With due respect to prosecco and pinot grigio, the more exciting growth story in Italian wine over the past generation or so has had to do with quality, not sales numbers. And it has emerged not from the north but from the land down under, so to speak. Perhaps you've heard: The south has been rising.
Unless you've been spending too much time in a cellar filled with barolos, brunellos and riserva chiantis (okay, maybe there's no such thing as spending too much time in a place like that), you probably have heard. But it feels like the story has just begun.
I'm talking about the lower half of the boot, below the kneecap of Rome all the way to Puglia's stiletto heel and including the island of Sicily off the toe. (No, I don't have a foot fetish; I just like geography!) In the selections below, I'm also including one wine from the island of Sardinia, which is southern more in spirit than in geographical fact, since it's located far to the west.
The south is a land of ancient vineyards, hundreds of offbeat grape varieties (hello, falanghina, aglianico and nerello mascalese) and vastly improved winemaking. What used to be a monolithic source of gutsy bulk wine destined for covert blending elsewhere, including France, is now flourishing with new generations of producers proudly bottling their own cuvées.
You've got to be open-minded to embrace most southern Italian wines, though, given the unfamiliar grape varieties and flavours. Aglianico, for example, which is usually firmly astringent and far from smooth, really ought to be judged on its own terms, or at least with a view to how it might pair with, say, a charcuterie plate.
If you prefer to play things safe with prosecco and pinot grigio all the time, stick to the north; it's churning out plenty of those wines to go around.
Surrau Sciala Vermentino di Gallura Superiore 2014, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $34.95
Made from vermentino, the Sardinian island's signature white grape, this hails from a top-notch and very modern winery. Medium bodied, it displays the variety's silky, succulent and aromatic qualities beautifully: delectable peach with a whisper of gingery spice. Skip the chardonnay tonight, this will transport you to an intriguingly new place. Available in Ontario.
Nativ Taurasi 2011, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $31.95
A full-bodied and serious aglianico from the variety's native stomping ground, Campania, the region around Naples. This displays many of the regal grape's finer qualities, nuances that account for its reputation as the south's greatest red. It's six years old and wears its age gracefully. Ripe, evolved fruit, led by plum, prune and blackberry, mingles with bitter chocolate, licorice and seasoned wood, set against sticky tannins. Ideal for roast beef, grilled steak or rack of venison, among other things. Available in Ontario.
Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2012, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
They call it "cannonau" in Sardinia, but most people know it better as grenache or garnacha, the supple red grape of southern France and much of Spain. Sella & Mosca, a big brand on the island, has carried the banner globally with this widely distributed bottling. It's easygoing, with soft cherry fruit infused with spice and enlivened by tangy acidity. Available in Ontario at the above price, $19.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $16.85 in Quebec, $20.79 in New Brunswick, $20.49 in Nova Scotia, $19.99 in Prince Edward Island.
Feudo Maccari Grillo 2015, Italy
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.94
"Grillo" sounds like something out of an Andy Warhol gallery retrospective. It's a grape, though, not a brand of scouring pad associated with the artist. Until about 25 years ago, it was reserved as an ingredient for the fortified wine Marsala. Today it's shining Brillo-bright on its own as a dry table wine. And why not? The grape, unlike most, withstands Sicilian-type heat with aplomb, retaining acidity and warding off jammy, baked flavours. This one's medium bodied and tight, with apple-like fruit, floral aromatics and a saline quality vaguely reminiscent of some single malt Scotch. Pair it with flaky fish. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Camporeale Aglianico 2015, Italy
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.95
No less than four esteemed wine-writing colleagues of mine raved about this red as I sampled two bottles on two separate days in their company. But fair warning: It's more of a geek's bargain than something most purchasers of $14 reds will love. It's earthy, firm and juicy, with suggestions of dried cherry, leather and licorice and a tug from fine-grained tannins. If you're curious about southern Italy's great red grape, this is a fine entry-level effort. Try it with charcuterie and cheeses. Just under no circumstances expect it to taste like populist, easygoing California merlot. Available in Ontario.
Vesevo Beneventano Falanghina 2015, Italy
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
"Falanghina" is the grape here, and "Vesevo" is not just the winery but the ancient name of the nearby volcano Vesuvius. Here's a fine example of the grape, which was reclaimed from near extinction a few decades ago. Light-medium bodied, the wine displays an essence of lemon candy with notes of white pepper and orange-pekoe tea. It's way more distinctive than, say, your typical pinot grigio. And the fat, stubby bottle should make an impression, so offer it up with confidence. Available in Ontario at the above price, $19.99 in Nova Scotia, $21.89 in Prince Edward Island.
D'Angelo Sacravite 2013, Italy
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
From Basilicata, the arch of Italy's boot, this aglianico-based red displays sticky, powdery tannins from the get-go. It's no modern-styled crowd-pleaser, to be sure, but it's got qualities to recommend it. As in juicy dark plum and a flavour akin to cherries embedded in marzipan, plus whiffs of licorice and damp earth – a good choice for fatty, rare-cooked red meats or sausage-topped pizza. Available in Ontario.
Le Casematte Peloro 2014, Italy
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $22.95
A Sicilian red blend of obscure nerello mascalese and nocera, this is mid-weight and earthy, with a cherry-and-tar centre calling to mind nebbiolo. Tart acidity and grippy tannins supply balance and structure. Available in Ontario at the above price, $23.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.