DOWN in the vineyards of Italy's deep south, things are beginning to stir. With each successive vintage comes a growing buzz of excitement, as top producers manage to express a little more of the region's undoubted potential. From native grapes and imported varieties, better wines than ever before are now being made.
Over the past five years the south has proved itself as a source of popular, easy-going wines for the high street. But, no doubt fired up by such success, southern ambition doesn't stop there. Determined to capture the middle ground, a second wave of wines from Puglia, Sicily and the rest of the Mezzogiorno is on its way.
It must be admitted that this striving for quality is not universal. Large swathes of the south seem to be as deep into siesta as ever. For decades, with one or two notable exceptions, the wine industry has been geared to producing only bulk, sold to beef up wines made further north or as the base wine for vermouth. Some of it was produced solely to earn EU subsidies, and was then distilled and sold to the Far East as a substitute for petrol.
At this year's VinItaly, the Italian wine trade's annual jamboree, I bumped into Severino Garofano, one of the gurus of the southern Italian wine industry. Garofano makes wine for a whole string of private estates and co-operatives, and has been instrumental in weaning the region from bulk to bottle. In Puglia, he has succeeded with only a little over 2% of production, but that's still quite a few bottles from a region that produces in excess of one-third more wine than Australia.
Garofano is a devoted fan of Negroamaro, or bitter-black, the indigenous red grape from the Salento peninsula. This gives the leading DOC wines, Copertino and Salice Salentino, the whiff of old leather and a generous dollop of tangy, stewed fruit. Night-time breezes from the Adriatic help the vines recover from the heat of the day, and in the wines themselves a little Malvasia Nera is added to enrich the colour and perfume.
The mountainous vineyards of Basilicata are in another world. Clinging to an extinct volcano, they produce the region's only DOC wine - Aglianico del Vulture. Thanks partly to the height of the vineyards, 500-600m above sea level, this ancient red grape tends towards a softer wine, without Copertino's snap of spice. Among those to try are Paternoster (Enotria: 0181-961 4411) and D'Angelo (Alivini: 0181-880 2525).
Heading further west into Campania, Aglianico makes another star appearance in the DOC wine Taurasi, where Mastroberardino (Ciborio: 0181-578 4388) and Feudi di San Gregorio (Alivini) battle to produce the year's top wine. These two also make a couple of the finest native whites from around here - the gently floral Greco di Tufo and, with its faint trace of marzipan, Fiano di Avellino.
Down in Calabria, the pre-eminent red variety is Gaglioppo, vibrant, earthy and defiantly Mediterranean. All the best Gaglioppo comes from a small DOC zone called Cirï beside the Ionian sea, where producer Librandi leads the way.
With such an expanse of under-utilised grapes basking in such high levels of sunshine, it was only a matter of time before the south was "discovered". Here was a land free from the restrictive DOCs of northern Italy, where foreign pioneers could try out classic varieties and get to grips with the native vines.
In the past, the aromas and concentration of fruit in a Chardonnay, for example, would have simply evaporated in the heat of the vintage, when temperatures can reach 40ºC or more. Today, thanks to modern methods and equipment, wines as fat and luscious as anything from Australia can be produced.
For the moment, particularly in Puglia, the pioneers are helping to exploit the area's potential but, since most of their work is under contract for the big buyers, who are notoriously fickle, you could be forgiven for wondering how long they'll stay. Once the novelty wears off, or if ever North Africa gets its act together, how many of these wine mercenaries will be on the first plane to Morocco?
Across the Strait of Messina, Sicily is bristling with a new-found confidence, especially in its own, unique varieties. Of these, pride of place must go to Nero d'Avola, a most gorgeous red grape that deserves all the recognition it can get. Like Syrah, it can range from a simple fruity style to something of real class, with the scent and flavour of tobacco, earth and raspberry jam. It also works well in blends, with Sangiovese as in Settesoli's Bonera, and with Frappato and Nerello in Corvo's Terre d'Agala.
Two-thirds of Sicilian wine is white, and is surprisingly crisp for an island this far south. Of the indigenous varieties, a fresh, well-chilled Inzolia such as Rallo's Vesco or Donnafugata's Vigna di Gabri would make a fine addition to a summer wine list. Sometimes it's mixed with Chardonnay, though even a small amount tends to swamp the delicate Inzolia.
A happier marriage is Chardonnay and Grecanico, or with that old Marsala grape, Cataratto, but if you want maximum intensity of fruit and flavour then turn to Regaleali. From their high, central vineyards comes one of the smelliest Chardonnays this side of Alice Springs - it's certainly delicious, but quite what dish could stand up to it I'm really not sure.
And then, to finish the meal with a taste of orange blossom and honey, there's Moscato di Pantelleria from a little island that's closer to Tunisia than Sicily.
Almost overnight, the choice of wines from the south of Italy has boomed and, in terms of value, those in the mid-range are increasingly attractive compared to their northern cousins. Time will tell whether this second wave can seduce us all, but they deserve the chance to try. n