Italy may be best known for Sangiovese, the base grape of some of the country’s greatest wines, such as Chianti and Brunello. Rivaling Sangiovese is Nebbiolo, the fruit producing Barolo and Barbaresco. A third, lesser-known (at least, outside of Italy) yet just as supreme grape is Aglianico (ahl-YAHN-eh-koe).
Grown primarily in the southern part of Italy, it does best in hot climates and volcanic soils. The grape ripens late in the harvest, and if done right will produce wines that are inky black, with firm-to-huge tannins, and a powerful structure that benefits from 5-10 years or more of cellaring. Common characteristics of Aglianico wine include a smooth, rich, texture and aromas and flavors of black fruit, dark chocolate, coffee, leather, smoke, and mineral. In other words, pretty complex. While traditional / old-school Aglianico wines tend to be too harsh and bold when young, many wineries are employing modern techniques to produce examples that are ready to drink upon release.
Aglianico is an important grape in the Campania region, where it is the main ingredient in Taurasi. You may have never heard of Taurasi, but it is well worth picking up if you come across it. Aglianico also grows in the south-adjoining region of Basilicata, producing world-class wines called Aglianico del Vulture (don’t say it like the bird; it’s properly pronounced as vull-TORE-ay).
Why go through all the bother of hunting down these hard-to-find, impossible-to-say, unusual wines? Three reasons: first, the quality is just as good as (maybe better than) Italy’s best wines; second, many examples are enjoyable to drink right now (as opposed to sticking the wine in a cellar for 10 years); and third, you can find affordable bottles. Personally, I like the affordable part, especially when I’m staring at a shelf full of Barolos and Barbarescos that START at 80 bucks or more.
In fact, some outstanding Aglianicos can be had for about half that price. But before you plunk down a pair of twenties, you can taste an introductory example for less than 10 bucks: Ars Poetica “Vulcano” (review coming in a few days), which is ready to drink now with burgers and steaks. Other brands to look for include Tenuta le Querce, Sasso, Di Majo Norante, Terredora di Paolo, Cantina del Taburno, Feudi di San Gregorio, and Caputo.