Lesson 17 – Southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia

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Sommelier School

Lesson 17 – Southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia

Southern Italy. While this part of Italy doesn’t have the marquis wines of the the North and Central Italy, there are still plenty of quality wines from this area. This week we will cover not only the southern part of the country, but also Sicily and Sardinia.

First, it’s hot here. Much of this part of Italy is very dry and hot. This helps in stressing the vine and grapes that are late-ripening. It also helps with some grapes that take a long time to ripen. These grapes could not be grown up north. Sicily and Sardinia are also in this camp. The coastal areas do get some relief with the winds and tempering effect the seas have.

Soil. Much of it is volcanic. On the mainland, there is Mount Vesuvius. On Sicily, it’s Mount Etna. There is also granite throughout. In addition to these two, you will find some clay and chalk. Besides the two volcanos, there are plenty of mountainous and hilly areas for vines to grow. There are also some plains in Apulia with plenty of vineyards. In this part of the world, north-facing vineyards are preferred. Since it gets so hot, having some protection from direct sunlight is a benefit.

We are going to start with Campania, the region much of my family is from. While there is wine made in the Amalfi coastal area where I have many relatives, the Costa d’Amlfi DOC will not be a focus for this lesson. Sorry famiglia.  For that we will delve more towards the interior of the region.

The grape to know here (and in other parts of Southern Italy) is Aglianico. This grape comes to the region via Greece. It has been cultivated here for centuries. It was mentioned many times in ancient Roman literature and a wine called Falerian was made from the grape. 

Wine made today from Aglianico is red. Back then it was a white wine that actually was aged for 15-20 years in clay amphoras (those pots with the two handles on each side). During this aging the wine would oxidize (aka maderise) making it an amber or dark brown color.

In Campania, the Taurasi DOCG is the appellation to remember. This DOCG is located in the Avellino province which is 15-20 miles North inland from the Amalfi Coast. The wines here are of high quality. Wines can be comprised of 85-100% Aglianico. The remaining 1-15% can be Barbera, Piedirosso, and Sangiovese. Wines from this DOCG must be aged for at least 3 years, 1 being in wood. For a riserva wine that increases to 4 years of aging. The one producer that everyone agrees on knowing is Mastrobernardino. In the 1990s they were the only producer to export their wine. Now there are close to 300.

Next we move to Basilicata. Basilicata is in the central part of this area that also extend to the arch of the boot. Here the DOC of note is Aglianico del Vulture. Situated near Mount Vulture, this DOC also uses the Aglianico varietal. This DOC also is considered by some to be the better of the two that use the varietal. However both are excellent. Here for the DOC regulations, the minimum aging is 3 years with 2 of that being in wood and it is labeled vecchio (old), and 5 years total aging for a riserva.

Onwards to Pulgia or Apulia. This is on the eastern part of the boot. For a long time, wines from here have been used to make Vermouth. Didn’t know that vermouth is distilled from grapes? That stuff is for a future Sommelier School. Anyway, this region of Italy produces a lot of wine. I mean a lot. Known as “Wine Lake” in Europe that also includes the south of France, and parts of Spain, much of it is bulk wine that is shipped to be blended with other wines or distilled.

For here, one varietal to make note of, among others, is Primitivo. Some of you may know that this has been identified as the same varietal as Zinfandel. It is a varietal of Croatian origin. While they are the same grape, the Zins of California are not necessarily like the Primitivos of Italy. Three DOCs use this varietal. Primitivo di Manduria, Gioia del Colle Primitivo (Riserva), and Falnero del Massico Primitivo (Riserva o Vecchio). The first two are 100% Primitivo while Falnero is a minimum of 85%.

Another varietal to know is Negroamaro.A red varietal used in the Brindisi Rosso DOC. This DOC is a minimum of 70% Negroamaro with the rest mostly Malvasia nera de Brindisi. In the Ostuni DOC, the main varietal here is known as Ottavianello. It is also known as Cinsaut, a French varietal. These are dry white wines.

