Established Italian wine regions with their tourist pull have tended to keep attention away from hidden gems elsewhere. For publication week of 1 February 2016
Debra Meiburg, a Hong Kong-based MW, noted that when she was studying for her exams that if a red wine smelled of cherries, it was probably from Italy. Obviously Debra would be the last person to think there was such a thing as an “Italian wine” – in much the same way most of us would not dare talk about “Chinese food” without qualifying agricultural and geographical variations, and socio-economic factors.
What Debra was getting at was how exacting a task tasting wine blind is, and how you look for clues and then line up your findings to see where it might bring you – and hope it brings you somewhere.
An idea of “Italian wine” does seem to persist however, and requires some unpacking. Take three famous and classic reds: Barolo (Piemonte), Amarone (Veneto) and Chianti Classico (Tuscany). This trio, each from a different Italian region, could hardly be more different from each other.
To explore further the regional differences (and delights) within quality-driven Italy, it might be worth looking first at the so-called “Barolo of the South”: Taurasi. This is a small commune. Its red wine is made from an indigenous grape, the ancient Aglianico.
Taurasi, along with the whites Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, have been elevated to DOCG status within the last decade or two, and the best way to understand them is to get on a plane and hire a car. There’s nothing like wine tourism to viscerally experience why there are such regional – even village-to-village – variations.
Interlocking each other, this triumvirate of DOCGs comprise a dense series of villages in the heart of the Campagnia, a south-westerly region whose largest city is Naples and which is famous for the gorgeous Amalfi Coast, including the island of Capri. The soils of these DOCGs have been recognised since ancient times, with their mix of calcareous marls and volcanic deposits giving complex smoky mineral notes to the wines.
Luigi Annecchiarico, brand ambassador for Macchie S. Maria Cantine, a Campagnia estate established as recently as 2010, explains that their vision is to be less traditional in order to appeal to a cosmopolitan palate, rather than exclusively a local one. But at the same time, they want to keep the “wildness” and a sense of place. “Through wine, we know our land and soil in the deepest way,” he says. They are based in Avellino, in the eastern part of Campagnia and Luigi says that Avellino is the main quality marker to look for when seeking out good Aglianico. Wines from around Naples are not of the same, serious nature.
Aglianico, a grape with cherry (yes, cherry) and blackcurrant fruits and black-pepper spice cannot really be compared directly with the ephemerally perfumed and tannic Nebbiolo which is transformed into Barolo. But what the two grapes share is a capability to make elegant, complex wines. Critically, they both have great ageing potential. The Macchie S. Maria Cantine Taurasi DOCG 2011 is a truly serious wine with tamed tannins and a chalky texture that speaks of the land. The Macchie S. Maria Cantine Irpinia Aglianico DOC 2011 is a more low-key wine with food-friendly acidity, but Luigi says they are trying to find some more middle ground between the two, with the possibility of ageing the Taurasi for longer, and making the Irpinia more complex.
They are also doing interesting things with their Fiano di Avellino. The 2015, he says, has 15 per cent alcohol, because of the vintage’s sunny conditions and a later harvest. But the high alcohol is balanced by great ripeness, and they’re planning to age it for two or three years in acacia barrels, to smooth the alcohol and produce great aromas.
This quality-driven winery, which produces only about 50,000 bottles a year, also has vineyards in Grego di Tufo DOCG. The best expression of this grape is also on the volcanic hills of the Tufo area in the mountainous terrain of Avellino. Again, rather confusingly, eight villages are allowed to legally make this wine, just one of which is called Tufo.
The Macchie S. Maria Cantine Greco di Tufo DOCG 2014 is a wonderful white wine, showing ripeness on the palate combined with extraordinary truffle aromas. This is a substantial, mineral wine to confound the wine lover who thought that Italian whites – here’s another generalisation – were generally little more than light, acidic aperitifs.