If you still need to find that perfect gift, southern Italy could be your best bet! This week we finish up our suggestions with wines from Italy’s sun-drenched south, where we find lots of indigenous varieties, lots of value, lots of rosato (pink) wines, and some of the hottest (aka hip) categories on the market.
Whether you want to find something that is widely available or you’ve got access to limited-production wines in your shopping area, here’s a roadmap to some of what southern Italy has to offer.
All prices are suggested retail and represent averages; all in USD. Actual prices will vary by region/state/country, etc. and type of retailer.
This region has been the playground of the glitterati from Rome’s ancient elite to modern-day Hollywood stars. The reputation of this beautiful region, which boasts the Amalfi Coast and the isle of Capri in the twinkling blue Tyrrhenian Sea, has always been stellar. Some of Italy’s best white wines can be found here, both along the coast and inland. For a classic gift, look for Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino ($20-40) from Mastroberardino, Quintodecimo, Benito Ferrara, or Pietracupa. For special treats, try a Fiano from Ciro Picariello or Colli di Lapio. Vintner Marisa Cuomo makes what Italians term “heroic wines” because of the sheer feats of heroism involved in farming her vines that cling to sides of the precipitous hills of Amalfi. Seek out her whites from the indigenous Falanghina and Biancolella grapes. If you are buying for an adventurous special someone, the whites of Pasquale Cenatiempo, made mainly from Biancolella and Forastera on the volcanic island of Ischia will make a unique gift for the sunseeker on your list. All of these whites will be complex, aromatic, and great with food.
If white is out of the question, Campania also offers the venerable wine called Taurasi, made predominately from the red Aglianico grape. This is for the bold red-wine lover on your list. The same producers listed for Greco and Fiano are good choices here, too; entry-level bottlings start at $20, but more age worthy examples can run upwards of $60. Aglianico rings all the bells: very high acidity, prominent minerality, usually quite tannic, with a potpourri of aromas and flavors that evoke roses, sour cherry, plum, leather, herbs, and sometimes smoke. You’ll need to know how to ask for it though: ahl-YAN-nee-ko.
Just south of Abruzzo, on the opposite coast from Campania, facing the equally alluring Adriatic Sea, Molise flies under the radar. The vineyards of red Montepulciano from Abruzzo spill over into this small, rugged region, and the multi-award-winning Don Luigi Montepulciano from producer Di Majo Norante (<$40) is a great value. If you want a uniquely Molisan red, Tintilia is the grape variety you need to search out, but you’ll likely need to visit your best local wine shop. If you can find Cantine Cipressi, you will be rewarded with a deep purple wine with an exotic mix of ripe black fruit, licorice, herbs, and black pepper for under $25. This is the region to surprise the steak lover on your list.
Look closely at the map of Puglia and you’ll likely recognize many Italian family names, but Italian ancestry isn’t the only reason to look at the map. White, red, and rosato wines come from all corners of this region, the heel of Italy’s boot. For the seafood fanatic on your list, search out a white Verdeca ($15) for its crisp, refreshing profile. The best-known reds are made from the Negroamaro grape and will please the big-red drinkers in the crowd. These are black fruit wines with hints of tar and leather. Ask for the Salice Salentino denomination for some of the better examples; these are great rosato picks as well. If up and coming is the theme, then its Nero di Troia you want to seek out. Another inky dark red, this wine will offer baked-fruit and dried-herb aromas, but all wrapped up in an easy-drinking red wine. These wines are for the master griller on your list ($15-40).
Tucked into the arch of Italy’s boot is another region that’s off the radar but with a grape variety you’ve already learned how to pronounce: Aglianico. Having been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993, Matera and its caves were named European Capital of Culture for 2019 and were host to celebrations, concerts, and of course visitors. The original inhabitants of this major tourist destination held out from civilization for as long as possible, living in cave dwellings carved into the spectacular gorge in a way that time forgot. However, locals will tell you it is this region’s extinct volcano, Mount Vulture (VOOL-too-ray), that watches over its people and shapes its wines. The characterful red Aglianico del Vulture takes on its own personality here, differing from Campania’s Taurasi in that the fruits tend toward plum and the tannins are often softer. Softer tannins or not, we are still in steak lover and grill master territory with these wines. Elena Fucci’s Titolo ($50) is a standout, and the wines from producer Bisceglia ($12-45) are all quaffable and lip-smackingly delicious.
