Going South – Exploring the Evolving Wines of Southern Italy

By John Aranza

For years Southern Italy was on the verge of a bad reputation. You know, the kind of rep where you’re known for “getting around”. Quantity and quality do not always go hand in hand, so much of the wicker covered bottles heading out of Italy for many years were not the best. The market was there however and as a result many producers fell into the habit of lower quality wines to get the most bang for the buck….Later when Napa reds rose in popularity, again Southern Italy tried to compete with big – Cab forward wines that they felt would appeal to the international market.

But these times are a changing…..

There is a movement right now in the South to use this limited terroir how it was originally intended; high quality wines with perhaps lower yield, that have brought serious attention to the potential of this historic winemaking region.

Lets start with Frank Cornelissen. Starting with 200eu, he bought a small plot of land on Mount Etna. Now expanded to 8.5 hectares of sustainable vinyards, these wines are identified not by vintage but rather number. A minimal approach by an extraordinary vintner. At last weeks tasting we poured the Munjabel Bianco No. 8 (800 bottles total produced). A blend primarily dominated by Grecanico Dorato, it offers an incredible nose of caramel & nuttiness, this is a part of oxidation. Historically, this was always an undesirable quality in whites. However in natural aging where it is intentional the wines are different. The result of the all natural practice of amphorae aging with no sulphites added, nothing but the vocanic ash & minerals at work here produce some interesting wines. The winemakers aging this way believe they are getting back to the basics of winemaking. These wines are indeed limited though. Based on the yield. We had the opportunity to dine with Frank when he was last in Chicago and he remarked that this particular wine was limited because his horses broke into the 2hectare plot & ate a fair amount of that vintage’s ripened grapes!

Another producer we featured at our last tasting was Arianna Occupinti. She is one of a few new style winemakers in Sicily who has really put them back on the map. Last Wednesday at Wine Wednesdays we poured her soft yet expressive 2011 Frappato. Grown on 10 Hectares of stoney vinyards, this southern blending grape gets a homecoming crown in this very capable producers hands. Soft tannins & fruit are reminiscent of a Burgundy, but Sicilian at heart with a uniqueness all their own. Ariana took the vineyards organic, then biodynamic, and the resulting wines are stellar on the palate. Small packages do indeed deliver big things with altitude & attitude and an astute winemaker all combining to create this exceptional wine. Bravo!

Finally our journey took us to Puglia, for the 2005 Alberto Longo “Capoposto” which is driven by the Negro Amaro grape. Translated into “Dark Bitter”, this astringent Southerner must be in the right hands. In this case it is, delivering a lush and welcoming, mouth-filling wine. Deliberately light on skin contact, this old world vinefera is tamed by oak transforming this rough around the edges grape into a wine that is a formidable contender! Lamb, Short Ribs & other hearty fare come hither….we have a match for you!

Our next entry will explore this weeks tasting which focused on French whites. Up next week, join us for Sherries or join us in April for our next series of Wine Wednesdays. Always at the bar, always informal and always fun!