This month we look at two Italian regions—Basilicata and Calabria—that are unfamiliar to a lot of people unless they happen to have relatives that came from there or perhaps have a local restaurant that is run by someone from there.
Let’s start with Basilicata (ba-zee-lee-KAH-ta). Medium in size, it has the third smallest total population and the second lowest population density of all the regions in Italy. Located at the bottom of the Italian peninsula, in the middle between Calabria and Puglia, Basilicata is marked by rugged terrain—one of several reasons why it is not overly populated. The western side is dominated by the Apennines, which continue their relentless march to the toe of Italy’s boot.
Moving east, the elevations decrease and morph into the high Murge plateau, which extends into Puglia. In Basilicata, the Murge’s soft rock is deeply carved by numerous gravine (ravines). Clinging to the side of such a gorge is the atmospheric city of Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Its oldest sections (right) are not only on but also in the ravine’s face, because residents of long ago lived in caves or burrowed into the calcareous stone to make homes fronted by stone walls. In the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, Matera believably stood in for the Jerusalem of two millennia ago. Basilicata also features fine beaches on both the Ionian Sea in the southeast and the Tyrrhenian Sea in the southwest.
When it comes to wine, the Aglianico grape is king… or maybe queen—there are quite a few female winemakers who have shown their skills in understanding and successfully working with this usually high-acid, darkly colored, and tannic wine. Basilicata’s output is quite small, around 0.15% of the national total, and is overwhelmingly red. Around half of the vineyard acreage is planted to Aglianico, a grape variety more often associated with neighboring Campania, but obviously very important to Basilicata as well. Aglianico loves volcanic soil, and here it is found mostly in the north around the extinct volcano Mount Vulture (VOOL-too-ray; pictured in the distance below). The denomination Aglianico del Vulture DOC represents roughly a quarter of Basilicata’s total production and is easily the region’s most recognizable wine. In all, Basilicata has just five denominations, plus one IGP.
To the south and west of Basilicata is the region that forms the unmistakable toe of the Italian boot, although many would be hard-pressed to come up with Calabria (ka-LAH-breeya) as the region’s name. Calabria is in the middle of the pack among Italian regions in terms of land area and population, but below average in wine production with less than 1% of Italy’s total volume. Calabria’s Ionian coast was the site of several of the major Greek colonies of pre-Roman times, and several of those ruins are well worth a visit. Other points of interest in Calabria include the city of Reggio Calabria, where a short ferry ride takes travelers across the narrow Strait of Messina to Sicily, and the promontory of Capo Vaticano and Tropea (below) on the Tyrrhenian (west) coast, which has superb weather and a tropical feel that draw many vacationing Europeans during the summer.
Even if you’re not acquainted with Calabria, you might have heard the adjective Calabrese (ka-la-BRAY-zay)—someone or something from Calabria. In an Italian restaurant or pizzeria, the word Calabrese is often used to describe a spicy sauce or salami fired up by red-hot Calabrian chili peppers. When dining in Calabria, some things to look for include ’nduja (en-DOO-ya), a spreadable combination of pork fat and hot peppers; fileja (fee-LAY-uh), a local pasta made with wide fettuccini rolled into a long tube shape; and any number of items made from the famous sweet Tropea red onions (cipolle, chee-PO-lay).
Three quarters of Calabria’s wine production is red, and the majority of that is made from the regional favorite Gaglioppo (gahl-YOPE-po). Among the nine quality-wine denominations, the leader and only significant export is Cirò DOC. Cirò (chee-ROH) produces red and rosato wines from Gaglioppo, as well as white wines from Greco Bianco. These wines are surprisingly refreshing and are created to wash down local fish dishes as well as stand amicably alongside the typically spicy-hot cuisine of the region.
Producers to Look For
Here is an illustrative list of some top producers of wines in Basilicata and Calabria, organized by areas of production. Their U.S. importer is listed (some producers may have other importers in different sections of the country).
