Aglianico from the Old World and the New: Campania vs Paso Robles (#ItalianFWT)

Jeff from FoodWineClick hosts the Italian Food Wine & Travel group this month, and he’s taking us on an Aglianico Adventure. You can read his invitation post, which includes a detailed back story on the grape here. And at the bottom of this post, you’ll find more info on our group, as well as links to all the other bloggers’ posts.

Sometimes referred to as the Nebbiolo of Southern Italy, Aglianico has made a name for itself in the mountainous regions of Campania and Basilicata. But it’s grown elsewhere, too, with patches planted in Australia and California. How do the wines compare? Let’s find out!

Bottles and Glasses Line Up
Old world vs new. Notice my high-tech method for marking the glasses? Worked great, BTW!

Digging into a “New” Variety 

Aglianico is hardly new, considering that it’s been grown for thousands of years. Evidence suggests that it first emerged in the fields around Cumae, a Greek colony on the outskirts of present-day Avellino, in Campania. Current strongholds are the vineyards of Taurasi and Taburno in Campania, as well as the area around Mount Vulture in Basilicata, all of which boast the volcanic soils Aglianico prefers.

While it buds early, it ripens rather leisurely, with harvest often taking place as late as November. This long, slow process ensures that the tannins ripen along with the sugars, ensuring a balanced wine with the potential to age well.

The Table All Together
Aglianico Extravaganza! Hope to do it again soon.

 

Typical Aglianico will stain your glass (as well as your teeth) with its deep purple-black color. It is highly aromatic, tickling your nose with notes of plum, chocolate, and spice. On the palate you will notice strong tannins, high acidity, and a similar fruit/spice profile. Young versions can be a little rough, if you’re not a fan of tannin. Aged versions, however, with their exquisite balance between fruit and spice, tannin and acidity, send old-world palates into a swoon.

That said, there are some producers who are crafting their Aglianico wines in a style that is more approachable when young. Not long ago, I attended a luncheon featuring the wines of Donnachiara in Irpinia, an area near Avellino. We tasted several youthful Aglianicos, and each one was very enjoyable. You can read more about them here.

As a perpetual wine student, I’ve tasted my share of Aglianico. But that’s different from buying it on a regular basis, pairing it with food, and enjoying it over a few hours’ time. So, this was my first experience as a deliberate Aglianico consumer. (Thanks, Jeff, for the topic this month!)

I chose to compare two different versions of the grape: one grown in Campania, in the ancient soils of Paestum; the other grown in sunny California – Paso Robles to be exact – and vinified in Sonoma County. I figured they would offer me wildly divergent Aglianico experiences.

Wine #1: 2015 Azienda Agricola San Salvatore Jungano IGP Paestum Aglianico (14.5% abv; $30.99 retail)

About San Salvatore

I love the story of this winery! It’s organic and employs some biodynamic techniques, including the use of local water buffalo to make fertilizer for the vines. Located in Cilento National Park, just south of Naples, San Salvatore is surrounded by orchards, olive groves, and natural forests. Much of the electricity for the property is generated by solar panels, making great use of the sunny days along the Campanian coast.

Aside from producing wine, San Salvatore is famous for its authentic mozzarella di bufala, just another way the 450 water buffalo on site contribute to the greater good. Here is a short video highlighting the natural beauty of the vineyards and their denizens. And take a closer look at the bottle shot below: that’s a drawing of one of the water buffalo gracing the label.  (If you’re interested in learning about the white wines made by San Salvatore, click here for a post I wrote last year.)

The 2015 Aglianico was grown on south/southwest-facing slopes between 150 and 210 meters above sea level. Soils are calcareous clay, with a distinct mineral component. The wine was fermented in stainless steel under temperature control, and was aged for 12 months in 40% new oak tonneaux, 40% second- and third-use barrels, and 20% stainless steel. Before release, it spent an additional eight months in bottle.

San Salvatore Aglianico Bottle Shot
That’s Lucky, the lucky buffalo, mascot of San Salvatore!

Tasting Notes

Color: Deep, dense purple. It’s almost black.

Nose: Black cherry, blackberry, plum, mocha, vanilla, along with some earthy notes that remind me of a fresh-tilled garden. On day two, there was a sweet, slightly herbaceous element that emerged. Not grassy, but leafy and bright. I’ve probably used the wrong descriptors here but, whatever the source, I was totally intrigued by the beautiful aroma.

Palate: Tons of black fruit and spice – clove and cinnamon, I think – followed by damp earth, wet stones, and a touch of vanilla. Tannins are strong but not out of balance, and acidity is medium+. Day two saw this wine open a bit, tannins slightly softened, the fruit flavors giving way to more of the secondary components.

Pairing: Served with penne topped with a quick sauce of tomato and spicy Italian sausage, this wine was perfectly lovely. I imagine it would also make a splendid partner with long-braised beef or oxtail. Note to self, for the next time.

Ryme Aglianico Bottle Shot

Wine #2: 2012 Ryme Cellars Luna Matta Vineyard Paso Robles Aglianico (abv 14.5%; $44.99 retail)

About Ryme Cellars

Ryan and Megan Glaab met in Australia, when they both worked as field hands at Torbreck in Barossa Valley. In 2007 they decided to establish their own winery, which would be the ultimate synthesis of their old-world sensibilities and their love for California’s sunshine and unique terroir. They source grapes from the best vineyards throughout the state, and produce their wines at local Wind Gap Winery.

