Southern Italy white wines gain attention

There are 110 quality estates on the steep, volcanic- ash-strewn vineyard slopes of Mount Etna.
There are 110 quality estates on the steep, volcanic- ash-strewn vineyard slopes of Mount Etna.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • When you think of Italian wine, what comes to mind? Ever-foaming prosecco, perhaps? Tanker ships of pinot grigio? Or maybe it is big-deal reds from Tuscany and Piemonte, with three-digit price tags attached.

It is time for a fashion update. The big buzz right now is for whites from southern Italy, the land of still-active volcanoes, sun- drenched beaches and 80 per cent of the country's olive trees. It is also where you will find off-beat grape varieties few wine geeks have ever heard of. The best of the bottles that are made from these are great wine buys, offering surprising depth and character at bargain prices.

Which is why I moderated a tasting panel on them this month at Vino 2016, an Italian wine conference in New York.

Compared with Italy's prosperous north, the south - Campania, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily - was long the country's poor cousin, focused on producing bulk red used to plump up thinner wines elsewhere and decidedly rustic whites.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, these regions have been in the throes of a wine renaissance, brought about by scores of talented, passionate wine-makers obsessed by the hundreds of enticing but nearly forgotten ancient grape varieties that flourish in Italy. High-quality reds came first and the recent spread of cold fermentation technology has radically transformed the whites.

Let us start in Sicily. If everything you know about wine on this island comes from watching the scene in The Godfather Part I, in which pitchers of basic red are passed around and poured into water glasses at a wedding, you are way behind. Today's wines are cutting edge.

The hot spot is Mount Etna. Wines from its steep, volcanic-ash-strewn vineyard slopes are the Italian success story of the past decade.

When I first visited in 2001, it seemed the most inhospitable wine spot on the planet, shadowed by a brooding 3,350m-high volcano that let out periodic booms and flashes of smoke.

Twisted old vines are rooted in tiny patches of vineyard at 900m above sea level, edged with piles of lava stones. This stark landscape and the highly distinctive, salty, earthy wines have drawn some of Italy's most eccentric producers, even seducing a former banker. From about five quality estates, the number has grown to 110. 

Pioneers Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro winery and Italian- American wine broker Marco de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere are the showmen who excited international interest in Etna, while Belgian wine fanatic Frank Cornelissen pursues natural wines that have a cult following. The main grape on Etna is Carricante and it is often blended with another Sicilian white, Catarratto.

The late great winemaker Marco De Bartoli, on the other side of the island, put his faith in dry wines made from Grillo, which used to go into sweet Marsala.

Next, you should know about nearby Calabria, often called the "toe" of Italy. Since 90 per cent of the land is mountains, the amount of wine produced there is still modest. The wine scene is still evolving, but its output is all about native grapes such as Mantonico.

Puglia, the region known as Italy's "heel of the boot", has become a food and travel destination with a long coastline of beaches dotted with thalassotherapy spas. There, the first wines to gain attention were hearty reds from such grapes as Negroamaro, but several wineries, such as Masseria Li Veli, have also recently championed local whites such as Verdeca that have the kind of personality that elbows chardonnay aside.

Campania, whose main city is Naples, is the birthplace of opera and thin-crust pizza and home to another volcano, Vesuvius. And it is where the wine revival in southern Italy began some 25 years ago.

Almost half of Campania's wines are white. Although there are dozens of varieties, Fiano wines from the Avellino sub-region and Greco Biancos from the town of Tufo are vying for the top spot. Both grapes were rediscovered by famous wine estate Mastroberardino, which promoted them tirelessly. Today, tiny family wineries, such as Ciro Picariello, are making some of the best examples.

Wines from these grapes were around, admittedly not quite in the same form, when lava flows destroyed Pompeii. Think of them as drinking history.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Southern Italy white wines gain attention'. Print Edition | Subscribe