Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sexy Southern Italian Grapes

By Liza B Zimmerman

I just got back from a great trip to Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot; Basilicata; the mountainous region next to it; and Campania; which stretches from the hilly hinterlands to the splendid coast that spreads out south of Naples.

Traveling in Italy, particularly in the South, means immersing yourself in hundreds and sometimes thousands of the peninsula’s local grapes. Whereas New World wine growing areas, according to Alessandro Pepe, wine director at Rome’s swank Roscioli wine bar, are primarily made from four principal grape varieties, almost every Italian region has its own unique grape varietals. Many of these don’t even overlap from region to region.

Puglia is home to big, luscious reds such as Primitivo, thought to be the predecessor of Zinfandel, and other fruity reds such as Negroamaro. The whites from this region are rarely seen outside the country and that is a shame because they are beautiful, Torrevento’s Pezzapiano, a blend of Bombino Bianco and Pampanuto grapes is beautiful, refreshing and aromatic.

Heading into the hilly and isolated Basilicata, to the north of Puglia, Aglianico is the big red of choice. It’s young, tannic and intense reds and tends to run pretty high-alcohol for an Italian wine, often hitting 13 percent abv or more. It is a wine that really needs food, ideally big meats, spicy sausage or stewed vegetables, which we had so often in this area of Italy. Cantine del Notaio even makes a sparkling Aglianico, which was lovely, off-dry and food friendly. It is the first sparkler I have seen made from the grape and was fantastic with a wide range of foods.

Off the Beaten Path
Basilicata, interestingly enough, is one of the few Italian regions that have lots of ungrafted vines because of
the soil conditions. The few other places I know of like this are parts of Chile, Australia and Colares in Portugal. We weren’t able to taste any wines made from ungrafted vines, but ironically the winemaker at Cantine del Notaio said that he preferred wines made from grafted rootstock. He said that being able to use a variety of different rootstocks gave him greater control over the flavors of the final product.

It was an incredibly interesting observation and I actually one that I concur with based on my only opportunity to taste wines made from grafted versus ungrafted vines. We had an incredible tasting in the Casablanca region of Chile of the same varietal and honestly the ungrafted one tasted a little funky. It was not what any of the group of visiting journalists expected.

In Campania—an area noted for its incredible production of elegant whites, made from local varietals such as Falanghina, Greco di Tufo and Fiano—we encountered a cooperative playing with non-sulphites added wines. These have long been trendy in the States, and I have always been concerned about how stable they are in the bottle, particularly for the export market. Pepe from Roscioli called the trend, somewhat critically, one of the biggest fads of the 1990s.

However you look at the wines, La Guardiense is producing a great, no-sultphites-added Falanghina del Sannio. It is also bottled under screw cap, which is also pretty unusual for Italy.

If you get a chance to visit Rome—which Pepe calls the best wine market in Italy, and I tend to agree that it is on par with New York in terms of its wide-reaching offerings—here are a couple of great places to try a wide variety of wines:

La Zanzara: a new, sleek wine bar by the Vatican, in the Prati neighborhood, offers an interesting assortment of wines by the glass in a super-modern setting.

Sorpasso: a funky spot in the same neighborhood with great by-the-glass offerings and innovative food, such as stuffed mini-sandwich pockets with fillings such as ox-tail stew.

Il Goccetto: a traditional spot in the center of Rome with an impressive wine line-up.

Roscioli: a meat and cheese emporium with 25 rotating wines by the glass.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Liza Zimmerman has been writing and consulting about wine and food for two decades. She is principal of the San Francisco-based Liza the Wine Chick wine writing, education and consulting firm. She has worked on staff and freelance at national magazines such as Wine Enthusiast, The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana, Wine Spectator, Where SF and the Examiner. She currently contributes to Cheers, Wine Business Monthly and the Examiner, among others.

Zimmerman focuses on demystifying wine and transforming it into a tool for business and networking for companies all over the country. Past clients include Genentech, Roche and IBM.

She has visited all the world’s major wine regions and is one of select few in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits (D.W.S.), the three-year precursor to the Master of Wine.

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