When thinking about Italian wine, it is most common to think of Northern or Central Italy—Tuscany, Piedmont, Veneto, etc. However, there are some interesting, unique wines to seriously consider, if you’ll take your palate to the southern regions of Italy, more specifically, to the most southern areas, the island of Sicily, Basilicata, and Campania.
Next time you reach for the Pinot Grigio, consider looking for Grillo instead. Lesser-known varietals tend to be a little less expensive, so you will not break the bank trying out a new-to-you wine. Grillo has some similar characteristics to Pinot Grigio, like citrus fruit, but also offers more herbal and peach notes, and some offer a lot of floral qualities. Grillo is also the key grape in Marsala. Inzolia is another super-fun wine to explore! It is also a grape used in Marsala, but makes a wonderful dry wine full of citrus, white flowers with hints of salinity, herbs and a nutty finish. It is a white wine that is very terroir-driven. Another to explore is Zibibbo. How much fun is that to say?! Zibibbo is a synonym for Muscat of Alexandria, and is one of the oldest wine grapes. Although it is used to make a sweet wine, there are also dry versions. It is extremely floral and herbal at the same time—think Gewurztraminer. This would be a great wine to have to impress your holiday guests as a starter wine, with bold cheeses or with your apple pie. From the Campania region, look for a Fiano—another older variety with rich, waxy, and pronounced round flavors of Asian Pear, Honeydew, and orange peel, with hints of hazelnut. Another great attribute is it is quite age-worthy. This is another table-talker for your holiday meal, as it would go wonderfully with turkey with rosemary and sage.
Instead of heading for Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo, try searching out a Nero D’Avola or Nerello Mascalese from Sicily, or Aglianico from Campania. If you lean toward a full-bodied Cab Sauv or Syrah, most likely you will be very happy in choosing a Nero D’Avola. Again, this is a lesser-known Italian varietal, so, there’s a nice price point. On the nose, you will get black fruit and licorice, and, on the palate, you will enjoy leather and tobacco notes and possibly a little spiciness to jazz up your tongue. This one might be a little harder to find, but if you love a red wine with lots of earthy, flinty and savory notes, search out Nerello Mascalese. This is another rare, old varietal of Sicily that produces light- to medium-bodied wines. Typically grown near the volcano, Mt. Etna, the grapes take on the flinty, rocky character of the terroir. Despite the light-to-medium color and body, the savory dried fruit characters make it a wine with lots of character.
Now for the big boy. If you savor Nebbiolo and leathery Sangiovee, Aglianico will hit the spot. Moving away from Sicily and heading north a bit to Campania or Basilicata, is where Aglianico is almost exclusively found. This would be a wonderful fall/winter wine to enjoy with dinner, or sitting by the fire. With aromas of dried figs, and earth and slate, followed by savory notes of white pepper, tobacco, leather, and dark fruit. For a fan of the rustic, three-dimensional red wines, this is like comfort food for the wine soul. “Along with Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, Aglianico is generally believed to be one of Italy’s three best wine grapes, but in my opinion, it is far more…” –Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy [credit, Wine Folly – Understanding Aglianico Wine: Italy’s Next Red]
So, next time you go on the hunt for something different, take a trip to Southern Italy, and take a palate exploration! Saluti!