Aglianico, a black grape grown in the southern regions of Italy, is often considered the “Barolo of the South.” But, perhaps Barolo is the “aglianico of the north”? After all, aglianico is one of the noblest grapes, shrouded in mystery and fog. It may not be easy to produce or pronounce (can you say “ah-li-YAH-nee-koe”?) but wine people love it, and they should. A seminar led by the North American Sommelier Association explored this fantastic grape.
The origin of aglianico is debatable. It is among some of the oldest of grapes in existence. Some say that the name comes from Hellas (Ellenic) and was brought by the Greeks as early as the sixth century B.C. But linguists have not found a connection between the words “aglianico” and “ellenico.” The Latin name for “Greece” was “Graecus,” not “Hellenicus.” Others argue that it might be a native varietal from southern Italy. While the debate of origin continues, one thing known is that the DNA is not related to any modern grape.
The aglianico grape is a small dark berry that grows in small to medium size clusters. While it buds early, it is late ripening and is harvested late in the season. The resulting wine is an intense ruby red, shifting to garnet as the wine ages. It has notes of dark berries, violet, bing cherry, spices, leather, cloves and tobacco. It is a difficult grape to grow and vinify, resulting in harsh tannins and acidity that need long aging. The resulting wines are complex, elegant and full of personality.
Aglianico was nearly wiped out by phylloxera in the 19th century but fortunately it survived, and over the last few years the grape has experienced a renaissance. It is a grape that grows best in higher altitudes and preferably on volcanic soil with clay. The volcanic soil is rich in nourishment and mineral substances and is porous, offering excellent drainage. It adapts easily in high altitudes and to other soils, which is why it has spread across southern Italy. Today, aglianico can be found across many regions of Italy, including Campania, Molise, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria and even Sicily.
In the region of Campania, half of the region is influenced by ocean and the other half is mountainous with the Apennine Mountain range. Campania is the home of the village of Taurasi, where they produce aglianico’s only DOCG wine. Taurasi is an ancient town destroyed by the Romans in 268 B.C. It was repopulated by people of Celtic origin who brought the unique vine training system of growing the vines on trees (this system is also called “taurasi”). To be designated Taurasi DOCG, the wine must be at least 85 percent aglianico from grapes coming from vines grown at a 1,000-2,000-foot altitude. The wine must be aged a minimum of 36 months (48 months to be called riserva).
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In Campania, aglianico is also the grape of Aglianico del Taburno DOCG. With grapes that come from a slightly lower altitude (600-1,800 feet) and soil that is clay mixed with limestone and sand, Aglianico del Taburno consists of a minimum of 85 percent aglianico and must be aged for 24 months (36 months for a riserva). Taburno is more approachable than Taurasi, offering more fruit than spice notes.
In Basilicata, aglianico forms the basis for the region’s only DOCG wine, Aglianico del Vulture. Basilicata is located at the end of the Apennine Mountain range, and while it is located at a southern latitude, the atmosphere is more northern with a cold, long winter. Located at 800-1,700 feet above sea level, the volcanic soil is rich in clay. Aglianico del Vulture Superiore DOCG is made with 100 percent aglianico and is aged a minimum of two years, 12 months of which is in oak (four years for riserva).
While Taurasi DOCG, Aglianico del Taburno DOCG and Aglianico del Vultura DOCG produce wines with high pedigrees, the aglianico produced in Puglia offers a beautiful expression. A region least touched by the Apennine Mountains, Puglia is a rather flat area. Similar to Southern California climate, what distinguishes Puglia is its red soils. For years, Puglia was considered the cellar of Europe. It was a land of farmers but lacked investment in the vinification process until Antinori invested in Tomaresca in 1988. Aglianico from Puglia has notes of black plum, black cherry, blackberry, dark chocolate, smoke, tobacco, dark roast espresso, tar, leather and licorice.
Seek out this noble grape. No matter where the aglianico is from in Italy, there is always something to discover and enjoy.