By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 14 October 2017
One of the most popular wines at our recent Hidden Gems of Italy tasting was a wine from one of Italy’s poorest and most remote wine regions, little known Basilicata.
The wine was Aglianico del Vulture. Aglianico is the grape and Vulture refers to the extinct volcano, Mount Vulture, where one thousand hectares of vines grow up to 760 metres on sooty potassium-rich volcanic soils producing robust rich concentrated reds with wild savage and smoky notes. Even though this is one of the newly ranked DOCG appellations, it is barely known outside Italy.
One of the reasons for this is that Basilicata region, the arch or instep in Italy’s heel, is not on the tourist trail. This wild rugged beautiful landscape of forests, mountains, including the fascinating cave complex near Matera (2019 European City of Culture) stretches north of Potenza to Puglia, west to Calabria and down to the Ionian Sea near Calabria; a forgotten land in southern Italy.
Visiting here is like stepping back in time. Aglianico has grown here near Cumea near modern-day Pozzuoli since the area was a Greek colony (Magna Graecia). It was mentioned by Horace - and Hannibal sent his soldiers here hoping the local Aglianico wine would revive them.
Aglianico grape thrived in Basilicata (also known as Lucania) until C19, when vineyards were ravaged by phylloxera. Like many remote regions it took decades to return to prosperity and today there are 9,000 hectares of the grape across southern Italy. Despite this, half of Aglianico ends up sold in bulk to bolster blends in northern Italy – another reason why Aglianico is not well known.
Despite its southerly location, Mount Vulture is one of the coolest red wine areas of Italy. Night time temperatures drop dramatically retaining acidity and aromas in Aglianico grapes, giving a fascinating combination of very ripe fruit from hot summer days and fresh acid bite from cool nights. It is a late ripening grape, so Vulture’s harvest is often Italy’s last in late October or November.
Like many other Italian regions, times are changing here. The best known producers are d’Angelo, Notaio and Paternoster – but now a new generation of Basiliciata winemakers are putting this fascinating region back on the map.
The Musto Carmelitano family are a good example of this changing world. Up until 2007 the family, based in Rionero near Maschito 600 metres up on the Vulture slopes, used to sell their grapes to the local co-operative like so many others.
When daughter Elisabetta and son Luigi converted their four hectare vineyard to organic their yield went right down, so they had to start bottling their own wine – so they now focus on high quality single vineyard Aglianico. It was their 2009 Aglianico Pian del Moro grown on Vulture’s brown lava soils on free standing alberellos, which stole the show at our tasting, showing how good Aglianico can be when hand crafted in small quantities and matured for some years in bottle.
The thick skins of this Aglianico grape can make austere fiercely tannic wines in their youth. Winemakers are using improved techniques in vineyard and winery to make softer more approachable wines.
“In the right hands Aglianico can be forward and soft fruited for early drinking”, says Philip Contini of Valvona & Crolla. “Thankfully the 1990’s trend towards ageing Aglianico in new barriques is dying out in favour of large bottes to allow fruit to predominate”, he says.
With its high tannin level, some pundits compare it with Barolo. “I try not to do this as it has its own merits”, says Contini. “Aglianico is a southern grape which marries particularly well with tomato based cuisine or cucina of Basilicata”.
You might well have tasted Aglianico from volcanic soils in Avellino in Campania near Naples (it forms the base of powerful Taurasi and Benevento reds) or from Texas, California and Australia. But what southerly Basilicata’s Aglianico can offer is a wilder nervier example of this ancient grape. It is a perfect time of year to try its rustic charms, with tomato-based winter stews and casseroles.
AGLIANICO DEL VULTURE D’ANGELO 2013 ***STAR BUY***
(14%; £14.95 Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh www.valvonacrolla.co.uk)
One of the mature examples in our tasting, praised for its smoothness and intensity. Loved its sweet spicy character, wild berry and prune notes, hints of coffee and chocolate, plenty of grip as you expect from Aglianico; very stylish with a long finish.
AGLIANICO DEL VULTURE 2015
(13%; £11 Marks & Spencer)
Most forward fruit-driven in our tasting made by Dennis Verdecchia; damson aromas and bitter chocolate flavour – but tannins are soft smooth and velvety. Very approachable.
VIGNETI DEL VULTURE, AGLIANICO DEL VULTURE ‘PIPOLI’ 2015
(13%; £11.99 Valvona & Crolla www.valvonacrolla.co.uk; Valhalla’s Goat www.valhallasgoat.com)
Good introduction to Aglianico made by Valentino Sciotti (of Vesevo fame) in this small Basilicata co-operative in Acerenza, with consultant Alberto Antonini. Lovely black cherry aromas, chocolatey with chewy blackfruits and light oaky note.
AGLIANICO DEL VULTURE ALVOLO 2013 Alovini ***STAR BUY***
(14%; £15.50 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Very stylish well-made Aglianico which has benefitted from bottle age. Made by talented Oronzo Alo, using his oldest Aglianico vines. Loved it chunkiness and plummy fruits, liquorice, bitter chocolate flavours & fresh minerally undertones.
Join Rose Murray Brown MW’s ‘Port for Christmas’ Tasting on 2 November in Edinburgh £45 www.rosemurraybrown.com