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Food & Wine Aglianico: Meet the wine grape superstar 500 years in the making

The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals

It was, for a time, perhaps the world's greatest unknown grape. Today aglianico is the new superstar on the European block, a darling of top critics and smart collectors. It also proves that, in the wine world, it sometimes takes 500 years to clue in to a good thing.

The noble vine, thought by some to be ancient but first mentioned in writing in 1520, thrives in the volcanic hills of southern Italy east of Naples, where the rugged landscape stands as a metaphor for the wine's firm profile. High in acidity and astringent tannins, aglianico is sometimes called the Barolo of the South, a reference to the great nebbiolo-based red of Piedmont – tough going in its youth but built for the graceful long haul.

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Credit the variety's ascent to one producer above all, Mastroberardino. While others had long taken to harvesting early, Mastroberardino began showing patience with the extremely late-ripening grape, waiting for tannins to soften deep into autumn. The beast grew handsome, if still sporting a manly five-o'clock shadow. Great aglianico is redolent of plum, chocolate, minerals and tar, the latter quality also shared with Barolo. Other producers followed Mastroberardino's lead, some even lavishing their wines with the vanillin creaminess of French barriques as opposed to more traditional large casks.

The most esteemed come from the Taurasi area of the Campania region, where Mastroberardino and Terredora are prominent brands, and the Vulture zone of Basilicata, where the leading maker of Aglianico del Vulture is D'Angelo. Expect to pay as little as $15 for decent examples, upward of $40 for the best, cellar-worthy gems.

The vine's tendency to excel in places with long, warm growing seasons has caught the attention of producers in sunny California, where a smattering of estates, including Caparone, Giornata, Mettler and Kenneth Volk are turning out compellingly voluptuous examples. South Australia is another promising outpost for the variety.

To be a bona-fide aglianico geek is to know a bit of Italian. It's pronounced ah-lyee-AH-nee-ko. But if that second syllable proves a challenge in English, best just to consider the "g" silent, as in "alianico" (there's no hard-g "guh").

Aglianico makes a splendid match for braised, saucy dishes, though any red meat off the grill also would be grand. I once enjoyed a sublime, long-aged Taurasi from a friend's cellar with simple tomato-accented meat loaf. Even the meat had been "aged" for a few days – leftovers made by his wife.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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