- Basilisco (ba-zee-LEES-sko): This estate believes so much in the personality of each of its single-vineyard plots—some as small as 3 acres—that it bottles each of the Aglianicos from them separately, along with a white made from Fiano. Owned by the Campanian winery Feudi di San Gregorio. (Domaine Select Wine & Spirits)
- Bisceglia (bee-SHAYL-ya): Sleek, modern wines from an estate that’s relatively new by Italian standards (2001). If trying Aglianico del Vulture for the first time, the Terra di Vulcano bottling is the place to start. For lovers of bigger, bolder reds, look for the Gudarrà. (Winebow-LLS Selections)
- Cantine del Notaio (no-TIE-yo): Making a wide array of wines—sparkling, white, rosato, and red—Cantine del Notaio manages to ride the fine line between tradition and innovation very well. (Vinifera Imports)
- Elena Fucci (eh-LAY-na FOO-chee): Started in 2004 by a dynamic local from Barile. Winemaker Elena Fucci prefers to focus on one wine, her multiaward-winning Titolo bottling, named after the district the wine hails from. (RWK Imports; Lyra Wines)
- Grifalco (gree-FAL-ko): Run by two young brothers, Lorenzo and Andrea Piccin, whose family moved to Basilicata from Tuscany in early 2000 to start the winery. Great examples of Aglianico del Vulture wines with managed tannins that stay true to the region’s origin and micro-terroirs. Both value-driven wines and serious, ageable ones are on offer. (SoilAir Selection; Oliver McCrum)
- Paternoster (pah-tehr-NOHSS-tehr): An iconic winery from this region dating back to 1925. From the easier drinking Synthesi bottling to the serious, ageworthy Don Anselmo, these Aglianico del Vulture wines offer a good education on the volcanic nature of this region. Now in partnership with Veneto’s venerable Tommasi Estates. (Vintus)
- Re Manfredi (ray mahn-FRAY-dee): A large estate located in the northern reaches of Basilicata just outside Venosa—which you probably know as the birthplace of poet Horace (Orazio in Italian). The property is planted to 80% Aglianico, along with innovative (for the region) varieties such as Muller-Thurgau and Gewurztraminer that go into the estate’s white. (Frederick Wildman)
- Cantine Viola (vee-OH-la): Known for its Moscato Passito di Saracena (IGP Calabria), a sweet dessert wine made from Guarnaccia and Malvasia grape must that is concentrated by boiling and mixed with dried Moscato Bianco grapes. (Caroline Debbané Selections)
- IGreco (ee-GRAY-ko): Several IGP Calabria wines, mostly from Cirò and the surrounding area, made from Gaglioppo, Nero d’Avola, and Greco Bianco. (Vinifera Imports)
- Librandi (lee-BRAN-dee): The largest producer of Cirò DOC (red, rosato, and white); this is a talented and diverse family-run estate that has dedicated itself to researching and reviving indigenous varieties. The Duca San Felice is a great introduction to the Gaglioppo grape. For serious red drinkers, the Magno Megonio bottling made from the Magliocco variety is unique. And Le Passule, a very interesting passito wine made from both dried and fresh grapes, is surprisingly refreshing. (Winebow-LLS Selections)
- Statti (STAHT-tee): Located near Lamezia Terme and making Lamezia DOC and IGP Calabria wines, this diverse estate produces a broad spectrum of wines as well as making olive oil and raising cattle. Dating back to 1784, its wines include reds from mostly Gaglioppo with a little bit of Magliocco, and whites from Greco Bianco and Mantonico. (Vias Imports)
- Vincenzo Ippolito (e-POLE-ee-toh): Started in 1845, this winery makes a full range of white, rosato, and red wines from such indigenous varieties as Pecorello, Greco Nero, and Gaglioppo. (SoilAir Selection)
It is worth noting that in nearly all these estates—in both Basilicata and Calabria—the new, young generations are involved and are guiding the estates in to the future by using modern winemaking practices while at the same time working with the land and the grapes they have been given. Exploring new versions of ancient, signature varieties such as Aglianico, which can be very tannic, and Gaglioppo, which can be tannic and acidic, are these proprietors’ life’s work.