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Calabria reconsidered, with reason for guarded optimism

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The last time I wrote about Calabria was 2016, four years after spending some time with winemakers that left me wondering what the future held. What I took from my visit could have been lifted from the pages of Mark Rotella’s “Stolen Figs and Other Adventures in Calabria,” a narrative of a journey he took with his father, who hadn’t been back to the family’s hometown Gimigliano in 30 years. Rotella describes a culture and people whose lives remained almost untouched by the progress seen in other parts of Italy.

Their “que sera, sera” view of their world summed up Calabria’s wine fortunes. My impression was of an insular, low-key system bogged down by the weight of tradition and an unwillingness to look ahead. There seemed to be little enthusiasm to improve the perception of Calabria’s native grapes or its winemaking potential.

A major problem has been a glaring lack of collective support for winemakers. There is no regional consortium to regulate and promote wine as exists in many other DOCs and DOCGs around Italy, no push for increased involvement in the global market. Factors working against an all-encompassing approach are the difficulty in accessing remote pockets of winemaking in the mountainous interior due to outdated infrastructure, coupled with reluctance to trust any form of regulations, even those generated locally.

The challenge for the next generation of winemakers is educating people, making the case for the authenticity of wines that sets them apart from Sicily, Campania, or Puglia. Those southern regions register with wine drinkers. Calabria remains a curiosity for most. Getting the word out won’t be easy. At VinItaly’s annual New York tasting a few years ago, I saw importers, writers and sommeliers clustered around tables of wines from Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto. Few took time to engage Calabria’s representatives.

The big question is what does Calabria offer that can’t be found elsewhere? The simple answer is obvious – grapes that can only be found there. You want Magliocco, Gaglioppo, Pecorello, Mantonico or Guardavalle? Look to Calabria. Blends of grapes even people in other regions of Italy haven’t heard of? They’re in the hills and valleys of Calabria.

There is reason for guarded optimism. A growing number of wineries are part of the natural wine movement that is gaining worldwide popularity. Their efforts reflect a key element for Calabria to be taken seriously – terroir driven wine that can only come from Calabria’s soil. Dino Broglio of L’Acino makes “Chora”, a savory blend of Magliocco, Guarnaccina and Greco Nero that shows those grapes at their best. Cataldo Calabretta’s Ciro Classico Superiore is as good as Gaglioppo gets, a wine that is Calabrian to its core. Vigna de Franco’s “A Vita” line of Gaglioppo ranges from light and lively to powerful and rich. Their “Leuko” is an innovative mix of Greco Bianco and Gaglioppo vinified like a white grape, a cutting- edge orange wine that will turn heads.

An exception to the rule that there’s no cooperation among winemakers is the Ciro DOC, Calabria’s most forward thinking group of producers. Though they make wine from other local grapes, as Calabria’s premier red variety Gaglioppo gets most of the attention in Ciro. Of the dozens of wineries both large and small, there are three that stand out.

The Ippolito family has been working the low hills on the Ionian Sea since 1845, making them the first winery in the area. They are also associated with other firsts: building a “modern” winery in the 1920s; bottling their own wines; aging Gaglioppo for ten years; producing wine from a single vineyard. They make white wines such as
“Mare Chiaro” from Greco di Ciro, “Res Dei” from Guardavalle, and a 100% Pecorello, but are better known for Gaglioppo. “Ripa del Falco” Riserva is wild, intense, spicy and bold. “Liber Pater” Classico Superiore is full of black plum, cherries and dried citrus. “Mabilia” is a rose scented, copper colored rose’ with flavors of blackberries and cherries.

The Librandi name is not as old as Ippolito, but has become synonymous with Ciro, and is most likely the first Calabrian wine many people have had. The largest producer of the DOC, they have been the leaders in changing the direction of what Calabria’s wine can be. From their entry level Ciro Rosso Classico and the refined “Segno” Classico, to the leathery, full bodied “Duca San Felice” Riserva they are committed to making people take Calabrian wine seriously.

Giuseppe Ippolito branched out on his own to open Du Cropio. For my money, his Gaglioppo’s are the best I’ve had from Calabria. The Ciro Riserva and “Serre Sanguina” are deeply flavored, dark, and ripe. Other Ciro wines worthy of mention are those of Scala, Cote di Franze, Crisera, and especially Sergio Arcuri.

Over the mountains and near the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Odoardi estate blends Gaglioppo with a Calabrian stew of Greco Nero, Cappuccio, and Magliocco Canino to good effect. The wines are more typically southern Italian – rustic, mildly bitter, earthy and not trying to be something they’re not. Eccentric even for Calabria and weirdly good.

Where does Calabria stand in its development? Giuseppe Ippolito has been quoted as saying “In Ciro, we are only at the beginning.” That sounds hopeful, a sign that change which has been a long time coming is on the way, that Calabria’s quarto is half full.

Frank Cipparone
Author: Frank Cipparone

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