Sunday, November 12, 2017

Basilicata - Divining the Future of Italian Wine in a Place that Time Forgot

If you could find a window into a world, where time hasn't moved so rapidly, where things are like they were a year, five or even 50 years ago, would you climb up and through it? And if so what would you expect to find?

Basilicata is one of those places on the wine trail in Italy that has kept some of the old ways, not discarding them for the latest iPhone or Windows upgrade. There’s something about the ancient in this place that has rooted, moored and isn’t going away anytime soon. And that’s a very good thing for Italian wine lovers.

Aglianico pioneer Donato D'Angelo

You might ask why? Weren’t all Italian wines pretty awful? Weren’t those insipid Frascati’s that littered the tables of trattorias across Rome nothing to be remembered? Fifty years ago, wasn’t Brunello and Barolo a hit-or-miss kind of proposition? And Soave? And Lambrusco? And…and…and?

Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Guilty on all accounts. But that was then. And now, technology, and global communication, has brought Italy up to speed in relation to the rest of the wine (read: France and Napa Valley) world. Are we feeling blessed yet?

Back to Basilicata. It’s soooo out of the way. There’s little or no beaches, so the young affluent winemaking millennials from the north aren’t constantly posting incredible pictures on their Instagram feeds. The mountains are all volcanos, and most of them aren’t as exciting as Etna. And they only make a couple of different wines. And only one of them is really that interesting to the outside world. Oh, really? Let’s talk about that.

The two varieties most people associate with Basilicata are Aglianico and Malvasia Bianca. Malvasia Bianca, are you kidding me? Not Fiano? Not Greco? Not Primitivo? No, this is not Campania, nor is it Puglia. Basilicata, for those who don’t know, was an isolated region, due to natural and social obstacles. Natural, because there are mountains and rivers and rough terrain, which before the onslaught of modernity, kept the region separated from the regions to the north. And socially, because, even when the trains started coming down to the south, Basilicata wasn’t as convenient as the coastal pathways. And again, the mountains, the rivers, and the rough terrain. Nowadays, that might still be seen as an obstruction towards better communication with the other regions, but some Lucanians (what people from Basilicata are known as) feel that it has protected important components of their historical legacy. And for those in the wine game, looking for unfettered and unadulterated, the wines of Basilicata offer hope. Yes, you will find Pinot Noir (and there is an historical reason for that) and you will find outliers like Muller-Thurgau and Traminer Aromatico. And yes, Cabernet and Merlot are planted there, but none of these have really taken root within a larger cultural milieu. And even Malvasia Bianca is recently rejuvenated from the sidelines, thanks to people like Ian D’Agata and his calm, steady assurance (and insistence) that there is a reason for the locals to replant and propagate that vine in Basilicata (more on this in another upcoming post).

But Aglianico is the king here. Maybe even more so than Nebbiolo is in Piedmont or Sangiovese in Tuscany. Aglianico has moored to this region in a way that causes nearby Campania a little jealousy, in terms of such a focused effort on bringing out the best many winemakers are exerting here, in this psychologically isolated region.

Basilicata is a little like the Hopi land in America. Lots of history, some great empires have passed through here, some even coming from here. But over time, much has been covered over by the drifting sands of time (or lava). But, they are still there, deep inside the caves and lakes and the dormant volcanoes that dot the land. They’re still churning, still flowing, still rumbling, just not to the average observer. It’s a revolution of a thousand years, not a generation. And the red wine that comes out of Basilicata, that chapter has yet to be written. Claims like, “The 2030 Aglianico, after 50 years, is a wine to rival the greatest Hermitages and Barolos of the 20th century, rich, sublime, lengthy, like a Beethoven symphony written 200 years after his death.” are coming. We may not see it, but our mortality (or blindness) won’t stop it from moving through history with purpose.

At this point one might gather that I like this wine. And I do. But I realize what I am seeing now, and tasting, even going back 30 years, is like a watching a preview. We’re not getting the whole picture. Yet.

Great, another reason to lament one’s mortality. Not being able to taste that great 2030 Aglianico del Vulture in the year 2080. But, there are people on this earth today who will experience it, and with many young Lucanians coming back to their region (after spending several years in a cramped, noisy, hot apartment in Rome or Milan) trying to make their way out in the world, and are coming back and holding out their hand for the baton to be passed to them. They are running towards, not away from, their fate, under the complicit watch of the Moirae.

Random Notes:
 Tenuta Le Querce in 2005 (top) and (bottom) 2017
2005 Tenuta Le Querce “Vigna della Corona” Aglianico del Vulture – First visited the estate during the harvest of 2005, so it was a reunion of sorts. Well integrated after twelve years (in the tank it was a monster!). The wines of Le Querce are big with a granularity to the texture that can be overwhelming. But it seems everything this winery does is for the long haul (*Note – in case of thermonuclear war, I want to be ensconced inside their underground bunker – much better wine than NORAD). Loads of fruit, intense, but as I mentioned, after some time the wine has mellowed out and the balance is there. My only complaint is the enormously heavy bottle (someone could get killed if that thing fell on their head).

Michele LaLuce
2007 Azienda Agricola Michele LaLuce “Le Drude” Aglianico del Vulture – well integrated fruit and wood, Nutty (tannins remining me of green pecans – Inotherwords, fruit, rather than oak, tannins) really mellowed out nicely in 10 years.

Michele Laluce and his daughter Maddalena, who was formally trained as a winemaker, are part of this “return to home” surge that I mentioned above. A small, almost rustic winery (they also keep donkeys, so they are now endeared to me for all time) and appear to be a small-batch winery in evolution. Less small oak ageing, more emphasis on fruit and fruit tannins. Higher acidity, the wines don’t show in their youth with so much bombast. But these are big wines needing time.

Ruggiero Potiti
2012 Tenuta I Gelsi Aglianico del Vulture DOCG – from 60-year-old vines and a good vintage, though still young. Tannins are healthy, fruit is too. This is a good workhorse wine from a winery that makes a lot of different products, from sparkling to white to rose’ wines, a full range of red wines, Igt to DOCG and grappa. Olive oil too. Nothing is wasted. Like a beehive, and a company that understands a little bit about the outside world of wine and how to project themselves to that world. Good, solid wines and great values. Young winemaker Ruggiero Potiti is, in my opinion, one to watch. Good things coming from here.

A special note of thanks to Ian D’Agata and the folks at Collisioni Progetto Vino for organizing a “full immersion” into Basilicata. That would be 12 wineries in two days. More on this trip to come. This is part I.

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