Twelve Great Wines From Southern Italy Worth Splurging On
Wines from southern Italy have historically been overlooked in favor of the better-known and popular wine regions of northern Italy - mainly Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto. However, southern Italy has a rich winemaking heritage and is considered the birthplace of Italian wines. With its warm Mediterranean climate, rich volcanic soil and abundance of ancient native grape varieties, vineyards have dotted southern Italy’s landscape for thousands of years and its wines were much prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans. However, for most of the 20th century, southern Italy’s wine industry languished in obscurity amid a sea of mediocre plonk. While southern Italy didn't lack for wine, the vast majority of it was consumed locally or used as a blending wine.
But even in those difficult years there were some quality-oriented winemakers in southern Italy – such as Paternoster in Basilicata, Tasca d’Almerita Regaleali in Sicily, Taurino in Puglia and Mastroberardino in Campania - that kept the region’s winemaking heritage alive by turning out top-quality wines utilizing the region’s unique native varieties. These producers were in the vanguard of a renaissance in southern Italian winemaking.
Intrigued by the market’s endorsement of the wines produced by the pioneering, quality-oriented winemakers and spurred by an infusion of public and private capital for upgrading and modernizing facilities, other producers in southern Italy gradually began adopting advanced cultivation and winemaking procedures with the goal of making their wines more attractive in larger, more competitive markets. While some experimented with "international" varieties to good effect, others integrated modern techniques and technologies with traditional practices and use of native grape varieties. In the process, they began turning out wines that were modern yet distinctly southern in character. Today, southern Italy is, arguably, Italy’s most exciting and dynamic winemaking region. With an added emphasis on quality, wines from southern Italy are increasingly receiving much critial acclaim and can compete with wines from more popular areas of Italy that carry loftier price tags.
Almost all regions of southern Italy are making dramatic inroads in producing wines of quality and distinction. Puglia has 25 DOC-designated wine areas and is home to sturdy reds made from Primitivo and Negroamaro while Basilicata, with only one DOC, boasts a magnificent red in Aglianico del Vulture. Campania turns out a number of red and white wines of distinction led by the region’s benchmark Taurasi wine, which was the south’s first DOCG. Meanwhile, Calabria, in the toe of the boot that comprises geographic Italy, turns out a coterie of distinctive red wines, led by Ciro, which traces its roots back to the ancient Greeks. Sicily has a growing reputation for producing wines of character made from the native Nero d’Avola grape while Sardinia is producing some distinctive wines from the hearty Cannonau and the sturdy Carignano del Sulcis varieties. Even small and sparsely populated Molise is producing some interesting and reliable wines made from Montepulciano and Aglianico grapes.
While southern Italy produces some excellent white wines, this article focuses exclusively on the region’s red wines. While all the wines listed below are available in the U.S., some may be difficult to find in selected markets. In that case, the key is to remember the names of the quality producers and then find a wine retailer that is knowledgeable about Italian wines and is willing to help you track down the really good stuff.
The wines are listed in alphabetical order by producer:
Agricola Punica, “Barrua” Isola dei Nuraghi, IGT 2006 (about $45)
Barrua is the flagship wine of Agricola Punica, a joint venture between five partners prominent in Italy’s premium wine business. One partner, for example, is the legendary consulting winemaker Giacomo Tachis while another is the Cantina Sociale di Santadi.
In 2002, Agricola Punica purchased a 370-acre estate in an area known as Sulcis Meridionale in southwestern Sardinia, an area famous for producing quality Carignano-based wines. Punica’s Barrua consists primarily of Carignano selected from the estate’s best lots with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot added to enhance depth of flavor and soften Carignano’s naturally high acidity and tannins. After fermentation, the wine is aged in oak barriques for a year and a half and then spends year in the bottle prior to its release.
Punica’s Barrua wine consistently exhibits great structure, richness and personality and is a serial recipient of Gambero Rosso’s annual Tre Bicchieri award. It is a serious red wine that really delivers the goods.
