The South & Islands

southOenotria Revisited
The six regions of Italy’s south take in the sun-washed vineyards that prompted the ancient Greeks to nickname their colonies Oenotria, the land of wine. From Hellas they brought to Magna Græcia vines that are still planted today, under such names as Aglianico, Greco, Malvasia, Gaglioppo and Moscato.

The Romans in their turn recognized the potential of the slopes that gave them Falernum, Caecubum, Mamertinum and other heady wines that were eulogized by poets from Horace to Virgil. Many outsiders left their marks on these Mediterranean shores. Foremost among them were the Spaniards, who dominated until the Risorgimento and brought vines into Sardinia, Sicily and other places centuries after the Arabs and Phoenicians planted what may have been the first "foreign" vines in Italy.

Through much of the 20th century, the vineyards of the Italian Mezzogiorno were noted mainly for copious quantities of wine. Apulia and Sicily were perennial leaders in volume, much of it in bulk blending wines shipped to northerly places. But lately producers in all six regions have learned that the future lies in quality. The result has been a rapid improvement in the class and style of bottled wines that increasingly live up to the ancient promise of Oenotria.

The revolution in vineyard and cellar techniques has permitted production of dry, balanced modern wines of international appeal. Some of Italy’s most impressive red wines originate in the south.

First among them is Campania’s Taurasi, a DOCG wine from Aglianico, also the source of Basilicata’s Aglianico del Vulture. In Apulia, Negroamaro, Primitivo and Uva di Troia make reds of depth and style. Calabria boasts sterling reds from Gaglioppo. On the island of Sardinia, Cannonau and Carignano stand out. In Sicily, Cerasuolo di Vittoria has gained DOCG status for a wine based on Calabrese or Nero d’Avola, a variety that plays a role in a number of highly rated reds in the Sicilia IGT.

The south was long noted for white wines of unique strength of character. Examples are the barrel-aged classics of Sicily’s Marsala and Sardinia’s Vernaccia di Oristano and traditional sweet wines from various varieties of Moscato, Malvasia and Greco. But trends favour dry whites of modern style and distinct personality. Leading the list are the DOCGs of Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo in Campania and Vermentino di Gallura in Sardinia. But fine whites are now made throughout the south from both native and international varieties.

The misconception that the Mezzogiorno has a universally torrid climate overlooks the fact that much of the territory is temperate and parts are downright chilly. Conditions depend on altitude and proximity to the Tyrrhenian, Ionian or Adriatic seas. Fine wines are made in hot places—the slopes of Vesuvius, the isle of Ischia, Apulia’s Salento peninsula, Sicily’s western coast and Sardinia’s Campidano. But many wines of scope come from higher, cooler places – the hills around Avellino in Campania, Basilicata’s Vulture, Sicily’s Etna and central highlands, Apulia’s interior plateau and Sardinia’s eastern coastal range.

Major wineries from elsewhere in Italy have invested in the south, where the climate permits consistent quality from year to year for wines of premium class at reasonable prices.

Contrasts are not the least of those things in which Sicily abounds. So perhaps it is not surprising that this ancient island boasts one of Italy's most progressive wine industries or that a region noted chiefly in the past for strong and often sweet amber Marsala and Moscato has switched the emphasis toward lighter, fruitier wines mainly white but also red. Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, has more vineyards than any other Italian region. Yet, with the emphasis shifting from quantity to quality, wine production has diminished recently to slightly less than that of Veneto.

A major share of the DOC is represented by Marsala, a wine originated by English merchant traders two centuries ago. Marsala remains Sicily's proudest wine despite the not so distant era of degradation when it was used mainly for cooking or flavoured with various syrups and sweeteners. Recently it has enjoyed a comeback among connoisseurs, who favour the dry Marsala Vergine and Superiore Riserva with the warmly complex flavours that rank them with the finest fortified wines of Europe.

Isolation in mid-Mediterranean has made Sardinia the most idiosyncratic of Italian regions. The island's history has been influenced as much by foreigners, Spaniards in particular, as by Italians.

The island's vines tell a story of their own, frequently with a Spanish accent. The Mediterranean stalwarts are there in the various clones of Moscato and Malvasia, but several other varieties are unique in Italy, such as Girò, Cannonau, Nuragus, Monica, Semidano, Torbato and Vernaccia di Oristano...