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Calabria stubbornly — but deliciously — stuck in the past


By Frank Cipparone

The story of viniculture in Calabria goes back three millennia, a time before the Greeks arrived and christened it Enotria, the land of vines. Once highly regarded throughout Europe, today Calabrese wine is relatively unknown and less appreciated than that of Puglia, Sicily and the rest of southern Italy.

While in Calabria four years ago I had the chance to question winemakers regarding the scarcity of their wine in the market and the lack of recognition among consumers. Responses ranged from thoughtful to the classic southern Italian shrug that translates to “it is what it is,” a fatalism born of centuries of isolation, poverty and dealing with insurmountable natural obstacles.

Rugged terrain and imposing moun-tains are a barrier between Calabria and its neighbors, and have left it with little arable land. More acres are planted with profitable olive and citrus groves than  vineyards. The region ranks sixteenth of twenty in tonnage of grapes, volume of wine and quality as measured by DOC designated wines. Such limited production comes mostly from obscure local grapes that have been cultivated for centuries and aren’t grown elsewhere in Italy. Recently, there has been increased planting of familiar and more salable Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet.

From my conversations two themes stood out. Inherent Calabrese insularity has created a do-it-ourselves attitude and a reluctance to follow the lead of successful regions nearby. The surge of interest in wine from Sicily and Campania would serve as a model for what Calabria could become — but the idea that everyone’s boat rises with the tide has yet to take hold. Consortiums of growers and producers found in other parts of Italy are absent. More than one winemaker brought up a general unwillingness to work together to promote what Calabria has to offer — and shrugged.

Calabria’s wineries are in a position to take advantage of a growing interest in Italy’s native grapes since they rely so heavily on them. A problem that needs to be resolved, however, is the confusion arising from misidentification of grapes. For example, Greco Bianco di Ciro is not a separate variety and is not related to Greco Bianco at all. It is actually the rare Guardavalle, which is erroneously called Greco Bianco di Lamezia by winemakers in that area, who may also refer to it as Mantonico, which is another grape altogether! The red grape Magliocco is also known as Magliocco Dolce but is distinct from Magliocco Canino in appearance and the wine made from it. And when people speak of Calabrese they are talking about Nero d’Avola, the signature grape of Sicily that winemakers in Calabria insist grew in their soil first.

What can’t be argued is that authentic wine that represents Calabria’s heritage is being made. The most widely planted grape, Gaglioppo, can be found around Lamezia and Cosenza, and blended with local grapes near Savuto. It is the basis for several styles of red and rosato wines in the Ciro DOC on the Ionian coast. Magliocco shows up in IGT wine from Lamezia, sometimes blended with Greco Nero or Merlot to give it more depth and body. Magliocco Canino accounts for rustic reds in the Terre di Cosenza DOC.

True Greco Bianco produces fresh, lively whites with a hint of toasted almonds and tangy tropical fruit. Pecorello Bianco is a blending grape getting new life as a fuller, substantial white bottled on its own. Both of them, as well as Calabria’s traditional grapes, are evidence that the toe of the boot is more than capable of turning out interesting and worthwhile wine.

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