It is quite appropriate that in the position where the ankle bone would be in Italy’s “boot” shape, there is an extinct volcano. Rising to 1360 metres, Monte Vulture (pronounced Vul-toor-ay) dominates the landscape of this part of Basilicata. It last erupted 800,000 years ago and now the crater is a nature reserve, famed for its two lakes, its rare population of Brahmaea moths that are as big as a hand, and for the large number of people who head there in summer to enjoy its unique beauty.
When the volcano was active its lava flow had a major impact on the soil of the region. Rich in minerals, this undulating countryside is the heart of top-quality wheat production, for the very best pasta. It is also the home of a grape known as Aglianico, and the wine Aglianico del Vulture has annexed the name of the volcano. This is a quality wine, often described as the “Barolo of the South”. It is long-lived, well-structured and capable of developing complex flavours of dark plummy fruit, chocolate and spice with a backbone of freshness and minerals.
This is an ancient Italian grape, although the Australians and a few Californians are now investigating its potential. It is early to bud, late to ripen, and it needs the combination of good sunshine and the relatively high altitude of this region to develop the right balance of flavour and acidity. It also needs the volcanic soil to give the wine its distinct minerally characteristics.
This part of Italy is rustic, rural and friendly. It is the kind of place where you walk down the street and people smile, invite you into their cellar and let you taste their wine. But alongside all the beautiful hilltop villages, a quiet revolution is going on.
The quality of the region has been recently recognised in the new DOCG category for its wines. Naturally there are precise rules about the altitude of vineyards and ageing of the wines before a wine can gain that DOCG status. Producers also have to restrict their production to just 10 per cent of their harvest. Whether this makes for superior wines is best left to a review when the wines start to emerge on the market, but what this new classification has done is highlight the potential quality of the region.
For one family this new focus came at just the right time. Fabrizio and Cecilia Piccin used to make wine in Tuscany, in the upmarket region of Montepulciano, but 12 years ago they moved south to an estate which they have named Grifalco. This name combines the symbol of their home region, the griffin, with that of their new venture, the falcon.
“We wanted to find a place where we could make an impact,” said Fabrizio and Cecilia’s son, Lorenzo Piccin, now in charge of the vineyards. And they have certainly done that. Taking over a collection of small vineyards spread across some of the most significant soils of the area, they are converting them to organic production. There is significant investment in the winery too. There are new large oak fermentation vats and lots of shiny stainless steel but the most remarkable aspect of the winery is the natural cooling system that uses the low temperature of the earth surrounding the winery.
Tasting through a wide range of Aglianico del Vulture wines, the range of Grifalco wines stood out for their suppleness of tannins, their positive bramble and cherry fruit and a bite of freshness and earthiness that comes on the finish. These are wines with character, that go perfectly with the local food of beef, pasta, spicy peppers and ricotta cheese.
Here are some Aglianico wines to try:
Grifalco Aglianico del Vulture 2012, DOC, Field & Fawcett, York, £15.90: I tasted the 2012 and 2013 vintages, both good with clear fruit, savoury depth and their characteristic crunch but they still had time to go.
Pipoli 2013, Aglianico del Vulture DOC, Halifax Wine Co, £10.95: Low-trained vines, high altitude and a top winemaking consultant give this wine concentrated red fruit character with touches of violets and cocoa.
Piano del Cerro 2010, Aglianico del Vulture DOC, Field &Fawcett, £21.30 (also available at Halifax Wine Co): A step up in depth and complexity with dark, black forest fruits, savoury balsamic notes and a long, balanced finish.
Taste the Difference Aglianico del Vulture 2011 DOC, Sainsbury’s, £8: Normally priced at £8, this wine is on offer at just £6 until October 27 so it makes sense just to lob a bottle in the trolley to try. It has deep savoury, blackcurrant fruit with a real bite of freshness on the finish. Try it with a Thursday night meaty pasta dish.
Aglianico del Vulture 2012, Cantina di Venosa, Majestic, £9.99: Down to just £7.49 on multi-buy until October 26, this is a wine with soft, dense, red berry and cherry fruits with lively fresh flavours. Refreshing in style, it is a wine to pour with pasta and pizza.