Aglianico: An Overlooked Marvel

Although overshadowed by more famous wines, Aglianico is quickly garnering more attention as an increasing number of wine aficionados and casual drinkers alike are discovering and enjoying the pleasing qualities and characteristics this unsung black grape has to offer.

Italy is best known for Sangiovese, the base grape of some of the country’s greatest wines, such as Chianti and Brunello. Another grape of note is Nebbiolo, the fruit producing Barolo and Barbaresco. Yet, in this category of great reds we find a lesser-known (to those outside of Italy) grape that is just as worthy of high praise: Aglianico. Some oenologists have come to refer to it as the Barolo of the South. Yet even this august title may be a misnomer, because the Aglianico grape has been cultivated since before Roman viniculture even existed, and long before the Celts living in Piedmont knew anything about wine. Arturo Marescalchi (1869-1955) the founder of the Società degli Enotecnici Italiani once mentioned: “Devo confessare, chiedendo scusa ai miei Barolo e Barbera, che l’Aglianico si deve considerare il loro fratello maggiore (I must confess apologizing to my Barolo and Barbera, that Aglianico must be considered their older brother).”

Historically, Aglianico originated in ancient Greece and was introduced to southern Italy some time between the seventh and sixth century B.C. during the hellenization of southern Italy, or Magna Gracia as it was known in antiquity. The grape took to its new fertile soil and growth quickly spread throughout the regions of Campania and Basilicata. Ethnologically speaking the name Aglianico traces its roots to its Greek origin being initially known as “Ellenico,” however throughout the centuries the name continued to evolve until it reached its current form by the late Renaissance. In short, the grape has had close to three millennia to adapt to its new terroir and has done so to amazing results.  

The grapes flourish in the hot climate and in particular, the volcanic soil provided by the region. Though Aglianico is grown throughout il Mezzogiorno, it is Aglianico del Vulture from Basilicata that stands out as the best of the variety, only rivalled by the famed Taurasi wines from Campania. It comes into its own in the northern part of the region, far from its original growth points, on the slopes of the extinct volcano of Mount Vulture. Here the vineyards are at elevations of 600 meters or more; where the grapes can bask in the warm summer sunlight, and derive nourishment from the phosphorous and potassium rich volcanic soil. The wine itself is a dark ruby red, and tends to garnet with age. Aglianico del Vulture tends to be full bodied in flavour with firm tannins and high acidity, making this a wine that has great aging potential. Yet, many examples are enjoyable to drink right now. And when one decides to drink this ambrosia, they will be overcome by a rich and complex bouquet of aromas and flavours consisting of an interesting parquetry of berries, dark chocolate and coffee, not to mention the highlights of smoke, and mineral. Upon tasting it, a rich velvety texture leaves the palate abbocato and reeling from an equally smooth finish. It is Basilicata’s only Controlled origin denomination wine. In 2010, after fourty years under the DOC label of origin, Aglianico del Vulture was finally recognized as a DOCG (denominazione origine controllata e garantita); also available under “Aglianico del Vulture Superiore” and “Riserva”. This recognition is strongly tied to the intrinsic quality of Aglianico grapes that have been categorized as DOCG for quite a while in their Campanian Counterpart of Taurasi.

Some of the best and most important producers of the region include Tenuta Le Querce, D’Angelo, Paternoster, Sasso, and the Cantine Cooperative. The Aglianico del Vulture Basilisco 2001 from the lucchese winery Basilico was even crowned one of Italy’s top ten wines, alongside the “Super Tuscans” Sassicaia 2001, Masseto 2001 and Ornellaia 2001, in Civiltà del Bere’s 2005 Guida delle Guide dei Vini, a magazine which showcases the highest ranked wines from all five main wine guides of the country.

With regards to alcohol concentration, the range for Aglianico is between 12.5 and 14%. The rich flavours of the wine would make it appropriate for matching with red meats, especially lamb or game, and with equally potent hard, aged cheeses. Another attractive quality that Aglianico del Vulture has is its price. Whereas decent Barbaresco’s and Barolo’s can be had for $60, superb Aglianico’s can be had for half that price. The SAQ does have a few Aglianico del Vulture wines yet the quantity and selection is rather limited.

written by Francesco Di Muro & Gabriel Riel-Salvatore