The Other Italy - Aglianico: The Nebbiolo of the South

Sep 8, 2009

Along with Spain, the Italian South is fast becoming the most popular choice for wines of value. The grape varieties are not only unique but in blends or as varietals they offer a delicious alternative to the popular wines of Piedmont. My personal favourite of these southern Italian varieties is Aglianico.

Pronounced ah-LEEYAH-nee-koe, the grape, like Nebbiolo produces one of the most powerful and interesting wines in Italy. The berries are small, dark-skinned and picked relatively late in the season, usually between the third week in October and early November. The wines made from Aglianico are deliciously deep in colour with nuances of chocolate, plum aromas and smoky acidity.

First thought to be planted around the Greek colony of Cumae (the site where the Etruscans first learned the alphabet from the Greeks; close to present day Avellino), the grape is believed to be of Greek origin. Before the end of the 15th century, it was known then as Ellenico, the Italian word for Hellenic.

Other scholars believe it was first brought to Italy in seed form and that it  traveled through Metaponto (Mentapontion), the major Greek colony on Basilicata’s Ionian coast. From there it headed north and east, finding its way into Vulture and Taurasi. There is some evidence suggesting it may well have come through Campania, possibly the area of Monte Massico north of Naples. Aglianico may likely be the red Falernum of Ancient Rome, a wine highly praised and prized by the nobles of antiquity.

Another theory is that it was a wild vine indigenous to the peninsula, grown and domesticated by the natives during the Bronze Age and only discovered by the Greeks. Enology professor Attilio Scienza of the University of Milan argues that its name comes from eilanikos, ‘vine that grows up trees’.

It doesn't stop there. Another modern theory further fueling the mystery suggests that Aglianico was first introduced to the south under Spanish rule. Daniele Cernilli and Marco Sabellico write in their book, The New Italy, that the name could well be an Italianisation of the Spanish ‘vino de llanos’ or ‘wine of the plains’.

Aglianico is grown throughout the south, especially in Campania and Basilicata where Aglianico del Vulture is the latter region’s only DOC wine (Denominazione di origine controllata – Italian quality regulation similar to the French appellation system) and also the most important. The DOC zone of Vulture is approximately 400 hectares/1000 acres of volcanic soil from nearby Mount Vulture, an ancient, extinct volcano located in the northwestern area of the zone. The soil is rich in potassium and because of the steep slopes, supplies good drainage so the grapes don’t get too flabby.
Mount Vulture
Basilicata is the most mountainous region in Italy and this is also true for Vulture. Here the nights are cool and the vineyards are planted between 450 to 600 metres above sea level. Aglianico del Vulture makes up only 3% of the total output of Basilicata’s 500,000 hectolitres, the lowest yield in Italy. Despite this, the wines are powerful, full-bodied and a dark, rich inviting red requires aging a few years before ready for consumption.

In Campania, a region once known for the greatest wines of antiquity, the village of Taurasi, in the hilly part of Irpinia (a region of the Apennine Mountains) is located just 64 km away from Barile. Like the heart of Aglianico del Vulture, it shares a preference for volcanic soils and does especially well at 500 metres above sea level. Promoted to DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – a level above DOC) status in 1993, the wines here must be aged three years to meet regulations (one in barrel, two in bottle). If the wine is a ‘Reserva’, it must be aged for four years.

The wines here must be made with 85% Aglianico. They are concentrated but complex wines – smooth, rich red fruit, high levels of tannins but ideal with southern Italian cooking.

My first impression of Aglianico came with a bottle of ‘Terra di Vulcano’ Bisceglia, a DOC Aglianico del Vulture. It was just curiosity. I had studied wine at the Art Institute but sadly missed the Italian wine seminar.

I came home on a dark, winter’s eve. Boiling some water, preparing the lean ground beef, opening a bag of pasta, I decided to uncork and pour my bottle. Right away, I noticed the deep rich colour. I took a long, pensive whiff and found myself falling in love with the disarming nuances of smoky blueberries and spicey, violet drenched plums. I took note: the wine was over three years old.

When I went to purchase another bottle, it was the newer vintage. The wine was tight, only two years old and the blueberries and smoky spices sat muted in the glass. These wines need at least three to four years, sometimes five to come into their own. Like Nebbiolo, they thrive when given time.

Other notable Aglianico del Vulture producers I can recommend include: Basilium, D’Angelo, Cantine del Notaio, Paternoster (one of the most famous), Tenuta del Portal and Le Querce.

In Taurasi, Oz Clarke would most likely add an additional five years to my recommendations. Mastrobardino practically created the DOCG’s reputation but if you can track down bottles of Caggiano, Feudi di San Gregorio, S Molettieri, Struzziero and Terredor di Paolo, you’ll find some excellent Campanian examples of Aglianico. They are well worth the wait but if you’re impatient to try a varietal Aglianico, check out the IGT (Indicazione geografica tipica – wine that satisfy some Italian wines but the regulations are not nearly as strict) values of Irpinia in Basilicata. These wines are still quite strong and tannic but they’ll get you by while you wait for your Taurasi and Vulture wines to age.

The majority of these wines can be found anywhere between $15 to $25 Canadian so there’s no excuse not to try them. If you’re a wine lover, you might wonder where they’ve been all your life.

Bastianich, Joseph & David Lynch, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. Clarkson Potter, New York, 2005.
Belfrage, Nicolas, Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2001. Cernilli, Daniele & Marco Sabellico, The New Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2008.
Clark, Oz, 2009 Pocket Wine Guide. Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, 2008.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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