IF you love Barolo or Burgundy, there is a wonderful southern Italian grape, which would suit anyone who has a penchant for these wine styles.
Gaglioppo is an ancient grape grown in the wilds of Italy’s toe, in Calabria. It has been grown here for centuries – but in the past it usually disappeared into the blending vats. Now ‘The Black Prince’, as gaglioppo is called, is being revived by a new generation of growers.
Gaglioppo’s origin is either Greek or Sicilian. What it shares with Barolo’s nebbiolo grape is its pale brick-red colour, haunting aromas of roses, natural high acid and firm tannins. It also has a liquorice and red berry scent and delicacy that reminds me of Burgundian pinot noir.
Now Calabria is not on the tourist trail. Visitors to southern Italy sweep down past it on the motorway which takes them from Naples to Messina. Few stop in Calabria, a wild, mountainous and poor region in Italy’s hot south, dominated by a 2,000 metre mountain range that acts like a barrier to the modern world. The villages I found here were uninviting – and there is a lot of organised crime, or so I’m told by my Italian wine guru, David Berry Green. So, no fancy restaurants or hotels, although the ancient towns do look idyllic and unspoilt nestled in the hillsides. Calabria is very different from Puglia in Italy’s heel, which is now an enticing tourist destination.
This is a hot, arid, inhospitable land, dried by the stiff Sirocco winds blowing in from Africa. Eucalyptus trees, oranges and peppers grow here in abundance – and so does the gaglioppo grape. Calabria has extensive vineyards with 3,000 hectares of the grape on its east coast overlooking the Ionian sea, with Puglia away in the distance.
The local wine, Ciro Rosso, is made predominantly from the gaglioppo grape. In the past it had to contain 95 per cent of gaglioppo, with 5 per cent of greco biano. Two years ago, they changed the law to encompass other grapes. Ciro Rosso can now be minimum 80 per cent gaglioppo with a 20 per cent addition of other grapes like merlot or cabernet sauvignon.
Local growers like young Sergio Arcuri are now coming to terms with the tricky gaglioppo. It’s a vigorous vine with tight berry clusters and massive foliage. He has learned how to prune the triffid vines, control yields and when to pick to get tannins ripe but not severe; gaglioppo is a late ripener so it is picked as late as the first week of October. Arcuri has less than four hectares here, but his vines are old alberello-trained vines dating from 1948. His family used to sell off the grapes to the local co-operative, but he wanted to make his own wine.
Arcuri uses organic techniques in the vineyard and ferments in a cement bath tub. He has learned not to over macerate as the pips and skins can give harshness to the wine. The result is really elegant and almost ethereal. Other producers to look for are Roberto Cerraudo, Caparra, A Vita and de Franco.
Calabrian wineries such as Librandi turn out bigger volumes of 100 gaglioppo wines, so their prices are more affordable and their softer styles make a gentler introduction to this wonderful grape. Serve with spicy piccante Calabrian Spianata salami from Valvona & Crolla, for an authentic southern Italian treat.