Imported by Kobrand Wines.
Argiolas, Turriga 2005 (about $82)
The Argiolas family has long been a leader in the often-overlooked Sardinian wine industry. They have been assisted in their quality-driven initiatives by renowned consulting winemaker Giacomo Tachis, a native of Sardinia famous for his role in producing Sassicaia and other great super-Tuscan wines.
Turriga is the flagship red wine of the Argiolas estate and a shining star in Sardinia’s wine firmament. It is a seductive blend of some of Sardinia’s most engaging indigenous red grape varieties – Cannonau, Carignano, Bovale Sardo and Malvasia Nera. Use of native varietals is consistent with Argiolas’s premise that purely local grapes are capable of producing elegant and complex world-class wines. The blended wine is aged for 12-14 months in new oak barriques and then spends an additional 12-14 months in the bottle prior to release.
The 2005 Turriga has an effusively rich and complex bouquet with generous notes of plums and dark berries. It is full-bodied and concentrated with firm tannins yet has a refined, sleek mouth feel and a finish that never seems to end. This is a seriously delicious wine from a producer with whom you should become better acquainted.
Imported by Winebow, Inc.
Cantina di Santadi, “Terre Brune“ Carignano del Sulcis 2001 (about $60)
Located in the Sulcis area of the scenic southwestern corner of Sardinia, Cantina di Santadi is one of those rare Italian wine gems, a cooperative winery dedicated to producing quality wines from primarily local, indigenous varieties. Like the Argiolas estate, this cooperative has also enjoyed a long-term relationship with consulting winemaker Giacomo Tachis.
The Terre Brune wine is Santadi’s benchmark wine and one of Sardinia’s most celebrated red wines. It is made with Carignano grapes with a splash of Bovale Sardo, another native red variety. The grapes are hand-selected from the estate’s best vineyards and the wine is aged in barriques for 16 to 18 months. It has compelling, textured aromas, intense black fruit and plum flavors and tongue-coating fruit tannins. This full-bodied but polished and elegant wine will appeal to the hedonist that lies hidden in every wine lover.
Imported by Empson and Co.
The Di Majo Norante winery is located in the small region of Molise in southeastern Italy on the Adriatic coast. Not much wine is produced here and what is made is not particularly noteworthy with the exception of that produced by the respected Di Majo Norante estate. The estate offers a number of quality wines at reasonable prices and by its example is raising the overall quality and status of the region’s wines. Ricardo Cotarella, one of Italy’s most distinguished winemakers, serves as consulting winemaker for the winery.
The estate’s Don Luigi Montepulciano wine is named after Don Luigi Di Majo, the patriarch of the estate. The ’06 is a blend of 90% Montepulciano and 10% Aglianico. After the harvest, the crushed grapes remain in contact with the skins for an extended period to enhance color and concentrate flavors. The wine is then stored in small oak barrels for 18 months after which it spends an additional 6 months aging in the bottle before release.
The ’06 Don Luigi Montepulciano is full-bodied, rich and flavorful. It pairs well with hearty dishes such as stews, steaks and grilled meats. It is a great rendition of Montepulciano from the Molise region that will go head-to-head with some of the best Montepulciano wines from Abruzzo. This is another long-lived wine that can be enjoyed now or, if you are the patient type, can let it age gracefully in your cellar for a decade or more.
Imported by Winebow, Inc.
Donnafugata, “Mille e una Notte” 2006 (about $80)
Established in 1983, Donnafugata is one of Sicily’s top wineries with operations dispersed over three distinct grape-growing sites in western Sicily. The estate is famous for it production of quality wines from exotic indigenous varieties such as Catarratto, Zibbibo and Nero d’Avola as well as various “international” varieties like Chardonnay and Merlot. The name Donnafugata translates roughly as “fleeing woman” and the label on every bottle of Donnafugata wine carries the image of woman’s head with her hair billowing in the wind as if in flight.
