Puglia – Italy's stiletto heel – has been bootstrapping its way to notoriety for a couple of decades now. Historically a vast well of bulk juice destined for blending with more anemic wines in the cool north, the region emerged on the international scene with two signature varieties, primitivo and negroamaro. Hearty reds they are, often available at bargain prices. But there's a new and potentially more promising red on the rise, aglianico.
Italian-wine cognoscenti know aglianico well, to be sure. It's the signature glory of the Campania region farther north. Full-bodied and bracing, the extremely late-ripening vine delivers astringent tannins and high acidity, cellar-friendly qualities that call to mind the long-lived reds of Barolo up near the French border. In fact, aglianico has been called southern Italy's Barolo.
Until a few of decades ago, the grape – pronounced al-yee-AH-nee-ko – seemed ill suited to greatness, hobbled in part by growers' instinct to pick too early (November often is ideal even this far south). The wines were about as huggable as a wild boar. But one producer, Mastroberardino in the hills above Naples, tamed the beast and sent it to prep school, relying on better vineyard practices and improved cellar hygiene to amplify fruit against its more savage tendencies.
Whereas iconic aglianicos from such producers as Mastroberardino and Terredora in Campania still can be jarring for many consumers lacking cellar conditions and the patience to further soften the tannins over five to 15 years, new examples from Puglia, though harder to find, are cuddly by comparison.
Puglia has another thing on its side: price. Excellent examples tend to sell for less than those from Campania and the increasingly fashionable Aglianico del Vulture appellation in nearby Basilicata. The Girolamo below is, I think, a great introduction to the variety, fit for lamb (whether roasted or braised) and hearty meat-sauce pastas. It won't bite – too hard.
Speaking of beasts, Buffalo Trace bourbon, an iconic 220-year-old American whiskey, is more approachable than the bison staring out from the bottle, big and strong yet mellow and delicately sweet and spicy. In keeping with the muscular theme, there's also La Stella Fortissimo from British Columbia. Though the name translates as "really strong guy," the Tuscan-inspired red blend is one fruit-filled, friendly hulk of a wine.
Girolamo Aglianico 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $16.95
An earthy, barnyard quality on the nose gives way to rich, juicy fruit, suggesting blueberry and plum, with a sweet tobacco undercurrent. The tannins are relatively tame, and the acidity comes across with a salty tingle. It should cellar well for up to four years and pair nicely with a variety of red meats.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Kentucky)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $39.95
The sweet, round corn leads the stampede, drawing in smooth vanilla, dried fruit and citrus, even leather. Were it to stop there, this would be a fine whiskey, but then spicy notes from the secondary rye and barley grains step in, aided by toasty oak for a lively, dry and long finish. The balance is impeccable and the complexity impressive. Great neat, on the rocks or in a Manhattan. $39.99 in B.C., $37.40 in Man., $39.99 in N.B., $39.99 in N.S., $39.99 in Nfld., various prices in Alta.
Frescobaldi Montesodi Chianti Rufina Riserva 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $49.95
Not your run-of-the-mill Chianti, this single-vineyard offering, made only in better years, is the big brother of the popular Nippozano Riserva. Concentrated dark-fruit flavours mingle with spice, vanilla, coffee and mineral, backed by firm tannins and juicy acidity. Easily one for the long haul – say, 15 years. Herb-crusted T-bone would make a fine partner. $50.50 in Que., $59.99 in N.S.
La Stella Fortissimo 2008 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $40.95
Merlot and cabernet sauvignon with small quantities of cabernet franc and sangiovese, this well-structured red is layered with cassis, blackberry, coffee and vanilla. Decant it to soften the slightly tight tannins and pair it with medium-rare beef or cellar it for up to eight more years. $35 in B.C. through www.lastella.ca.
The Organized Crime Gewürztraminer 2009 (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22.20
A voluptuous, Alsatian-style white weighing in at 14.9-per cent alcohol, this beauty offers up a rich, musky aroma and varietal hallmarks of lychee, rose and spice. Seemingly sweet on entry, it finishes dry. Great stuff for heavily spiced aromatic fare, such as Indian curries, as well as liver pâté and cheese courses.
Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (California)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
Full-bodied and smooth but with more going on than one might expect from a California cab at this price, it delivers with dark fruit, vanilla, coffee grounds and a pleasantly earthy quality. Fine for roast beef. $22.99 in B.C.
Gray Monk Riesling 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Dry but well-rounded and silky, this Okanagan white shows excellent varietal character and complexity, with notes of stone fruit, lime and subtle petrol in equal measure. Great for smoked fish or roast pork.
Jekel Vineyards Gravelstone Chardonnay 2009 (California)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Full-bodied and vaguely sweet but not heavy, this crowdpleasingly smooth white turns lively on the finish with a prickle of spice. Good value and fine for richly textured fish. Available in Ontario.
Yvon Mau Merlot 2010 (France)
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $8.95
A fine red for the money, it's medium-bodied and soft, with plum-like fruit and a subtle herbal-floral backdrop, balanced and admirably ripe. Versatile at the table. Available in Ontario.