent susumaniello and include it in their Castel Serranova.

Entrance to the Vallone sister's Castel Serranova where grapes for Graticciaia are dried on straw mats along the ramparts
Entrance to the Vallone sister's Castel Serranova where grapes for Graticciaia are dried on straw mats along the ramparts

Puglia also makes whites, but for my money the hillier country of Basilicata nearby makes them better. However, Puglia makes wonderful flavoursome rosato, usually based on negroamaro, which is delightful on a summer's day with tomato salads or seafood and also quite spicy-flavoured food.

Basilicata, the mountainous region tucked in between Puglia's heel and Calabria's toe is one of the least visited parts of Italy but it is home to one version of a world-class red grape, aglianico.

Aglianico del Vulture is a different biotype from the aglianico of Taurasi in Campania but its wines are equally impressive and cost rather less; rich with fine fruit that unfolds beautifully with ageing. The natural acids and tannin which make it ageworthy can be hard unless carefully handled, but Oronzo Alò of Alovini has discovered the secret of doing that well. Having learnt the hard way as a winemaker at a rather muddly co-operative, he first set up his own small but immaculate cellar next to his house. More recently in partnership with Donato Lamiranda, who has marvellous aglianico vineyards, and two growers from near Matera, he has moved into new purpose-built larger cellars. The wines get better and better. He also makes great white from greco and also the local malvasia di Basilicata. Aglianico which sounds as if it is derived from Hellenic, apparently has no Greek connection and is more likely to come from the Spanish for plain. Llano. Greco, however, obviously reflects the long history of Greek colonies in southern Italy but it is used in typically cavalier Italian fashion for lots of different grapes. Ian d'Agata who has written the best book on Italian grapes, says that you need to take an aspirin before disentangling all greco's different manifestations. Oronzo uses the best greco, identical to one planted in Campania for greco di Tufo, which ripens late and has generous body and long flavour.

Santa Venere's beautiful organically cultivated vineyards are a long drive from anywhere – but are emphatically worth the journey
Santa Venere's beautiful organically cultivated vineyards are a long drive from anywhere – but are emphatically worth the journey

Calabria is awash with different greco biancos. The version we buy from Giuseppe Scala at Santa Venere in Cirò is sometimes called greco bianco di Cirò but he calls it correctly, guardavalle. His Vescovado guardavalle makes intriguingly complex whites with fine 'hazelnut' aroma and full spicy flavour. His Cirò Bianco, on the other hand, is made from greco and has lovely aroma and lemon-like freshness. Santa Venere's beautiful organically cultivated vineyards, overlooking the sea at Cirò Maritima are a long drive from Basilicata and from the nearest Calabrian airport – almost from anywhere – but are emphatically worth the journey. Calabria can be the most chaotic region of Italy, with steep harsh mountains in its centre, still much poverty, and robust individuality. It took a very long time to find a producer who had mastered its distinctive red wine grape, gaglioppo. At its best, gaglioppo has scented red fruit aroma with fresh palate evocative of undergrowth. It can be slightly reminiscent of nebbiolo and this is what is captured by Santa Venere's organic Cirò Rosso. Most producers, including the most well-known one who is always 'going to get better' but never does, sadly produce a harsh rough wine from gaglioppo which oxidises easily. Santa Venere also makes seductive rosato with a touch of violets and herbs and sweet fruit from local marsigliana nera, which I have not encountered anywhere else. It was a deserving wine champion this year. Yet another reason for all to enjoy wines from Italy's south. Individual, delicious and attractively priced.

Browse our wines from southern Italy

Read about Sebastian's trip to southern Italy in this episode of Travels in Wine

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