Mille e Una Notte ("thousand and one nights" in Italian) is made primarily from Nero d’Avola and a small amount of other local red grape varieties. The wine is aged in French barriques, most of which are new, for 14 to 16 months after which it spends at least 12 months in bottle. The wine is full-bodied, complex and layered with dark fruit flavors balanced with sturdy tannins. This serious red wine is a thing of beauty and one not to be missed.
Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners.
Fattoria Galardi, Terra di Lavoro Roccamonfina 2006 (about $90)
The Terra di Lavoro Roccamonfina is a blend of 80% Aglianico and 20% Piedirosso grapes grown on the estate’s volcanic soils in northwestern Campania. Aged in small oak barriques for 12 months, the ’06 Terra di Lavoro is a big, full-bodied wine with firm tannins that guarantee a long-lived wine. This structured, rich and opulent wine has been a winner since its initial release in 1994 and has achieved near cult status. With low production and high demand, it’s not always easy to find. Riccardo Cotarella serves as the estate’s consulting winemaker.
Imported by Winebow, Inc.
Feudi di San Gregorio, “Serpico” Irpinia 2005 (about $75)
The Feudi di San Gregorio estate was established in the mid-1980’s in the Irpinia area of Campania, which is the region’s premier wine-growing area. While relatively new by Campania standards, it is generally regarded today as one of the region’s best producers. With a commitment to quality backed up by state-of-the-art facilities, the estate produces some of Campania’s – and Italy’s – most exciting and dynamic wines.
Serpico is named after the hometown of the winery, which is in Sorbo Serpico, and is the estate’s critically acclaimed flagship wine. It is made with 100% Aglianico grapes from three different old-vine vineyards in the Irpinia area of Campania. The grapes are harvested partly from pre-phylloxera vines from late October through early November. After a long fermentation the wine is aged for a year and a half in new small oak barrels and then spends an additional 8 months in the bottle prior to release.
This is a big wine with plenty of structure and staying power. It has spicy aromas with soft Mediterranean tones and mouth-filling, sunny fruit flavors and ample tannins. Despite its fullness and depth, it is a sober, elegant and complex wine. While you can drink it now, it would be more proper to wait at least five years to enjoy it at its best.
Imported by Palm Bay International
Mastroberardino, Taurasi “Radici” 2006 (about $60)
The Mastroberardino family is the royal wine family of Campania, producing truly classic wines in Campania since the mid-1700's. The Mastroberardino family's holdings have grown over time and today consist of several prime vineyards scattered around Irpinia in the Campania region.
The Mastroberardino family has been doggedly passionate about Campania’s indigenous varieties. They were instrumental in reinvigorating Campania’s ancient grape varietals and brought back from the brink of extinction several red and white varieties that are extremely popular today.
The ’06 Taurasi Radici is 100 percent Aglianico that has been aged from 12 to 18 months in oak barriques and casks. It also spends at least 12 months in bottle prior to release. Like previous vintages, the ’06 Taurasi Radici is a simply stunning, full-bodied and opulent wine. It has a deep core of purple fruit, a tannic backbone and a long, lingering finish with cassis and black cherry notes.
This is another long-lived wine that, while drinkable now, will be even better after some additional time in the cellar.
Imported by Winebow, Inc.
Palari, “Faro” 2006 (about $65)
Palari is a small producer located in the hills around Messina in northeastern Sicily, an area of somber beauty where ancient history casts a long shadow. Wines have been produced here for thousands of years. Ancient Greek and other Mediterranean cultures flourished here and wines were an integral part of their cultures.
Faro is a blend of little-known, obscure grapes such as Nerello Mascalese, Acitana and Nocera that grow in the hills around the town of Reggio Calabria overlooking the sea. From this collection of rather humble grapes comes an elegant wine with aromas redolent of a top-of-the-line red Burgundy. The flavors are full and rich without being heavy and perfectly balanced with acidity and tannins.
After a soft pressing and fermentation in stainless steel tanks, the wine is aged in small oak barrels for a year and a half. It is then bottled unfiltered and spends an additional year and a half in the bottle prior to release for sale.
