The Great Wines of Italy

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The first time I went to Italy, I expected to look at the landscape, the sky, feel the air and smell the earth and feel the clench of my roots in my heart, feel the place take hold of me from the inside out and suspend me in a romantically elevated state of historic euphoria.

We landed in Rome in late March of last year, and it was rainy and cold and I was six weeks pregnant and I was mostly irritated that our final destination of Bari required an additional flight after our first arduous one from New York. 

In Bari, we waited for our luggage, picked up our rental car, drove an hour to our destination, and because we were in the south of Italy, got lost until context clues pointed us in the general direction of our quirky destination, an old convent converted into a bed and breakfast by a couple, British ex-patriots, whose passion for the slow, relaxed rhythm of life and the drive to invite others into their weighty worldly experiences via ancient global artifacts displayed essentially everywhere, compelled them to the very limits of the peninsula, the heel of the Boot, Adriatic on one side, Mediterranean on the other.

It was a beautiful place, but it wasn’t at all what I’d imagined. I wasn’t stunned to silence, brought to tears. It was a place that had to live and breathe like any other place does; its people have to work hard, the pace of life is slow. There are long stretches of poorly lit road, there are badly marked streets, there are quiet restaurants in palazzos with a few people milling around. It wasn’t peak tourism season, and I don’t imagine they see too many tourists down in the south like they do in Tuscany, Naples, or Rome. It was a lovely, quiet place.

The trip to southern Italy that cold, rainy April comes alive for me in retrospect. When my husband travels, I am left with our little one and free reign on an entire cellar full of the geekiest dream wines available, but what I find myself wanting, night after night, is something from southern Italy: the soft, red fruited Primitivo. The black fruited, big-bodied Negroamaro. Rich, fruity, minerally whites. Unctuous, fat rosatos. What they lack in prestige they make up for in charm. 

 I have always loved central Italian wines, classics like Chianti Classico and monoliths like Brunello di Montalcino, but Tuscany is a region steeped in regulation. So long ago, when the Chianti region began to gain popularity with its wine of the same name, opportunistic growers pushed the boundaries of the region further and further out till Chianti was a massive zone full of sub-par terroir for the dominant Sangiovese. Furious with the bad name those mediocre wines gave their own, the growers positioned in the original zone created a special DOCG for Chianti Classico and now wines from that specific area must bear special labeling. DOCG, or denominazione origine controllata garantita, essentially guarantees a wine is made in accordance with specified guidelines of grapes, harvest times, quantities, and fermentation methods. With the strict standards, “Chianti” became a shadow of “Chianti Classico,” but elsewhere in the Tuscan region, new wars raged about pushing the boundaries of the established traditions, which limited the variety of grape that could be grown there. Producers on the Bolgheri Coast saw similarities with Bordeaux in their landscape and wanted to plant Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but in order to do so, they had to abandon the prestigious DOCG classification and become essentially the same denomination as table wine. Long story short, they did, and sold their Bordeaux-Tuscan hybrids under whimsical names for very high prices and eventually created their own subset of iconic wines, wines that sell for hundreds of dollars today. 

But in the south things never seemed to get that complicated, they were not so wrought. You grow the grapes, you make the wine, you drink the wine that is available to you with the food that comes from nearby. There are designations for specific regions, sure, but nothing ever denudes the wine of its innate wildness. That’s it: the wildness. These wines are like the landscape: sprawling, untamable, undeniably of and for the earth. They taste like fruit that ripened on the vine, in the sun. They are interesting but not overly complicated. They do not try to be fancy, they are not specially adorned, they are from Puglia, or Basilicata, or Calabria, and they are predominantly found there, too. Drink these in fancy glasses, put them in jelly jars. Drink them at room temperature, chilled, or downright cold. With grilled food. With chocolate cake. With pizza. They are versatile because there are far fewer instruction manuals to follow.

Maybe I wasn’t brought to tears the first time I saw the Adriatic because I needed to remember that Italy isn’t an emotional manipulation, it’s a place where people live and work, and have lived and worked for millennia. I hope I can go back, not pregnant, not expecting anything but to sit by the sea and feel the salty air, hear the wind in the olive groves, eat hearty vegetable dishes and drink wine ripe with sun and heat. Maybe that first trip was to debunk the expectation so the true character of the place could plant a seed. There is a time and place or the complications of Rome, the intricate history of Tuscany, but six days of seven, I’d take the wines of the south, in a jar, sitting at my bedside with a good book and a long evening ahead of me. 

Katie Callahan is a wine educator and the former manager of Bin 201 in Annapolis. 

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