Farther west toward Italy’s venerable toe, the town of Cirò (accent on the “o,” chee-ROH) lends its name to the most famous wine from Calabria, coming in three colors—Cirò bianco, Cirò rosato, and Cirò rosso. Home to 10,000-foot-high mountains that taper off into the sea, Calabria is the source of Italy’s most famous hot chili peppers. Fittingly, the wines are crafted to wash down hot, spicy foods and at the same time not to overpower the beautiful fish that are caught every day off Calabria’s endless coastline. Cirò rosso (red) is made from Gaglioppo (gahl-YOPE-po) and comes in easy drinking styles but the gift-worthy wines include riservas such as Librandi’s Duca San Felice ($17). Also from Librandi, the award-winning “super Calabrian” Gravello ($25-30), which marries the non-tannic Gaglioppo with the structured and tannic Cabernet Sauvignon, is a wine worth seeking out. For the food fashionista, find some Calabrian ’nduja (en-DOO-ya), a spreadable condiment that is a combination of pork fat and hot peppers, at an Italian specialty store and wrap it up with a bottle of Duca San Felice for the ultimate Calabrese gift.
If you can identify this region on the map, you are ahead of the game. Much closer to France’s Corsica than to the rest of Italy, this Mediterranean island’s wines run the gamut. Offering crisp whites such as Vermentinos and the native Nuragus alongside a host of local red varieties with fun names to pronounce like Bobal, Monica, and Carignano, the signature red is Cannonau. If you are buying for someone who loves French Rhône or Spanish reds, then this is the region to shop. Argiolas is one of the island’s leaders with their multi-award-winning Turriga ($65). Rich dark red fruit pairs with spice to make a delicious and ageworthy bottle. Other producers to try include Agricola Punica, Capichera, and Tenute Dettori. These wines are stellar with grilled and roasted meats, especially pork (and other wild things…), scented with rosemary, olive, and other wild herbs. For the high-end bottlings from these producers, expect to pay $50-75. Many make entry-level wines ($15), and most make a mid-priced ($25-35) wine as well, that make excellent gifts.
Hip and hot, as a category—that is Sicily right now. The island’s varied climate, mix of soils, and option to grow wines at altitude or right at the edge of the sea allow Sicily to produce multiple styles of wine, making it almost like a country unto itself. As the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily sits at the crossroads of ancient cultures. You’ll find sparkling styles and indigenous whites with more fun names (can you say Catarratto?). Benanti’s Etna Bianco Pietramarina (made from Carricante) is a salty, complex, and textured wine considered by many to be one of Italy’ greatest white wines and worth the search. Two more whimsical-sounding varieties—the two Nerellos, Mascalese and Cappuccio—are often combined to make the highly sought-after reds from Mount Etna; they are blended to make wines that are at once powerful and graceful. Lots of producers are in the game on Etna now, but if you can find the wines of Passopisciaro or Ciro Biondi, snap them up. Other solid Etna producers include Girolamo Russo, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, and Pietradolce. Contrade (single-commune) wines run $60-70. The island’s signature red grape variety by far is Nero d’Avola. A chameleon, this variety takes on the character of the section of the island it is cultivated on. Excellent bottlings include Morgante Don Antonio (a steal at $42), Feudo Montoni Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC Vrucara Prephylloxera ($50), and Duca di Salaparuta Duca Enrico and Tasca d’Almerita Rosso del Conte (both $70).
For the wine lover who has everything, here are some unique options from Sicily:
- From the island of Pantelleria, another home to heroic viticulture, is the sweet, concentrated dessert wine Passito di Pantelleria. Rich, nutty, complex, and for some a transcendent experience, look for the Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryè as a benchmark example ($45/375 ml).
- For the curious and open-minded, the COS Pithos Bianco ($30-35) is a conversation starter. Fermented on its skins in amphorae buried in the ground, this white made from the Grechetto grape has a unique, mineral-driven profile and a somewhat weightier texture on the palate.
- If your budget isn’t unlimited, or if big bold reds don’t fit your giftee’s taste buds, the reds made from Frappato are light, refreshing, and delicious. Arianna Occhipinti, Planeta, and Paolo Calì are all solid examples. ($15-25)
- Experiencing a comeback, the Perricone grape is a crowd-pleasing, attractive red with well-balanced notes of blackberry, plum, baking spices, and cocoa for the Zinfandel or Shiraz drinker. Look for Feudo Montoni’s or Tasca d’Almerita’s offerings from this variety (both approx. $20).
- YES, Marsala (well, not technically—read on) for the natural wine lover or nostalgia buff on your list. Although mostly known as a fortified wine today, the original Marsala—before the British “invaded” the western Sicilian town of Marsala in the late 1700s—was not fortified (thank the British for that idea). Now this older style of wine is getting renewed attention from some producers whose families used to make it this way, usually in a small corner of their winery. Often a blend of old and new wine, they have a profile all their own—curiously oxidative and yet fresh at the same time. It is technically not Marsala, as that category now requires fortification, so go to a top boutique wine shop and ask for unfortified offerings from Marco de Bartoli, Pierpaolo Badalucco, or Nino Barraco. Hopefully, you’ll be able to score one of the bottles, made in miniscule quantities. Expect to pay $80 or more. Good luck.