Italy’s 20 regions boast many beautiful wines and a host of delicious foods to accompany them. And, even if we’ve never set foot on Italian soil, most of us have become familiar with popular tourist destinations like Florence, Rome, Venice, and Milan. The more adventurous among us may have traveled to central Italy’s Adriatic coast, or perhaps to Piedmont in the far northwest. Maybe even to the island of Sicily. But I’d venture to say that few of us have touched down in the southern region of Calabria – the toe of Italy’s boot.
It’s a shame, really, because there is much to recommend it: with 500 miles of coastline, Calabria has more beaches than any other part of Italy. And with frontage along both the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas, natives enjoy the bounty of fresh seafood flooding into the markets each day. Calabrian chefs take advantage of that abundance, featuring swordfish and sardines on their menus, alongside the olives, peppers, and eggplant grown by local farmers. There is local wine, too, although much less is made here than in other Italian regions, and almost all of it is red. Compared to its neighbors Sicily and Puglia, Calabria barely appears on the radar screen of wine production. And, until recently, most of the wines made were unremarkable and earmarked for blending into bulk wines. But there are a few small areas that specialize in making respectable wines worthy of mention.
The most highly regarded wine production center in Calabria is the Cirò DOC, located in the far southeast of the region, directly across the Ionian Sea from Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. Calabria has no DOCGs. (For anyone who’d like a refresher on labeling laws in the EU and Italy, here’s a quick review: DOC is an Italian designation meaning Denominazione d’Origine Controllata. There is one higher designation, Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), the difference being slightly higher quality production standards for the latter. As far as EU labeling laws go, both DOC and DOCG would be covered under a classification called Denominazione d’Origine Protetta or DOP. That said, most Italian wineries producing DOC- or DOCG-level wine continue to use the Italian classification system.)
Wine regions are defined by the major grape varieties that comprise their wines. That is especially true in Italy, which has hundreds of native specimens that are grown virtually nowhere else. With a few exceptions (Trebbiano and Sangiovese come to mind) most indigenous varieties are associated with just one, or perhaps two regions. Calabria, which remains more rural, rustic, and isolated than regions farther north, is a case in point. Gaglioppo, its signature red grape, and Greco Bianco, its white counterpart, are practically synonymous with Calabria in general and the Cirò DOC in particular.
The Cirò DOC produces red, white, and rosato wines, based primarily on the aforementioned grapes. The reds and rosatos require a minimum of 80% Gaglioppo; the whites a minimum of 80% Greco Bianco. Under EU laws, that means they aren’t necessarily varietal wines, which would require a higher threshold of 85%. In total, there are eight types of wine made in the Cirò DOC. The regulations for each type are detailed in the table below:
Cirò DOC Requirements*
|Cirò Bianco||Min. 80% Greco Bianco; max. 20% other approved white varieties||11%||n/a|
|Cirò Rosato/Rosso||Min. 80% Gaglioppo; max. 20% other approved red varieties, including max. 10% combined Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, or Merlot.||12.5%||None for Rosato. Rosso may be released on June 1st after harvest.|
|Cirò Rosso Superiore||Same as for Rosso.||13.5%||Same as for Rosso.|
|Cirò Rosso Superiore Riserva||Same as for Rosso.||13.5%||Min. 2 years from January 1st after harvest.|
|Cirò Rosso Classico||Same as for Rosso but must come from Cirò and/or Cirò Marina zones.||12.5%||Same as for Rosso.|
|Cirò Rosso Classico Superiore||Same as for Rosso but must come from Cirò and/or Cirò Marina zones.||13.5%||Same as for Rosso.|
|Cirò Rosso Classico Superiore Riserva||Same as for Rosso but must come from Cirò and/or Cirò Marina zones.||13.5%||Min. 2 years from January 1st after harvest.|
* Data from GuildSomm/Court of Master Sommeliers
The Wines of Cirò DOC
The Gaglioppo grape gives rise to a pale red wine with glints of orange at the edge. It is notably aromatic, characterized by scents of rose petals, red berries, citrus, and herbs. Like many Italian varieties, Gaglioppo-based wines are naturally high in acidity, making them ideal partners with food. Cirò Rosso has noticeable tannins as well, making it a suitable accompaniment with meat dishes and strong cheeses. Proponents of the indigenous Gaglioppo grape have decried the inclusion of international varieties among the approved red grapes for the DOC. They complain that although including these grapes in the blend results in wines of deeper color, they tend to mask the beautiful fragrance unique to Gaglioppo. The counterargument comes from winemakers who want the freedom to experiment with non-traditional grape blends. They claim that wines made in the international style, with grapes like Cabernet or Merlot, appeal to a broader market, creating more opportunities for Calabrian winemakers. It appears to be yet another example of the age-old standoff, with those who embrace traditional methods clashing against those who want to shake up the status quo. Which side will prevail? Looking at places like Barolo, where a similar struggle has been waged for decades, or Tuscany, whose rebel winemakers used international grapes to create wines like Sassicaia and Tignanello, it’s apparent that there is room for wines reflecting both traditions.