Aglianico was their first love, and it remains a major focus for them. These days they make several versions, including a passito style wine and a rosé. The Ryme Cellars portfolio also features Vermentino, Ribolla Gialla, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Carignan, all made with a nod to the old world, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which pay homage to the local wines of Sonoma County. These wines are bottled under the Verse label.

They have a soft spot for wines with lots of tannin and acidity, two keys to ageability in wine. What I love most about their approach, though, is this:

“When it comes to wine, we value idiosyncrasy over sameness.”

Megan and Ryan explain their winemaking philosophy this way: It’s about making “honest and expressive wines exhibiting characteristics of the variety and place from which it comes.” Putting theory into practice, all vineyards from which they source grapes are farmed organically or sustainably, and they use no cultured yeasts or enzymes. They also eschew fining and filtration, and leave temperature control to nature. Oak influence is minimal: only used French barriques between two and ten years old are used. The Glaabs want their wines to be “encouraged, never controlled.”

The 2012 Aglianico comes from a certified organic vineyard on the west side of Paso Robles, where this late-ripening grape adores the long, hot sunny days. Grapes were harvested in mid-October, then were foot-crushed, and fermented without destemming or inoculation. After, they were pressed into neutral barriques and left for three years with no racking.

Tasting Notes

Color: Dark purple at the center, with glints of ruby at the rim.

Nose: So aromatic! Pronounced notes of red and black fruit, along with smoky notes and a distinct floral/leafy element that is intoxicating. After a day, the earthier elements come through. As with the first wine, the leafy notes are stronger the second day, and I am determined to find out the correct terminology for this aroma. Both wines had it, and it has made me an Aglianico Aficionado. It’s official.

Palate: Sweet black fruit, subtle vanilla notes, damp earth. There’s a long finish, with baking spices, grilled meat, and black cherry cola. Tannins are smooth, much more fine-grained than in the first wine, and I realize that I really dig the little bite they’re giving me as I take a sip.  On day two, there are additional notes of sweet cocoa, toast, and caramel.

Pairing: We tasted this wine with the spicy sausage pasta and vegetables mentioned above. High marks all around, especially for the way this big wine played well with the fennel in the sauce. For both wines, acidity was the key to working with the tomatoes.

 

Penne with Spicy Sausage and Vegetables
Fennel, onion, tomato, and spicy Italian sausage made a fine match for the Aglianico.

Conclusion

I guess I was expecting there to be a more obvious difference between these two wines, especially considering their different origins. And, to be honest, I’ve tasted a few California Aglianicos which left me uninspired. But what I found, at least with these two bottles, was that they shared more qualities than they didn’t. Perhaps the take-away is that both of these wines were made with an eye toward varietal integrity: each one was an honest example of Aglianico’s best traits. The Ryme was a little softer, a little more fruit-driven, but that’s to be expected when you consider where it comes from.

In the end, though, my biggest lesson was that I’m now an avid fan of Aglianico wines. There’s just something about that mélange of black fruit, spice, dirt, and tannin that leaves me wanting another glass. Cheers to that!

Italian Food Wine & Travel Group

On the first Saturday of each month, this group of Italian wine lovers meets virtually on Twitter to discuss our experimentation with that month’s topic. We share wine-pairing tips, travel recommendations, and tasting notes, and we have a great time doing it! Would you like to join us? Here’s how:

This Saturday, March 3rd at 11 am ET, search for us on Twitter using the hashtag #ItalianFWT. You can follow the conversation and even add your two cents’ worth. We’d love to hear from you! Just remember to use #ItalianFWT.

Here’s what the members will be sharing this month:

18 comments

  1. I was captivated reading through your tasting notes, finding myself saying “ah-ha, yes got a little of that too”, referring to the one I tasted. Those leafy notes- hope you’ll share the correct terminology?!? Thanks for an enjoyable, educational article. It makes me want to find several Aglianico to taste!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Lynn. I really enjoyed our exploration of Aglianico this month, and I hope to sample more of it soon! And, yes, if I can track down the correct descriptor for that “leafy” note, I’ll let you know. I might need to try a few more bottles to finish my research. 🙂

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  3. I love water buffalo – I’ve learned about them from researching about a herd in Sonoma.

    How fun to have a ‘shootout’ – anything where we get to size up a couple bottles sounds good to me!

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never been there, but would love to visit. Interesting thing about this wine is that the grapes were grown in Paso but the wine was made in Sonoma. And the Aglianico was very true to its Italian roots. I loved that! Thanks for stopping by to comment – hope you’re feeling better.

      Like

  4. What a great idea to compare an Italian and a California Aglianico. Interesting that they proved to more similar than different. It seems staying true to “varietal integrity” is a growing trend in winemaking and letting the vineyard environment determine the wine’s unique characteristics.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was surprised, too. My original plan was to compare a bottle from Campania with one from Basilicata, but the wine shop ran out of the latter. I think it worked out for the best though: now I know about a CA winery that makes not just Aglianico, but Vermentino and Ribolla Gialla as well!

      Like

  5. I loved that you compared two wines from the same grape, but from vastly different parts of the world. I was doubly excited to see that Ryme is producing Aglianico right here in California. I’m on the hunt now!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I really need to try this version from Ryme! Have you tried their Uphold line? There’s a white, rosé, and a red — all $15–and they donate the profits to charities. The red is from Aglianico as well (if I’m not mistaken), but a lighter style. So intrigued to try this version too! Great idea to compare the two and love the backstory on the Italian version — also I now want some cheese.

    Liked by 1 person

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