Next is the tow of the boot, Calbria. There are 12 DOCs here. Like Puglia, much of the wine here is shipped off for blending or distillation. However, two varietals to make note of from this area are Gaglioppo and Greco bianco. Gaglioppo is a red varietal that is the main varietal of the region. Greco bianco is white and the wines made from this varietal in the Greco di Bianco DOC are normally straw wine.

Moving on the Sicily. For a very long time, Sicily was really known for Marsala. A fortified wine originating from the port town of Marsala. The name itself is derived from it’s Arabic name Marsah-el-Allah. The popularity of this wine is attributted to an English trader named John Woodhouse. In 1773 he came to Sicily and was introduced to the local wine. He felt that is was similar to Sherry (subject of a future Sommelier School) and would be popular in England. He happened to be right and returned in 1796 to begin mass production. His company was eventually bought out by A gentleman named Vincenzo Florio. His company, along with Pellegrino, became the top producers of Marsala wines.

These wines have several classifications:

  • Oro has a golden color.
  • Ambra has an amber color. The coloring comes from the mosto cotto sweetener added to the wine.
  • Rubino has a ruby color.
  • Fine has minimal aging, typically less than a year.
  • Superiore is aged at least two years.
  • Superiore Riserva is aged at least four years.
  • Vergine e/o Soleras is aged at least five years.
  • Vergine e/o Soleras Stravecchio e Vergine e/o Soleras Riserva is aged at least ten years.

The main varietals used to make Marsala are Grillo, Inzolia, and Catarratto. All white varietals. And, of course, this is the same wine used to make Marsala sauces in Italian dishes.

In addition to Marsala, Corvo is another name to know. Not a DOC or DOCG, but a producer. Corvo is one of the producers, along with the Planeta family winer, to help put Sicily on the minds of people looking for wine other than Marsala. The main varietal here is the Nero d’Avola. A full-boded red that has become more popular over the years. 

And only because this was the wine from Episode #97, I review the Feudo Arancio Grillo. While this is a varietal used to make Marsala, this is a single varietal version of the wine. Not sure how it will be as a single varietal, but I got it from the local wine shop because it was a white from Sicily.

Finally we come to Sardinia, or Sardegna in Italian. While this island, second in size only to Sicily in the Mediterranean, produces wine in all styles, the wine industry really hasn’t been that important until recently. The two varietals to remember here are Vermentino and Carignan. Wev’ealready seen Carignan in France and we will see it again in Spain.

Vermentino is a white varietal and it’s best known DOCG is Vermentino di Gallura in the northern part of the Island. Carignano del Sulcis DOC is the best representation of the Carnignan, a red varietal, on the island.

That’s it for this lesson. We are finished with Italy. Conventional wisdom would say that Spain and Portugal are next, but I decided to deviate a bit and go to Germany next. Mainly because I want to tie in Eiswein with December. After Germany we will visit Spain and Portugal. After that we will most likely hit the “Big 4” here in the U.S. From there? Not sure of the exact path. We have a lot of countries to still hit. Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Austria, Hungary, etc. Some countries will be a one week lesson so it’s not like we have another 8-9 months of wine. Plus we will delve into beer, spirits, service, and even a cigar.

As always, a HUGE Thank You to everyone that watches and reads these lessons. And also a Thank You for all the feedback. It’s very inspiring. While I may intentionally or accidentally skip an occasional appellation, I by no means do it to slight those areas. In trying to keep these lessons to 40 minutes or less and make sure to cover the most important topics, some things may be missed. Plus some of those areas are really for the advanced levels.

This is also why I HIGHLY encourage all of you to get the most current copies of the four main books I use. [Shamless Plug – Conveniently available on “The Library” section of this website] Also, don’t think that you can’t get other books that specialize on certain areas. I have two additional books that I’ve slacked on reading. One on Bordeaux and the other on Burgundy.

There is so much information out there to gain knowledge between books, the internet, your local sommeliers, local wine shops, and people like me. I’m just one small piece of a larger puzzle of knowledge, and I’m still putting the pieces together for myself.

Remember to check out the Society of Wine Educators. And just incase you haven’t visited the Court of Master Sommeliers, then click here.

Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training


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