Every year when I go to Tre Bicchieri San Francisco, I try to formulate a plan of attack so I don’t get … well … trashed. If you’ve ever been to any of those big tasting events at Fort Mason Center or anywhere else, you know: it’s not easy to focus. Especially at Tre Bicchieri, where it is “organized” by importer and not by region or style of wine. You’d have to do 50 laps across the Festival Pavilion (which would be about 5 miles of walking) to maintain any type of organized tasting sequence.
I admit that this year I actually had little time to plan and arrived with no strategy. After 30 minutes of running around, I decided it was pointless, took a more relaxed approach, and fortunately never lost track of myself. In fact, I did actually learn something: I should be drinking more wine from southern Italy—and so should you!
Let’s begin with Nebbiolo since that’s where my mind naturally starts. I certinaly didn’t miss the chance to taste the Piemontese lovelies from GD Vajra, Oddero, Vietti, Angelo Negro, and Pio Cesare. But encountering the wines of Torrevento from Puglia and Pietradolce from Sicily made me pause: Nero di Troia, Primitivo, Negroamaro, Malvasia nera, Nerello mascalese … How do I forget about these fantastic flavors? It was like my favorite wines of Nebbiolo (roses, violets, chalky tannins, ethereal spices) had been mixed with my favorites made of Tempranillo or Australian Shiraz (full on the palate, mellow acidity, silty tannins, intense blue and black fruit). I realized how heavenly the southern Italian reds could be—and sometimes even at extremely fair prices.
A couple of reasons exist why I haven’t had that much experience with these wines. One, I haven’t been south of Rome (yet!). Two, these wines are hard to find in California. So to help myself and to help you, I am going to commit to seeking them out in the coming months and I will update you all here with my findings.
Meanwhile, if you want to do some studying yourself, Italian Wine Central is a great new online resource for basic information on Italian wine. But here below, in lieu of composing a long lecture on southern Italian grapes and regions, I summarize the key (red) grapes and types of wines, which will be the focus of my upcoming exploration, and introduce to you the wines I discovered at Tre Bicchieri in February.
Sicily (in Italian, Sicilia)
From Sicily,† the indigenous grape with the most significant aging potential (or so I’ve read—I haven’t aged it myself) is Nero d’Avola. Nero d’Avola is a thin-skinned, late-ripener that does well in sandy-clay soil (sounds like Nebbiolo!). It produces a dark, tarry, black-fruit-dominant wine with dusty tannins and aromas of violets and roses. In Sicily, Nero d’Avola produces three general categories of wine. There are those made 100% from Nero d’Avola (or blended with minor percentages of other indigenous varieties), those that are blended with the “international varieties” (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah), and a third, Sicily’s only DOCG wine, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG is a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato, a cherry-scented grape that gives a lighter color and structure.
To confuse matters, Nero d’Avola has a synonym, Calabrese. Speculation exists that the grape orginated in Calabria but no one really knows and there aren’t any significant plantings of it there now.
In Sicily there are also a couple of other grapes that produce very fine wine. Nerello mascalese (best known in the Faro DOC) makes a dark, spicy, floral wine. It is also found in blends with Nero d’Avola, as well as Nerello capuccio (in the Etna (Rosso) DOC). Wines made of these grapes strike me by their distinct scents of rose, ash, tar, dark fruit flavors, and full structures. At Tre Bicchieri, I discovered Pietradolce, who makes three amazing wines dominated by Nerello mascalaese. Divided by vine age, growing elevation, and aging times, they vary in intensity but not value. I give them all scores of ★★-★★★. Their importer is Empson & Co.
Vigna Barbagalli 2010. Etna DOC. The 100 year-old vines grow at 3,000 feet near Mt. Etna in sand and fossil. The wine ages for 20 months in large French oak barrels called tonneaux. It was awarded the Tre Bicchieri in this vintage. Approximate retail cost is $100.
Archineri 2011. Etna DOC. The 40-80 year-old vines grow at 2,500 feet near Mt. Etna in sand and fossil. The wine ages for 14 months in large French oak barrels called tonneaux. Approximate retail cost is $35.
Etna Rosso 2012. Etna DOC. The 15 year-old vines grow at 2,000 feet near Mt. Etna in sand and fossil. The wine ages for 3 months in large French oak barrels called tonneaux. Approximate retail cost is $20.
Apulia (in Italian, Puglia)
In Puglia, there is Negroamaro (translating to “black & bitter”), which also gives a dark and tannic wine. Negroamaro is the dominant grape in the Salice Salentino DOC wines. Another grape, and a fun one to talk about, is Uva di Troia (also called Nero di Troia), which literally means “grape of the whore.” I learned of this from my Bonny Doon Vineyard days when Randall used to import one directly from the Castel del Monte zone where it is most widely grown. Some say the grape comes from the ancient city of Troy in Greece. Who really knows? But it’s fun to speculate. If I remember correctly, Uva di Troia produces a peppery, yet dark wine, more reminiscent of Cabernet than the others. Primitivo is another dominant variety, and one with which many Californians are familiar since it is genetically identical to our Zinfandel. Although flavor profiles are similar, they don’t seem to ever taste identical, however. Minor blending varieties here are Malvasia nera (adding a floral component to Negroamaro) and Nerello capuccio.
Torrevento produces many wines but the ones I tried at Tre Bicchieri were the ones made from Nero di Troia, Primitivo, and Negroamaro; I gave them all ★★-★★☆. They currently seek importation in California.
Vigna Pedale 2010. Castel del Monte DOC Rosso Riserva. Nero di Troia 100%. The vines grow at about 1,500 feet on limestone and clay and the wine ages 8 months in barrel and 12 months in botte grande (large barrel) before release. It was awarded the Tre Bicchieri in this vintage.
Ghenos 2009. Primitivo di Manduria DOC Rosso. Primitivo 100%. The vines grow at low elevation on clay soil. The wine ages for 10 months in stainless steel and 6 months in French oak barrel.
Sine Nomine 2008. Salice Salentino DOC Rosso Riserva. Negroamaro 90%, Malvasia nera 10%. These vines also grow at low elevation on clay soil. The wine ages for 6 months in stainless steel and 12 months in botte grande (large barrel).
Calabria (in Italian, also Calabria)
In Calabria, the major grapes are Gaglioppo and Maglioppo, which create soft, plush, berry-driven wines. I won’t seek these out much since I am focusing on the dark and floral wines, but won’t avoid them if I find them. Also found in Calabria are Nerello mascalese and Nerello capuccio.
Basilicata (in Italian, also Basilicata)
Last but not least is Basilicata, where we find Aglianico del Vulture Superiore DOCG and its sidekick, the Aglianico del Vulture DOC based on the thick-skinned, late-ripening, bold and exotic Aglianico grape. It is often written to share flavor profiles with Nebbiolo. But personally, according to my palate, Nero d’Avola, Nerello mascalese and Nerello capuccio have more similarities with Nebbiolo.
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† I’m counting this as part of southern Italy because even though it is an island, it is in the south and its wines share flavor commonalities with other mainland southern Italian regions’ wines.