Legacy of the First Cult Wine

Wines that dedicated enthusiasts are willing to pay large sums of money for are often called “cult wines”. Some examples are Screaming Eagle from California and Penfold’s Grange from Australia.

Perhaps the first cult wine in the world was something popular in ancient Rome called Falernian wine. It’s mentioned frequently in Roman writings. In the ruins of ancient Pompeii there is a price list written on the wall of a bar that reads:

“You can get a drink here for only one coin. You can drink better wine for two coins. You can drink Falernian for four coins.”

One of the main grapes used to make Falernian wine is generally believed to be the one that we call Aglianico today.

Aglianico is a thick-skinned black grape that grows best in the dry sunny climates of southern Italy. It buds early and ripens late so it needs a long growing season. It likes high altitudes and volcanic soils, exactly in the conditions prevalent in the region of Taurasi, the first DOCG appellation for the grape. (There are now two other DOCGs and one DOC that make wines from the Aglianico grape.)

Also called the ‘Barolo of the south’, Taurasi wines tends to be full-bodied wines with large structure. They are usually an almost opaque ruby color with hints of purple. Powerful with refinement, they can be a bit overwhelming when young but mellow as they age.

One of the wines I represent is a 2011 Taurasi from Cantine Catena, and it fits this description pretty well. It presents cherry aromas with hints of spice. The promise of the nose is delivered on the palate with cherry and jam flavors followed by a bit of clove and a touch of toasted wood. A young wine, this Taurasi is very fruit forward with pronounced tannins now. An hour or two in a decanter opens it up, revealing the underlying structure and complexity that promises to develop as it ages.

Even the Romans knew about Anglianico’s great aging potential. Falernian wine was typically aged for 15 to 20 years. Roman historian Pliny recorded that a Falernian from 121 B.C. was served at a banquet in 60 B.C. honoring Julius Caesar’s conquests in Spain, some 61 years of aging!

The Challenge of Italian Wine

Italy has the world’s richest variety of individual wine styles, distinctive terroirs, and indigenous grape varieties.

– Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in The World Atlas of Wine.

No matter what individual taste preferences are, there is an Italian wine for every wine drinker. However, learning to navigate the Italian wine landscape can be a distinct challenge.

Europe’s appellation based wine laws can be confusing enough for U.S. consumers, but Italy raises the difficulty to another level. Unlike other countries where the appellations are based on geographic location or terroir, the Italian system defines regions in terms of the end product. A single vineyard can potentially be regulated under several different appellations in Italian law; the actual rules applied will depend on the final wine produced.

Then there are the more than 350 different varieties of grape approved for use under Italian wine law (as compared to just over 60 varieties in France)! That’s just for the DOC and DOCG wines. Another 500+ varieties of grape have been documented in Italy and some claim there are at least 1,000 more beyond that!

Add winemaking processes such as appassimento and ripasso, which are used more widely in Italy than anywhere else in the world. Finally, factor in the exciting things happening under Italy’s IGT classifications (Super Tuscans, for example), and the result is a stunning diversity of wines that capture thousands of years of winemaking history.

So… the question becomes how to navigate such a complex landscape?

The answer, of course, is to start with the grapes. Though there are hundreds of varieties grown in Italy, the list of important ones is much shorter. Since Italian appellations are tied to the end product, knowing the varietals used provides a frame of reference for learning the regions. From there it is just a matter of learning the relationships.

And don’t forget the good part– the best way to learn is by tasting!