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.
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).
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.