There are some grape varieties that, like Cary Grant and Catherine Deneuve, exude class. Aglianico, a speciality of Campania and Basilicata in the hinterland of Naples, is one of these. It makes firm red wines with real savour that is somehow more mineral than animal or vegetable, yet they do not lack fruit, and have great structure that promises a long and generally rather glorious life.
Aglianico’s high tannins and acidity, and its evident ability to age, have inspired some to call it the “Barolo of the south”. Praise indeed – although Aglianico is generally a much deeper crimson colour than the Nebbiolo grape that is responsible for Barolo.
Aglianico is the signature grape of Taurasi in Campania and Aglianico del Vulture, just over the border in the hills of Basilicata. Although it buds early, it ripens very late, and its grapes are so naturally high in acidity that it has traditionally been assumed that the variety simply wouldn’t ripen sufficiently often further north. At higher altitudes in Taurasi it has often been picked well into November.
Throughout the world of wine – where climate change is all too obvious – calls are going out for ever-later-ripening varieties. So perhaps, as more and more wine drinkers around the world are exposed to its charms, Aglianico will be planted more widely. Even in this part of southern Italy, temperatures can routinely be lower than outsiders merely looking at a map might imagine. Sara Carbone and her brother are reviving their parents’ two vineyards, 500m above sea level in the Aglianico del Vulture zone. She assured me recently that they often have to wear sweaters at night even in August. (The wine from the older of these vineyards, planted in 1975, has the arresting name of Stupor Mundi.)
For long, Aglianico was thought to have been brought to its southern Italian power base by the land’s early colonisers, the Greeks, and Aglianico was interpreted as a corruption of the word Hellenic. It has even been thought that this could be the variety from which the classical wine Falernum was made. (Geography helped this theory.) However, DNA analysis has found no close relationship between Aglianico and known Greek varieties.
By far the most famous producer of Aglianico in Taurasi has been Mastroberardino, currently run by the 10th generation of the family. Their Taurasi, grown on particularly volcanic soils, comes in a normale version and the Radici, which is made for especially long ageing. When I tasted it last September, Mastroberardino, Radici Riserva 1999 Taurasi (only about £20) was absolutely stunning and apparently at its peak: sleek, subtle, polished and with strong mineral elements, which is perhaps not surprising, because the best soils of Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture tend to be volcanic, created by ancient eruptions from Mount Vulture.
In Taurasi, producers are allowed to add up to 15 per cent of grapes other than Aglianico, and throughout Campania there is a tradition of blending Aglianico with other local grapes, such as the rather fresher and more aromatic local Piedirosso or the Primitivo of Puglia, to make earlier-maturing, more obviously fruity wines.
Aglianico del Vulture rules demand 100 per cent Aglianico grapes, although a number of local clones have been identified. The leading producer here has been D’Angelo, a younger enterprise than Mastroberardino, and one that has been able to buy in a considerable proportion of its grape needs from the many growers here.
But, as elsewhere throughout Europe, more and more growers are making and bottling their own wines. In southern Italy last month, I was impressed by a producer of Aglianico del Vulture quite new to me. Vigne Mastrodomenico, of Barile, has eight hectares of Aglianico at 350m up on slopes made of those ancient eruptions from Vulture. Their Mos 2008, an attempt at a sort of early-drinking Aglianico Lite, was no greater success than others of the genre, in my view; while their top wine, Likos, in this rainy vintage, was also a little softer and lighter than the most successful Aglianicos. However, their Likos 2007 Aglianico del Vulture impressively expressed the variety’s iron-hand-in-a-velvet-glove character. It’s imported into the UK by Cantina Caputo and can be found in the US for just over $20 a bottle.
Like many producers this far south, the father-and-daughter team at Mastrodomenico is currently in thrall to French barriques, but there is a general, wider trend towards larger casks for maturation and slightly less obvious oak in the wines. Tasting a wide range of Aglianicos blind in the Radici del Sud wine competition last month, I was struck by the fact that there were many wines that qualified as decently made modern red, a definite step up from rustic failure, but there were not enough that really made the most of their volcanic attributes.
Aglianico’s attributes are too obvious to keep it a strictly local secret. The variety has long been common in Molise, where Di Majo Norante makes a very competent varietal example, and to a more limited extent in Calabria. It is also being planted quite widely in northern Puglia, where decent varietal examples such as Villa Schinosa’s 2006 show great potential for the vine (even if the wine itself is at its peak). Other notable examples of varietal Aglianico from Puglia are Rivera’s Cappellaccio in Castel del Monte and Carvinea’s Sirena, made by the ubiquitous consultant Riccardo Cotarella, but for the moment, most Puglian Aglianico goes into blends.
The variety is slowly being recognised outside Italy, with plantings dotted around the state of California, notably Seghesio’s Alexander Valley version and Kenneth Volk’s in Paso Robles. It is also being tentatively planted in Australia’s drought-plagued inland wine regions. Westend Estate of Griffith, New South Wales, won the Best Red Wine trophy in the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show last year with their varietal 2008 Calabria Aglianico. The last Italian vineyard census, way back in 2000, found almost 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) of the variety. It would be a great shame if the next census found fewer than this.
● Mastroberardino, Radici 2005, 2004 and Radici Riserva 1999 Taurasi
● Mastrodomenico, Likos 2007 Aglianico del Vulture
● Donnachiara, Montefalcione 2007 Taurasi
● Carbone, Terra dei Fuochi 2009 Aglianico del Vulture
● Contrade di Taurasi 2007 Taurasi
● Galardi, Terra di Lavoro 2008 Roccamonfina
● Macarico, Selezione 2006 Aglianico del Vulture
● Francesco Radino, Nostos 2006 Aglianico del Vulture
● Terra di Vento, Petrale 2007 Colli di Salerno
● Terre Colte, Convivio 2007 Taurasi