Tre Bicchieri San Francisco 2019 – Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wine Celebration

Regions of the Mezzogiorno

We always enjoy sampling at the San Francisco visit of Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bichieri wine industry tasting each March. Because so many wonderful award winning wineries and wines from Italy are represented, we look for different ways to approach each year’s visit and review.

For 2019, we chose as our focus the Mezzogiorno region for several reasons. First, this area is not nearly as well known for its wines as for example, Tuscany or Veneto. Secondly, the southernmost provinces of Puglia, Basilicata, and Calabria are attracting tourists who have traveled to most other areas in Italy. And finally, and for us most importantly, we will be visiting those provinces for the first time this April.

Of the three provinces in the Mezzogiorno, only Puglia had much representation at Gambero Rosso, with 15 Tre Bicchieri, the most ever and up from last year’s 13. But for us, no Italian wine tasting is complete without a brief foray into Sicilian wines, as Vic is half Sicilian and Karin must always re-sample Donnafugata’s award winning Ben Ryé dessert wine.

Since wines of the world are inextricably associated with the their cultures, their geographies, and their agricultural endowments, we’d like to say a bit about each of these for the three provinces.

At the southeastern end of the Mezzogiorno is Puglia (Apulia), which forms the heel of Italy’s “boot.” With a population of about four million it has the longest coastline of mainland Italy, and is known for its whitewashed hill towns, centuries-old farmland and hundreds of kilometers of Mediterranean coastline. The city of Lecce is the “Florence of the South” with its baroque architecture; the capital, Bari, has a vibrant port and university; and the Itria Valley is famous for stone huts with conical roofs (trulli). It has an estimated 50 t0 60 million olive trees and accounts for 40% of Italy’s olive oil production.

The chief wines of Puglia come from Negroamaro, a black grape yielding a dry red wine, which though full-bodied, is not too tannic or acidic. Primitivo, the same early-harvest red grape as California’s Zinfandel, yields a big, luscious, fruity wine. Malvasia Nera di Brindisi, is often blended with the more velvety Malvasia Nera. And Verdeca, a white grape delivers a light crisp drink grown almost exclusively in Puglia. These wines match well with the Southern Italian trattoria food, especially with grilled vegetables, stews, and lamb.

Puglian wine is the product of a diverse landscape surrounded by water on three sides offering cool Mediterranean breezes a warm climate and fertile soil. Primitivo serves as Puglia’s main engine both in terms of quality and success. We describe several Puglian wines below that we liked.

Felline’s Primitivo di Manduria Zinfandel Sinfarosa Terra Nera 2016, as the name indicates, was a successful transplant from California. Dark, rich and complex in both color and taste, with suggestions of pepper, chocolate, and cherries, it is a good value at $24 retail.

Torrevento’s Castel del Monte Rosso V. Pedale Ris 2015, made from the Uva di Troia and matured in steel for eight months and barrels for twelve, has a juicy, elegant and balanced feel with ending notes of red fruit. Serve with lamb, beef, or pasta.

The 2017 Masseria Li Veli Askos Verdeca is a white varietal produced by the Valvo family in the Salento region of Puglia. The family, which already had 40 years experience in the industry in Tuscany, is working to keep a number of varietals from extinction. Grown in the bush-trained method which allows the vines optimal sun and wind exposure, this medium-bodied Verdeca has a fresh citrusy, minerally flavour somewhere between a Vigonier and a Chardonay. It pairs nicely with the abundant seafood of the region.

Made of grapes from vines almost 100 years old, Cantine San Marzano’s Primitivo di Manduria Sessantanni 2015 has a deep ruby color with a nose of ripe plums and blackberries, followed by spicy liquorice, tobacco and cocoa. It is intense yet balanced and smooth. It would be especially good paired with small game.

Tenuta Viglione Gioia del Colle Primitivo Marpione Ris 2015, grown in the highest part of the region in thin layers red rocky soil and organically farmed by the same family since 1937, has a dark berry aroma and long-lasting flavors.

Basilicata, in the arch of Italy’s boot, is a region of forests and mountains bordered by Puglia and Calabria, as well as the Tryrrenian and Ionian Seas. The city of Matera, a vast hillside of cave dwellings dating back thousands of years, has been designated as one of two European Union Culture Capitals of 2019. Cultivation consists mainly of wheat with some potatoes and maize. Olive and wine production is relatively small with the mountainous and hilly terrain making harvesting and transportation difficult. Therefore, this region is rarely on the radar of wine lovers. After a spotty wine producing history (marred partially by the poor quality of oak), things are looking up. Powerful, ripe Aglianico is the premier varietal. Aglianico del Vulture having the potential to be one of the world’s noble red wines, the best of which display smooth tannins and vibrant acidity, and should evolve positively in bottle for 15 years. Seek out 2013 vintage.

Only one wine at the festival received 2019 Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri designation – Cantine Del Notaio’s Aglianico del Vulture II Repertorio 2016. A full-bodied wine grown near an extinct volcano, it has been dubbed the “Barolo of the South”. Due to its extended growing season it is a powerful wine, full-bodied, deep ruby-colored, and rich in flavor.

Calabria occupies the sun-baked region of the toe of Italy’s long and narrow boot-shaped peninsula. Three mountain ranges, as well as lower reaches, define the terroir. The lower areas are mainly agricultural, rich in vineyards and citrus fruit orchards. The erratic behavior of the Tyrrenian Sea can bring heavy rainfall on the western slopes while hot air from Africa makes the east coast warm and dry.

As in other areas of southern Italy and Sicily, many cultures influenced Calabria including Greek, Arab, Norman, and Austrian. It is one of the least tourist-developed
regions in Italy, though Cosenza has much interesting art and architecture, with a seaside and skiing also attracting visitors. It is hampered by corruption, tax evasion and organized crime run by the local Mafia.

Calabria boasts Italy’s second highest number of organic farmers after Sicily. The olive tree represents about 70% of tree crops. The Bergamot orange has been intensively cultivated since the 18th century exclusively on the coast, and Bergamotessence is the best quality in the world. Calabria is also the largest producer of Porcini mushrooms in Italy.

Some vineyards in Calabria have origins dating back 3000 years to the ancient Greek colonists. Important grape varieties are the red Gaglioppo and white Greco. Over 90% of the region’s wine production is red, with Ciro in the calciferous eastern foothills being the most noted DOC. The mostly full-bodied and tannic wines were offered to ancient Olympic winners. The DOC of Greco Bianco is one of the few predominant white wine regions in Calabria. The area produces mostly sweet dessert wine that has an alcohol content of at least 17%, and is characterized by deep amber color and aromas of citrus and herbs.

Librandi Gravello 2016, a blend of Gallioppo and Cabernet Sauvignon is rich and intense. Medium bodied with smooth tannins, it works well with meat ragus and cheese.

We found the wines of the Mezzogiorno at the 2019 San Francisco Gambero Rosso to be quite rewarding. We look forward to enjoying them with the foods of the region on our trip and to visiting several vineyards. Cin cin!

Vic and Karin Cordell