Thursday, June 16, 2011

Calabria: Wild at Heart

Unbridled in ways I had never imagined. Verdant and abundant, dripping with the stuff of life. If the gods ever stepped down from Olympus and they didn’t go directly to Athens, they headed to Calabria. Anyone who has ever stumbled into this region know Calabria is full of the raw material that makes life and the life of plants, grapes, eggplants, tomatoes, garlic, squash, you name it, this is the place to be.

And so it was the first time I arrived to this place, to Cosenza, from which I would fan out and explore the wild heart of Italy.

Where Sicily is philosophical, Calabria is emotional. When Sicily inspires with words, Calabria draws me out with music and dance. Sicily is where I look for strategy, for planning, for the chess game. Calabria for the dance in the darkness across the fiery coals.

John Muir knew about it, so did the Greek poet Sappho, that feeling of freedom one gets when walking in the wilderness. It’s as if one were uncloaked by Nature, no guile, no deception. Only awareness and if lucky, survival. Here in this place the grapes have forged a wild history. And here is where the history of the grape is untouched by modernity and process other than the natural course of evolution.

It’s amazing that over the course of several thousands of years humankind can change so rapidly. Of course one can go into the jungles of New Guinea and find tribes unchanged for all time. Here in the hills above Cosenza, wild grape vines hide from the agri-salesman, looking to sell new varieties of Moscato, or Greco or in years to come, Cabernet. But the ancient grapes and the souls that care for them are cleverer than the Taliban. They are after all, Calabrese, the wild ones.

To the Italian from North of Rome, it looks uncivilized rather than untamed. Some like to call it Saudi Calabria, mocking both the South and Arabia? I don’t know what the end game to that is, except for maybe the usual – fear of the unknown – fear of change – apprehension over something different.

My grandmother and grandfather spoke different languages, she from the North of Calabria, Cosenza, spoke the Costentino-Neopolitan dialect; he from Reggio spoke something closer to Sicilian dialect. How could one from Trieste or Spoleto begin to understand the Calabrese when they struggled among themselves?

Bottom line on this first immersion into Calabria – Country folk, not always book learned. Intuitive and a little superstitious. Very tied to their place and living in the earth, not on it. Tribally oriented, with a well developed gusto for food, especially vegetables. Wine- the tastes ran more towards simple flavors, not overly alcoholic, unless a dessert wine was involved. Reds, whites, little rosĂ© (then) and very little intervention in the winemaking process. Oak? Economic conditions prevented that, thankfully. As well, the revolution in winemaking that started in the early 1980’s in Northern Italy didn’t quite make it to Calabria so fast. Perhaps the Calabrese weren’t traveling to Napa as frequently. Maybe because of that there still is the memory of simpler winemaking styles and there is a teeming interest in the wines made in the old ways, something which is quite fashionable now in the North. Funny isn’t it? The South is often derided for their backward ways, but then those ways are preserved and revived in areas when technology and wealth and intellectual curiosity find a need for simpler expressions. Something which the South intuitively kept back in those hills, protected from modernity and the march of progress. Silly, secretive, superstitious Southerners, indeed.

So, come with me for a bit while I dance about the bonfire of memories, dreams and reflections, over the Calabria that changed my life and brought me into wine and a pursuit, and a path, that I took and am still on. Long live the untameable!

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