Sommelier tells the story of Italy’s South
July 11, 2007
One of the things that has struck me most significantly about Italy is its huge diversity. Not only in terms of the land and its geological variety but in terms of its cultural diversity. As we travel south, people’s skin tone gets darker and their hand gestures get more animated. You actually have to be careful not to be struck by a rogue — "I can’t believe that!!!" — hand motion. The wine styles vary just as significantly as the people. With the rising temperature as you travel south the wines get bigger and more intense. The soil gets dryer, the air is dustier, and parts of Puglia even remind one of southern Utah. With Vesuvius looming in the background I give you my second wine report from the road.
One of the most amazing and fastest growing regions of Italy is Lazio. We visited five wineries in Lazio, and much to my surprise they were some of the most high-end and technologically sophisticated wineries in the whole country. Lazio is the area in central-southern Italy that is home to Rome, and the landscape has the ruins to prove it.
Everywhere you look there is some Roman aqueduct or ancient castle that, after a while, start to look as common as rest stops on Interstate 80. It is hard to describe the typical wines of this region, considering they are made of many grapes of both regional and French origin. The local grapes, Cesanese and Montepulciano, seem to be the main ingredients of their local styles and everything from Syrah to Cab and Merlot are the grapes of the French variety. But whatever the grape, the end result seems to be the quest for big rich red wines. The most stunning producer we ran into was Marco Carpineti. His wines are made organically by European Union standards, which, might I add, are a lot stricter than ours, and his commitment to local varieties is very impressive. His vineyards are located around the town of Cory and the wines vary from rich whites to powerful reds and they reflect Marco’s attention to detail and touch of sophistication. (By the way, he found a Roman escape tunnel while replanting a vineyard site. Oops.)
We then continued south through the desert and into Puglia where Negroamaro and Primitivo, the birthplace of Zinfande, is the king grape varieties. Things here tend to be a little bit more grassroots. The towns are a little seedier and the temperature reaches 100 degrees on most summer days. The wines seem to reflect these attributes as well. The wines are heavy, spicy, and deceptively high in alcohol. I am surprised by the widely accepted use of concrete fermentation tanks, which are an old and outdated technology. If you ask any of the wine makers why they still use them, they will tell you to try to get them out of the winery. When you look at the 45-hectoliter concrete tank, you understand their point. They have, however, begun to switch over to aging in barrique and using some form of temperature-controlled fermentation, which are both solid modern practices. By the way, their wines are really good with the local salamis. Have I mentioned the salamis yet? Wow.
If you want to own a vineyard in Italy, they are for sale at unbelievably low prices in these southern regions. As these regions have gotten big EU subsidies over the last few years to increase the quality of the wines, their future has only just begun. Lazio and Puglia may just be Italy’s next "it" regions.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .