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Basilicata in Southern Italy: A hard land that time almost forgot

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Basilicata with its agricultural economy remains the most geographically isolated part of southern Italy.

By Frank Cipparone 

Christ stopped at Eboli, a lament of isolation and poverty that marked the lives of people in the hinterlands of Lucania. For them, the town of Eboli was the last outpost of the Church and civilization, neither of which had any impact on them. The Greeks and Romans hadn’t crossed the Apennines, nor had Christ.

Their fatalistic summation of life in a remote part of the Mezzogiorno became the title of a poignant book by Carlo Levi, an anti-fascist exiled to the region in the 1930s. He described a land “without comfort or solace,” where a peasant population had been marginalized by the government’s indifference. Technology and industry have brought improvements to Basilicata, but at its core it is still a “terre di lavoro,” an environment of work based on an agricultural economy. It remains the most geographically isolated and least known part of southern Italy, a place that time forgot for all but the most adventurous travelers.  Even though Mel Gibson chose the ancient stone city of Matera as the locale for “The Passion of the Christ,” Basilicata is not a must-visit for most.

It is therefore not surprising that Basilicata has a small and virtually obscure wine industry which has undergone few changes in almost a century. The hard-to-reach towns of Rionero and Barile are wine destinations by default, their fortunes tied to the presence of one grape:  Aglianico. There may be academic debate over the origins of Aglianico, but no one doubts that it is the only game in town for commercial production. It is the only grape allowed by regulation in the Aglianico di Vulture DOC and the Aglianico di Vulture Superiore DOCG. When you think of wine and Basilicata there’s not much to say other than Aglianico. No other region’s wine culture is as dependent on a single varietal.

About 15 years ago, as Aglianico started to attract attention abroad, some wine writers began calling it the “Nebbiolo of the south,” comparing it to the internationally prestigious grape of Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco wines. They were promoting the idea that it could become for southern Italy what Nebbiolo is to the north. While there are some aromatic and sensory similarities between the two, Aglianico has a rustic, hardscrabble feel.

For nearly a century, the winemaking industry has remained virtually unchanged in Basilicata, the least known part of southern Italy.

For nearly a century, the winemaking industry has remained virtually unchanged in Basilicata, the least known part of southern Italy.

Aglianico has gained adherents in Europe and America. The best bottles have joined Barolo and Brunello as collectibles worth cellaring, albeit at more affordable prices. That it hasn’t attained the status of the others can be attributed to three factors. For one, Aglianico from the hills of Campania, specifically the Taurasi area, comes from producers whose names are more familiar-Mastroberardino, Feudi di San Gregorio and Terradora. Second, suitable land is scarce. Roughly 8,000 acres of Aglianico grows in Basilicata. The best vineyards are situated north of Barile in the volcanic soils of Monte Vulture, which, unlike Etna, is extinct. Third, homemade and locally consumed wine is an ingrained cultural staple. There are hundreds of caves in and around Barile that were dug as homes hundreds of years ago and are now used for winemaking and storage.

Aglianico can be a beautiful wine when the winemaker lets its inherent qualities emerge and doesn’t try to tame its rough edges. Examples of authentic Aglianico are those of traditional estates like Paternoster and D’Angelo, and newcomers such as Tenuta La Querce, Anna Nigro, and Cantine del Notaio. Aglianico has depth, power and intensity. It is full-bodied and savory with aromas and sensations of earthy minerals, tar and tobacco. Young Aglianico can be a rugged and tannic test, a tightly wound mouthful of dark fruit that needs time in bottle to evolve. When it does it is one of Italy’s premier red wines. It may never enjoy the recognition given other grapes, but it’s a true taste of Basilicata’s wine history, telling the tale of a humble farmhouse wine in a new era.

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