Sunday, July 09, 2017

Back to the Basics in Basilicata

Americans still want to go to Italy – in fact more of them are going than ever before. And so I have been getting more than my share of queries from fellow travelers about what to see when they go to Italy. In most cases they are making the grand circle – Rome, Venice, Florence, maybe with Pisa thrown in, and if they are really packing every moment of their week (yes, 7 days!) with non-stop tourism, even the Amalfi Coast. Try as I do to encourage the hopeful visitors to pare down their stop to two (or one) I am usually not so successful. So, please feel free to cram it all in, with 90°+ F weather, and with all of the thousands of other folks, walking the hot, humid, streets of Rome, traversing the steamy, crowded alleys of Venice and enduring the long lines of Florence. After all, when you are finished, you will be rewarded with a hair-raising bus ride along the Amalfi Coast and deposited in an overpriced hotel room next to a window overlooking a fetid dumpster. You think it doesn’t happen? You just haven’t made all the mistakes I’ve made in my 50+ trips to Italy. But go ahead, don’t believe me – find out for yourself. Or…

…when you land in Rome, get yourself a car and drive to Basilicata. There will be tourists, but not so many. The weather in July (the warmest month), in Melfi, on average is 77° F. Sounding better? Sure, there is no expanse of seaside (plan on Puglia afterwards, if you need to). But if you want a taste of the Italy that hasn’t gone away, think about Basilicata. I can’t get enough of the place – for me, it ties into the sense of ancient and stays tethered to the continuum of time that many of us in the civilized world yearn to rediscover in our life.

Let’s talk about the wine. When wine lovers start talking about Italian wine, invariably someone brings up the subject of all the many different grapes and wines that come out of Italy. And often the subject veers into the chasm of confusion regarding those grapes and wines which bedevil so many people. And while I find those many wines to be interesting, even fun, like so many mountains to climb, I know it is a reason for why many people just give up and order the Pinot Grigio. Well, Basilicata has made it simple. Aglianico. That’s it. Red or rosé. You want a white wine? Of course, there are choices, from Fiano to Greco to Malvasia and even some unexpected grapes like Müller-Thurgau and Gewürztraminer. But 80% of wine in Basilicata is red. So, learn to love Aglianico.

Which is fine with me. I already do. Should you? Well, do you like Sangiovese? Nebbiolo? Nerello Mascalese? Pinot Noir? Cabernet Sauvignon? Syrah? Oh, you do? Then you must like red wine. Good, then you will like Aglianico. Simple, eh? Back to the basics, non e vero?

There are different styles, and as the younger generation is taking the lead in the climb to bring Basilicata and Aglianico back into recognition, the styles are evolving. Twenty years ago, oak and extraction were de rigueur. No one went to Basilicata; no one wrote about their wines, save for a few old diehards intent upon casting a light upon this isolated and remote region. A few winemakers sent up flares with their amped up Aglianicoa in hope of getting attention. Around 2000 the critics starting giving some of them high marks. Wineries like Cantine del Notaio, Elena Fucci, Feudi di San Gregorio, Paternoster, Tenuta La Querce and Terre degli Svevi.

Right about now, I know you’re trembling with anticipation that I might break out into a good old fashioned paragraph or two of wine reviews. Sorry to disappoint you. If you’d like those sorts of things, I’d refer you to Ian D’Agata, who produces brilliant notes about the wines of Basilicata, with pathos. Ian has the historian’s sense of time and perspective; it is my sense we share a similar crush for Basilicata. So mosey on over to Vinous and fill up your canteen.

I am climbing a different mountain, the one in my mind’s eye. There are volcanoes, there are hardships. It is cold, at times, brutally cold. And the wind blows mercilessly. And the snow flurries all but extinguish the flame in my heart for Aglianico. But they don’t. I keep trudging up the mountain, in my own time, searching for my Golden Fleece of a wine. I know it’s there, I’ve seen it.

But my interest isn’t just about the wine. And as time passes, wine is becoming more integrated ( and less singularly important) within a larger portrait of the world which draws me closer to it. It’s the stories.

I’m in one of those cities on the top of a hill, with caverns and grottoes. Ten minutes from the Basilicata border, so technically in Puglia. But, like nearby Matera, effectively Lucania (the ancient name for Basilicata). In one of the town squares, four older gentlemen sit, talking. It’s market day and farmers are bringing their fresh herbs and vegetables. For some reason, my impoverished Italian language skills get “better” in the south of Italy. I cannot resist going over to these four men and finding out what their story is. It’s a scene I saw and heard when I first came to Italy almost half a century ago. Then, the end of World War II was much nearer to the people in their memory. And the many bombed out towns were in the process of rebuilding. But the endless bureaucracy of Rome and the leaky coffers of Southern Italy, often saw the money go to other places. Bridges to nowhere. Or lavish palaces on some rocky promontory overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

All this to say, while some problems haven’t been totally solved and some things, in the political arena, never seem to change, time does take all of us up (or down) the mountain. And these four fellows, in their late 80’s and 90’s, had seen Italy during an historic epoch that rivals the Renaissance or Imperial Rome - The Modern Age. Many observers fear the Modern Age, with ultra-communications and ease of movement, has caused a landslide in the rural, ancient, rustic, traditional parts of Italy. I often hear, “The internet has destroyed the particularity of Italy.” I don’t think so. Like a stone that has been etched over and over again, the impressions commix, but the tabula rasa is there, intact. A few iPhones cannot destroy it in ten years.

The old men, they were brilliant. Old, yes. But also very young at heart, like men who had been liberated from the bonds of testosterone and machismo. And they were. Fundamental. Basic. And for this outsider, they gave me hope that what makes Italy great has not disappeared. It might be wearing a few more tattoos or tighter pants, but that is ephemeral.

I want to go back to Basilicata. And when you get tired of clawing your way through Rome and Venice and Florence and want to see the timeless and immovable mountain that Italy is, join me.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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