If you’ve got a bottle of Cirò Rosso on hand and you like to cook, try it with a classic Calabrian pasta dish with nduja, the soft, spicy sausage mixed with local hot peppers. Because comparatively little Calabrian wine is made, you might have better luck ordering a bottle on line than finding one in your local wine shop. Notable producers to look for are Librandi, Santa Venere, San Francesco, Cote di Franze, and A’Vita. Many of these wineries also craft a so-called Super Calabrian blend that includes international varieties. Perhaps the most famous example of these wines is Val di Neto Rosso Gravello, a blend of 60% Gaglioppo and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, made by Librandi. With its Cabernet component exceeding the 10% allowed under DOC regulations, this wine and others like it are marketed under the IGT Calabria denomination.
Cirò Rosato, offering up many of the same aromatic and flavor markers as the Rosso, is slightly lighter in body and tannin, and makes an agreeable partner with grilled octopus, fried sardines, or mild cheeses.
Greco Bianco, the workhorse grape of Cirò Bianco wines, is entirely different from the Greco used to make the white wines of Campania. Both are believed to have originated with the Greeks, who had colonized southern Italy by 500 BC. As such, there are many grapes known as Greco throughout Italy. Greco Bianco from Calabria looks to be the same grape as Malvasia di Lipari, grown on the islands of the same name located just north of Sicily. It produces early-drinking, dry white wines redolent of citrus and peaches, with high acidity and a long finish with notes of bitter almond. In the southwest of Calabria, this grape reinvents itself in the passito-style dessert wines of the Greco di Bianco DOC.
If you’re looking for a wine to accompany grilled swordfish with capers and lemons, look no further than Cirò Bianco. The lemony acidity of the wine will accentuate the flavors of the fish and, quite possibly, let you imagine yourself dining al fresco on the Calabrian coast. Notable producers are Librandi, Santa Venere, and Cote di Franze.
Personal Tasting Notes
2013 Fattoria San Francesco Cirò Rosso Classico ($15.99 retail; 13% alcohol)
This wine of 100% Gaglioppo is a pale ruby red, fading to even paler garnet at the edge. Effusive aromas of cherry and red raspberry waft from the glass, followed by notes of thyme and vanilla. As it opens, a floral component emerges along with a hint of orange rind. A sip reveals blackberry and plum flavors and, on the finish, just a touch of black licorice. Acidity is medium-high, and tannins are noticeable but not overpowering. A lovely match for veal chops with roasted grapes.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick virtual trip to southern Italy. And I really hope it has piqued your curiosity about the wines of Calabria and the Cirò DOC. As we know, “undiscovered” wines tend to be relative bargains in the marketplace, making the extra effort to find them well worth the trouble. We also know that they don’t typically stay “undiscovered” for long. If you come across a bottle, do yourself a favor and give it a try. You can say you were in on the secret long before the bandwagon got rolling.