It's about a nine-hundred-mile drive from the snowy Tyrolean slopes of northernmost Italy—located at the hip joint if you picture the country as a leg—down to the sun-hammered tips of the Puglian heel and the Calabrian toe. And Italy's cup runneth over with wine almost all along the route. Not all the wine is good, of course; there are rivers of plonk in Italy, just as there are islands of bad cooking. (I had one of the worst meals of my life in San Gimignano, Tuscany, when I was younger—food that would mortify the pigeons at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.) But the charm of this country is that inspiration is never far away, and anyone with an Alfa and a copy of the Michelin Red Guide can find a bit of culinary heaven within thirty miles of any particular hellhole. A cardinal rule of wine drinking is that it's more fun to drink the local stuff, and from the Sudtyrol to the jumping-off point for Sicily, there's tantalizing wine to be tasted. In the poorer regions of the south it does get harder to find good vintages, but the renaissance in Italian wine making over the past two decades has trickled down into these areas, too.
If few Americans ever consider the north's silvaner and müller-thurgau whites ("Waiter, I'm feeling like a nice Italian müller-thurgau" is not a phrase likely to be heard in Minneapolis in our lifetime), they ought to feel more comfortable approaching the primitivo-, negroamaro- and aglianico-based reds of the south, assuming they can just master the names of these grapes. The best Italian reds have a balance of fruity flavors and zingy acidity that makes them among the finest matches for food of any wines, and that goes for the wines of the south. Primitivo, though barely heard of in America, is considered to be a twin of zinfandel, one of the star grapes of approachable California wine making. Be warned that there is nothing soft about this wine, though: Fine southern Italian reds wield big, intense flavors, framed by mighty tannins. If you like barolo, brunello or a nice chianti, you'll probably like these southern wines, and you'll usually pay considerably less for them.
Poverty, what the privileged northern Italians regard as the "backwardness" of the south, is pervasive, and to anyone used to the manicured splendor of Tuscany it's also shocking. It has certainly inhibited the wine industry of the south. Some regions, like Basilicata, are dirt-poor, scantily populated and not much given to wine making of any form; others, like Calabria, tend to focus on other forms of agriculture, such as olive oil and citrus. Even the wine giant of the south, Puglia, has focused on producing bulk wines for cheap blends. Less than 4 percent of Puglian wine making is devoted to the production of prestigious DOC wines (the Italian acronym for Denominazione di Origine Controllata—which basically guarantees the origin of the wine), compared with more than 50 percent in Tuscany.
The good news is that most of the swill never washes up on our shores. And competent American wine stores and restaurants are now sifting through southern Italian wines to find the gems. The quality/price equation can be especially appealing. With most southern Italian wines under twenty dollars a bottle, you can afford to experiment. What you'll find, in the good reds, are wines that evoke the ferocious southern sun, with flavors often described as dark, deep, roasted and portlike. Wine expert Robert Parker, known for chasing the big red flavors that appeal to California-cab and heavyweight-Bordeaux collectors, described a '97 Notarpanaro this way: "Distinctive earthy nose of creosote, scorched earth, pepper, spice, black cherries and licorice." Sounds like an explosion at the spice warehouse down by the docks. But it's true that when the sun pounds away at dark-skinned red grapes, it does tend to produce strong flavors. Negroamaro, for example, means "black and bitter," and it's easy to see and taste these qualities in the wine. What you also tend to get are the aforementioned mouth-puckering tannins: Anyone who enjoys a predinner sipping merlot—nice, rounded and fruity—could find these wines a bit scary. Indeed, when we recently sampled twenty southern Italian reds, one taster found all but one of them undrinkable on their own; until dinner was served, the tongue-scorching tannins were just too much. (Yet everything changes when food appears; few wines are better paired with smoky, spicy ribs, for example, than a negroamaro-based Notarpanaro from Salento.)
The twenty wines were from three regions in the deep south—Puglia, Calabria and Basilicata—and from Abruzzi, which is a bit to the north, near the calf. Our picks range from the widely available to the fairly obscure, and if they're not offered in your local wine store, look for a shop that specializes in Italy or try another wine from the same area. You will find that grape experimentation is always beneficial, and prices are more than fair.
Tasting Notes: Italian Reds
If you aren't planning a trip to southern Italy any time soon, there are many online resources (italianwinemerchant.com, sherry-lehmann.com) that can bring the best of the region right to your home.
Abruzzi: Cataldi Madonna Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Toni 1998 ($46): Montepulciano is one of the two most famous grapes of Abruzzi, another underachieving wine-making region. This is a delicious wine of intense, tart flavors bursting with cherry and raspberry, with a hint of meaty maturity. Of the wines here, the Cataldi stands as the most fruity, familiar and approachable. If you can't make it to Abruzzi, this bottle will transport you.
Calabria: Librandi Ciro Rosso Riserva Duca Sanfelice 1998 ($15): A delicious red made from the obscure gaglioppo grape. Smells and tastes like a mature, delicious rioja or Rhône wine of medium weight. These developed flavors are what red-wine lovers pay two to three times as much for, happily.
Puglia: Coppi Gioia del Colle Primitivo Riserva Vanitoso 1997 ($18): A mouthful of a name, but a good example of wine from the grape said to be identical to California's zinfandel. This lacks the candy-sweet intensity of zin, and that makes for a better-balanced red wine. It's a mouthwatering medium-weight red with plenty of backbone.
Puglia: Taurino Notarpanaro 1997 ($14): Extremely reliable wine from a great vintage. Not sure I detected creosote, but this is a basso profundo red wine, with intense, burned, stewed flavors—the wine equivalent of charred roast beef with a blood-red center. Would go very well with said dish.
Puglia: Torre Quarto Bottaccia Nero di Troia 2001 ($16): Here's an exception to the power-red theme. Made from the uva di troia grape, it's utterly different from the burned-offering negroamaro wines: fresh and fragrant, almost perfumed and flowery in the nose, with a peppery flavor.