My only visit to Vulture, home of one of southern Italy’s most distinguished reds, is memorable for all the wrong reasons. I’d arranged to meet one of the area’s best producers at a petrol station, where my Puglian driver would hand me over, Checkpoint Charlie-like, to the bloke who would show me around neighbouring Basilicata. The winemaker turned up drunk. As we sped through steep vineyards at 60mph, my head kept hitting the roof of his van.
That was only the start. My guide decided that we should taste in the front room of his house, where his wife sat glowering in the corner. ‘My husband has another woman,’ she told me as I sat down in front of a row of glasses. ‘My wife is fat,’ spat the producer in response. The bickering got worse. Tasting in silence, I checked the exits in case they started braining one another with spittoons.
The experience coloured my view of the place and the local wine, Aglianico del Vulture, and I haven’t been back since. It’s always amused me that on the site of an extinct volcano, I witnessed an eruption of a very different kind. But in the last few months, I’ve had a series of Aglianicos that have changed my perception. Instead of conflict, there has been harmony and balance. Italian friends have always told me that Aglianico is ‘the Nebbiolo of the south’, a variety that deserves to be considered among Italy’s best. Finally, I am beginning to agree with them.
Why isn’t Aglianico as well known as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Corvina? The answer is that, in Vulture, 50% of the Aglianico is still sold off in bulk, according to the Italian journalist Marco Sabellico. Where does it go, I asked him at an Aglianico seminar in London recently. ‘No one knows,’ he replied, shoulders touching his ears. My guess is that it’s shipped to northern Italy to bolster thin wines in poor vintages.