At this time of year, many of us dream of summer, which is a good reason to go in search of some Mediterranean sunshine. No need to go far a quick trip to your local enoteca will do the trick. Here you can find concentrated sun in liquid form. You guessed it; we are talking about sun-pumped wines from southern Italy.
Although grapes have been growing in this part of the world for thousands of years, the southern regions of continental Italy have, ironically, been late bloomers in terms of merited recognition. However, sunny Puglia and Calabria have recently come into their own. Puglia alone is responsible for 16 per cent of Italian wine production. Calabria produces less, but claims to be the first region in Italy to have received grapes from Greece in the sixth century BC. In both Calabria and Puglia, red wine production is dominant, although in the cooler areas at higher altitude some whites can be found.
For years, the quality of the wine produced in these regions was not regulated and therefore not guaranteed. Because they mature earlier, grapes from southern Italy were often used to produce vini da taglio for sale in Tuscany and France to be added to wine produced there. This encouraged the production of large quantities of poor- to medium-quality wine. Only recently have producers changed their approach, turning their attention to meeting the increasing demand for higher quality.
Sunshine means several significant things for grapes. The more sunshine a grape receives, the quicker it ripens and the higher its sugar content. In turn, the more sugar there is in the grapes, the higher the alcohol content of the wine. While too much sun can sometimes be a problem, in the best cases the prolonged exposure of the grape results in some incredibly complex and rich dessert wines called passiti.
One of the greatest assets of Puglia and Calabria is the range of native grape varieties. Rare types, including Gaiglioppo, Primitivo and Negroamaro, are found almost exclusively in southern Italy, in contrast to the well-known international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, which are now cultivated in virtually every wine-producing country.
The most common native grape in Calabria is Gaiglioppo. It produces rustic wines, and is the main component in reds and ross of the east coast Cir DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or a wine that conforms with certain quality control legislation). Cir can also be found as a white wine, composed primarily of the Greco bianco grape which was brought to Italy by the Greeks and is grown throughout the south. The Savuto DOC, named after the Savuto river that runs through western Calabria, is equally interesting. Like Cir, Savuto contains Gaiglioppo, as well as Sangiovese. The producer Oduardi makes a great Savuto 2000 for about e8. Due to the rustic flavour of Gaiglioppo grapes, and the high alcohol content of both Savuto and Cir, these wines are traditionally paired with dishes involving peperoncino (chili pepper), one of the trademarks of Calabrian cuisine.
In Puglia, which is further to the east and slightly lower in altitude than Calabria, the most important grapes are Negroamaro and Primitivo. In the area around Bari, where the earth is dry and the wind comes from the Adriatic, Primitivo is more prominent. It is the Italian version of the trendy Zinfandel produced in the US, rich in flavour and low in tannins. Further south around Salento is the territory of Negroamaro, which has a natural freshness and, like Primitivo, is low in tannins. It is particularly good with oven-baked pasta dishes. An excellent choice is Canteles Amativo 1999, which is 60 per cent Primitivo and 40 per cent Negroamaro and sells for around e20. Many producers bottle only Primitivo; some good examples are Due Palmes Primitivo Rosso Salento for e6.80, Conti Zeccas Primitivo 2000 for e8 and Selvarossas Zinfandel 2000 for e11.50. Unlike Primitivo, Negroamaro is rarely sold as a single-grape wine.
Several enologists from more traditionally successful wine regions have sought to lead Calabria and Puglia towards high quality production. Quadratura del Cerchio is the result of a collaboration between Le Felline, a Puglian producer, and La Fiorita in Tuscany. Designed by enologist Roberto Cipresso, it mixes Sangiovese and Primitivo grapes. Quadratura del Cerchio 1997 goes for approximately e17 and is a tasty illustration of the silent role that grapes from southern Italy have traditionally played in the success of northern wines.
Though the wines of Calabria and Puglia are little known outside Italy, some adventurous wine enthusiasts are trying them because they are unusual and exceptionally good value for money. It has been said that the southern regions have gold, but only recently have they learned to melt it into rich wine.