When I think of southern Italy, a couple of wines come to mind quickly — the increasingly popular Nero d’Avola of Sicily and the ubiquitous Primitivo of Puglia, which has gained popularity because of its genetic link to Zinfandel. They can be a bit rough but are often good, reliable and inexpensive. While it would be a stretch, as a rule, to call these wines complex, I would not hesitate to use the term to describe another southern Italian red you might not have heard of.
The grape is called Aglianico, and it is found in the adjacent Basilicata and Campania regions to the west of Puglia. After tasting a couple of examples of Aglianico in the last week or so, it became clear to me that this is a significant and under-appreciated variety that deserves wider exposure.
It turns out that one of the wines I tried, from Campania, has such limited availability in the United States at this point that it would be unfair to describe it beyond the fact that it is from the Irpinia wine zone in central Campania and hence says Irpinia Aglianico on the label. It is worth looking for other examples of it.
Fortunately, availability should not be an issue with the 2000 Aglianico del Vulture “Il Viola” from the Querce winery in Basilicata, for which I paid $15 and have seen for $13. This dark, intense, medium-bodied wine has attractive black cherry and blueberry notes, a bit of pepper and chocolate and a backdrop of herbs, including sage, on the finish. It is tannic, but not overly so, with the tannins giving it a “chewy” quality that I liked.
Basilicata is a mountainous outpost. When it comes to wine it is largely defined by Aglianico del Vulture, which takes its name from the Monte Vulture volcano in the north, where the grapes grow on steep slopes at relatively high altitudes and are harvested late, often at the end of October or early November.
In their comprehensive and readable reference, “Vino Italiano” (Clarkson Potter), Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch note: “The longer growing season allows for more concentration and complexity of flavor to develop in the grapes, and it shows in the wines. At its best, an Aglianico del Vulture is not only dense and powerful but exotically aromatic, much in the same way that Piedmont’s Barolo melds power with perfume.”
In fact, they say, aside from the Nebbiolo of Piedmont in the north and the Sangiovese of central Italy, “there’s no Italian grape more capable of making powerful, interesting red wines.” Almost instantly, you get a sense of Aglianico’s dimension when you smell and taste it. Querce’s “Il Viola” is a good place to start. Enjoy it with a hearty pasta or a savory roast.
Edward Deitch’s wine column appears Thursdays in MSNBC Entertainment section. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org