Faro has been racking up awards since its initial release in 1994. It is a repeat recipient of Gambero Rosso’s annual Tre Bicchieri awards and the 2005 Faro received a special award from Gambero Rosso for the best red wine of 2008. This is a not-to-be-missed gem from southern Italy.
Imported by Panebianco.
Paternoster, “Don Anselmo” Aglianico del Vulture 2003 (about $85)
The Paternoster estate is one of the most prestigious and oldest remaining family-owned wineries in the Basilicata region. Paternoster produces a full range of Aglianico wines and the Don Anselmo is the estate’s flagship wine.
Named in memory of the founding grandfather of the Paternoster winery, the ’03 Don Anselmo is made entirely of Aglianico grapes hand-harvested in late October from old-vine vineyards. After fermentation, the wine is aged partly in large oak barrels and partly in barriques and then spends 12 months in the bottle. It is a sturdy but elegant wine with great staying power and may well be the best wine produced in Basilicata. While the ’03 Don Anselmo is ready to drink now it will age gracefully for another five to 6 years.
Imported by Quintessential Wines.
Tasca d’Almerita Regaleali, “Rosso del Conte” 2005 (about $65)
The Rosso del Conte is the first great Sicilian red wine of the modern period. Its initial release in 1970 was met with great critical acclaim in the international marketplace and precipitated the renaissance of serious red wines from Sicily.
Tasca d’Almerita is one of Sicily’s most famous wineries. The Tasca d'Almerita family’s wine holdings have grown over time and today include five different estates geographically dispersed throughout Sicily, of which Regaleali is one. The Rosso del Conte remains the estate’s flagship wine and is only produced in the best years. The Regaleali estate also produces a number of red and white wines from local indigenous Sicilian varieties as well as various “international” varieties.
The success of Rosso del Conte is due to the efforts of the late Giuseppe Tasca d’Almerita, who was always referred to by his title “Count.” In the late 1960’s he started blending the best selections of the Regaleali estate’s Nero d’Avola, a native Sicilian variety, with a small percentage (15 percent) of other local red varieties grown on the estate. After fermentation, the wine was aged in small barrels for 18 months, a practice virtually unheard of in southern Italy at than time. It then spent 8 months aging in the bottle before being released for sale. He named the new wine “Rosso del Conte” (“red wine of the Count”) and it was an immediate success.
While Rosso del Conte’s history is marked by several technical and stylistic changes, such as modest changes in vineyard practices as well as the types of barrels used for aging and other cellar procedures, the wine still follows the basic protocol established by the Count over forty years ago. What hasn’t changed is the estate’s commitment to producing a serious wine with a unique personality and character.
Imported by Winebow, Inc.
Taurino, Patriglione IGT Salento 2001 (about $55)
Taurino’s Pagriglione is a single-vineyard, 100 percent Negroamaro wine from Taurino’s Patriglione vineyard in the Salento area of the Puglia region. It may well be the best interpretation of a Negroamaro-based wine.
The grapes are picked in late October through early November to provide for a more concentrated wine with pronounced aromas and flavors. After fermentation, the wine is aged for a year in barriques and then spends from 6 to 12 months in the bottle prior to release. The end result is a big and intense wine with complex aromas and taste. It’s also worth noting that 2001 was a great year for wines in Puglia.
The Taurino winery produces about a half-dozen Negroamaro-based wines, most of which are blends with small amounts of either Malvasia Nera or Cabernet added. The Taurino estate began exporting its wines to the U.S. market in 1981, the first Puglian producer to do so. Prior to that, most Puglia wines were consumed locally or shipped north in bulk for use as a blending wine. The estate’s owner at that time, Cosimo Taurino, was a tireless promoter of his wines. He showed that wines from Puglia could compete in the U.S. and other foreign markets on the basis of not only price but quality.
Imported by Winebow, Inc.
Note – prices indicated are averages of general retail prices at the time of this post. Individual prices will vary from store to store and some wines may be on sale so prices may be lower than indicated.