Don't look now, but the lusty fruit-driven palate and dense ruby color of southern
Italy's Aglianico is taking its place alongside the wine's better-known cousins from the
country's north.  

For years, wines from southern Italy have been the country's quaffing wines, often a
good value for money and sometimes quite tasty -- but rarely world class. It has been
the great Nebbiolo-based titans of Italy's Piedmont -- Barolo and Barbaresco -- and
Tuscany's Sangiovese superstars led by Brunello di Montalcino that attract headlines
and attention from wine lovers.

    Compared to those aristocrats of Italian
    wines, Aglianico is still a little rough at the
    edges, but with an obvious rustic elegance
    -- like a gentleman farmer.  

    At its best, Aglianico boasts a smoky or
    earthy nose that can recall cigar boxes or
    roasted herbs. On the palate, it tends
    toward black fruits, with fresh acidity and a
    peppery tendency that fills the mouth. The
    finish seems to last for minutes.

    Aglianico used to be treasured by small
    numbers of enthusiastic devotees, but it is
    steadily gaining more attention from critics.
    In the years since I moved to Italy I've tasted
    many examples of its robust balance
between mineral and acidity, fruit and tannins. But I wasn't convinced of Aglianico's
greatness until I tried a series of old bottles, starting with a 1968 "Radici" Riserva from
Mastroberardino, the dean of Aglianico producers in Taurasi, one of the two great Cru
for this intriguing grape.  

With the 39-year-old bottle, the inky purple color of a young
Aglianico had taken on an almost orange tinge, and the
ripe tannins had turned silky and more nuanced. But the
fruit was still vibrant, and the finish still went on and on.
I'd love to be able to try it again in a few years.

"It's true that 1968 was a great vintage in Taurasi, but the
long-lived qualities of this vintage are not unique," said a
proud Piero Mastroberardino, who directed the tasting.
"A few weeks ago, we opened a 1928 and it was still a
young, healthy wine."

One adjective you'll never hear in regard to an Aglianico is
"alcoholic." High alcohol levels are among of the signature
characteristics of other noteworthy southern Italian reds
like Nero d'Avola, Primitivo, or Negro Amaro. But Aglianico
rarely tops 13%.

The grape needs cool nights -- "It's too cold to sleep with
your window open here, even in August," Mastroberardino says -- combined with hot
days. The result is a long growing season that makes Aglianico the last red grape
picked in Europe most years, with a harvest sometimes comes as late as mid-

But the late harvest date -- combined with volcanic or limestone soil and relatively high
altitude -- is what gives Aglianico its subtle and complex flavors and nose.

There are so far only two parts of the world where all the conditions intersect to make a
healthy terrior for Aglianico: the previously mentioned Taurasi -- southeast of Naples --
and the hilly countryside around Monte Vulture in Basilicata, the arch of the Italian boot.  

    While the higher-production Taurasi is dominated
    by Mastroberardino, there are several noted
    producers of Aglianico del Vulture, though two --
    Paternoster and D'Angelo -- stand out in terms of
    quality and production levels.

    It can be tough to tell the difference between the
    wines made in Taurasi and Vulture, though
    Taurasi wines sometimes have stronger tannins
    and a deeper color, while Vulture wines may
    display more of an acidic bite and extra perfume
    on the nose.  

    The best producers in both areas pull off the neat
    trick of making a wine that is drinkable upon
    release and also worth ageing. In the best cases,
    the wine can seem to evolve between sips: several
    wines in one bottle.  

Producers in both areas are also fiercely proud of their faithfulness to indigenous grape
varieties. These are two parts of Italy where international grapes Merlot and Cabernet
Sauvignon are hard to find.

"The person who is looking for a Cabernet Sauvignon can find one from almost
anywhere," says winemaker Sergio Paternoster, who has been making Aglianico in
Vulture for nearly half a century. "But for people who want a nice glass of Aglianico, there
are only a few places they can turn. I ask myself, should we work to be one of the many
or one of the few?"
This article originally appeared in
          Southern Italy's secret
Eric J. Lyman
(c) 2007 Wine Report
All rights reserved.
July/August 2007