Sunday, May 22, 2016

Aglianico’s Ashes - Stockpiling old wine for a new generation

Pity the poor Aglianico vine, set within the shadow of a volcano whose better days are lost somewhere in the dustbin of geology. Imprisoned in a land that missed out on most of Italy’s post-WWII economic growth in the last 70 years. Save for a few points of light, Aglianico in Basilicata is stuck in a time trap, unable to move fast enough to keep up with Barolo or Brunello and eclipsed by a much sexier (and more violently vibrant) Sicilian volcano and her wines. It’s not a good time to be an Aglianico. But it’s a great time for the collector.

In reviewing Ian D’Agata’s groundbreaking book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy (University of California Press) Bruce Sanderson of the Wine Spectator drives a wooden stake in the heart of the claim that Aglianico is the Barolo of the South. Noting in the review, “He lists Aglianico as one of the world's dozen or so great red grapes, arguing that because Aglianico is similar to Nebbiolo-based Barolo, its quality is comparable. Aglianico is certainly capable of making great wines, but I wouldn't put it at the same level as Nebbiolo—at least not yet and not solely because of its similarities to Piedmont's star variety.”

At a tasting last week, of Southern Italian wines, I made a mental note (for the umpteenth time) that the Aglianico from Basilicata we tasted was dark, brooding, fruity, massive and intense. In no way did it resemble Nebbiolo. It was too dark. It was too full. It bore no resemblance. But it was magnificent, nonetheless.

So, why does Aglianico get little or no respect from the Nebbiolisti or the Etna-crazed somm-set? Why do collectors of Barolo or Bordeaux, Napa Cult Cabernet or Burgundy spurn this Southern beauty?

While writing an article of collecting Southern Italian wine, I tried to dig into what I believe is an obvious misstep for young collectors for whom wines like First Growths and Grand Crus (from Burgundy or the Langhe) are untouchable. I know why the established collectors don’t go south for the wine – it’s not dear enough for them. They are looking for rare (and unspeakably expensive) bottles that offer high status among wine aficionados. A collectable Aglianico, let’s say a 2007 or 2008 Terre degli Svevi Re Manfredi 'Serpara' Aglianico del Vulture, can be had for about US $500 for a case of 12. That’s less than a bottle of anything from Romanée Conti or Le Pin. Conceivably, for the less status-conscious collector, it could offer great pleasure over a span of 20-40 years if properly cellared and rationed judiciously over the years.

Part of the problem is that there isn’t much literature (save for the anecdotal kind) about the ageablity of Aglianico. The oldest I have had (from Basilicata) was 25 years. It was from the 1990 vintage and I’d saved it in my little wine closet since I’d gotten it. It was a special selection and I wish I had put a few more in the closet.

Maybe there is a cache of old wine waiting out time, somewhere in Rionero, to prove to the world that Aglianico from the shadow Mt. Vulture can and does aspire to the same heights of aged pleasure as does its very distant cousin from Piedmont.

I love the wine. Simple as that. I know it ages well. It is something I was able to afford when I was young and broke. And it will still be something I can afford when they kick me off the stage and I’m living off the dole. The only problem is time. I don’t have 50 years to wait for the wines to slumber and finally awaken.

But if you’re 30, or even 40, this might be a wine to look into collecting. At this time I believe it will age better than most of the Etna Rosso wines I have had. I’ll be heading to Etna in a week for a “full immersion” experience and I hope to find out if I am wrong (I hope I am). But even if Etna ages for the ages, can one not find room in their wine room to stash away some Aglianico?

I suggest you do before young collectors in Singapore or Copenhagen corner the market. Not that there is going to be a land-rush frenzy for all the amazing Aglianico del Vulture that is filling up the Paleolithic sassi near Rionero in Vulture. For sure, there is a little bit of hoarding done by the locals. They know what a treasure their wine is. But they aren’t looking to get wealthy in monetary terms. They’re just waiting it out, as they know they must, in order for the wine to be ready.

How I’d love to someday see a stockpile of Aglianico from the 1940’s, 50’s or 60’s. I know it exists somewhere. Hopefully it isn’t waiting for some fancy wine reviewer to write about a most wonderful night with 20 of the most influential (and willing to pay a high premium) enthusiasts . My sense is the local people don’t care about that kind of exposure. But still it would be nice to somehow taste something that has aged for half a century and see if all the ancient writing about these wines was more than a dream or a wish.

In the meantime, I have a few bottles of Aglianico slumbering behind bottles of Barolo, waiting for their time to come out into the light. But not yet. Not now. There are still miles to go before we awaken the sleeper.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


kohstorage said...

How uncanny can this get. I just did a Taurasi session yesterday:

1. Mastroberardino's Radici Riserva 2006 (the one who inherited the name)
2. Terredora di Paolo (the one who inherited the land) Taurasi 2001

The 'land' edged out the 'name in this one. 15 years on and the tannins are still so brash. But the evident acids say alot about the elevation of the vineyards, and how well it balanced out the huge tannins.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for being an advocate and cheerleader for this beautiful grape :)

Kevin said...

I am pleased, albeit for purely selfish reasons, that Aglianico does not garner the same limelight as the Barolo's or Brunello's of the north!

It allows me to buy lovely wines here in Canada at a reasonable price point. Such as the 2009 Vinosia Taurasi Santandrea for less than C$35 a bottle. Personally, I stumbled upon Aglianico by accident about 18 months ago and can't seem to find enough of it. Unfortunately we do not get a wide selection imported into Canada, but I would like to see that change.


Unknown said...

My first Aglianico was a palate buster. In Matera, no less. A wow moment.

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