Map of Calabria

By Roberta Rinaldi, Beverly Hills Examiner Wine Writer. Vino California began its weeklong paean to Italian wine Tuesday with the trade seminar: Call to Calabria: Discovering Wines From the Toe of Italy’s Peninsula. Attendees were guided through a tasting by a trio of LA wine personalities: Anthony Dias Blue (Blue Lifestyle), Jonathan Mitchell (Locanda del Lago) and Piero Selvaggio (Valentino Restaurant Group). The seven wines poured left us longing for more.

Anthony Dias Blue started off the discussion with a brief history lesson. Ancient Greeks, known as Oenotrians (people from the land of vines), first brought viticulture to the area around the seventh century B.C. Their Cirò Bianco, from the greco bianco grape, may be the oldest wine in the world and remains the area’s most recognized white. Known as Kremissi, it was used by Olympic athletes to toast the Gods for their victories some 3,000 years ago. In the first century A.D., Pliny the Elder pronounced Cirò one of the world’s greatest wines.

Over time, the region fell from glory. Poverty, the phylloxera epidemic and devastation of vineyards during WWII were major factors in its decline. Until the last decade Calabria was known for not-so-good bulk wine used in blending, but is currently undergoing a renaissance. If the gems from our tasting are any indication, it will be quite a comeback.

Building on terroir and tradition vineyards are being cultivated with indigenous grapes, some of which, like greco bianco, have been brought back from near extinction. Customarily, aging is done in stainless steel or acacia casks and botti, preserving a sense of place. So far, few winemakers have caved in to the ubiquitous pressure to add international varieties and to age in new French oak barriques, practices that are creating a sad sameness in wines worldwide. Jonathan Mitchell underscored this point, “These wines are pure, not manipulated in the winery. They are true and unadulterated where it comes to varietal correctness.”

Remarking on the area’s turnaround, Piero Selvaggio said, “For the first time in the last five to ten years they are making some decent wine. Today is an exciting day, because so much is usually said about Tuscany and the wines of Northern Italy, but now there are small regions that are doing their part that will get better and better. As it happened in Sicily, four or five producers were the landmark that made the young generation develop with technology and with quality. Definitely there will be wines in the next three to four years that will be improved this way in Calabria.”

Each panelist mentioned the wines are rustic and can not yet be considered world-class. Still, those presented were balanced, well-crafted and captivating. Since they are relatively unknown outside Italy, they remain great bargains.

White wines:

Azienda Agricola Biologica Santa Venere White Cirò D.O.C., 2012. 100% greco bianco, organically grown and aged in stainless steel. Santa Venere is located in Cirò, the most widely known and highly respected of Calabria’s twelve D.O.C.s. A native Sicilian, Pierro Selvaggio, grew up separated from Calabria by the narrow Strait of Messina giving him an informed perspective on local cuisine. He noted, “This is a very crispy wine, a very fresh wine, with nice aromatics. I would go with a modern approach–a seafood carpaccio of swordfish or tuna, lightly marinated and flavored with some sea salt. And maybe, if you wanted to get a little piquant, a big influence in Calabrian cuisine is the peperoncino. Those little, tiny peppers are pretty aggressive, so if you want to have a great kick, sprinkle a little of those chilies on some carpaccio. I think this wine will stand up to it.”

Statti Mantonico IGT, 2010. 100% mantonico, aged four months in acacia casks and another four months in acacia botti. Brilliant green-gold. Richer than the greco bianco, showing fig, green tea and white grapefruit. A propos of food pairing, Selvaggio said, “This has a little more structure and elegance, so I would see a little bit more complex food, maybe spicy seafood pasta. When we think about the food of Calabria, pasta is a big, big part of it. Interesting enough, not artisanal pastas; these are mama-made pastas. They are fresh, simple pastas-little gnocchi and flat noodles.”

Cantine Viola Moscato Passito IGT, 2010. A blend (proportions unknown) of malvasia and guarnaccia. A lovely, refined dessert wine. Deep amber-gold. Aromas of honey and candied orange peel carry through on the palate, with notes of dried figs and dates. Bright acid. Selvaggio recommends it as a meditation wine, and with hard cookies or nougat.

Red wines:

Azienda Agricola Biologia Santa Venere Rosato, 2012. 100% gaglioppo, aged in stainless steel. The Sophia Vergara of rosés: lusty, voluptuous and bursting out of the glass with aromatics of passion fruit and figs. Bold flavors of cherry, raspberry, honeydew with a little funk on the long finish. Full-bodied, with bright acid and a sturdy tannic core. One of the most interesting, exotic rosés tasted to date. Vegetables, especially eggplant, play a large role in Calabrian cuisine. Selvaggio suggests eggplant parmigiana.

Le Moire SRL Mute D.O.C. Savuto, 2011. 45% magliocco dolce, 45% arvino and 10% greco nero. Stainless steel aged. A big, concentrated, chewy, spicy wine. Well-balanced with intense dark fruit. The perfect companion for Calabria’s salume, especially the native n’duja, a spicy, pork-based spreadable sausage.

Casa Vincola Criserà SRL Nerone di Calabria IGT, 2008. 70% nerello calabrese, 30% sangiovese, aged six months in oak barrels. The most tannic and robust wine of the day. Black cherry, leather and tobacco dominate the nose, joined by flavors of tomato and toasty almonds. Although a Northern Italian dish, Selvaggio proposed bollito misto would make a good match, as would sharp cheeses and roasted meats.

Vintripodi Scilla IGT, 2010. 50% malvasia nera, 40% nerello calabrese and 10% prunesta. Aged in chestnut barrels. Fresh, young and fruity with bright cherry, continuing with tobacco and black licorice on the palate. Traditionally served slightly chilled with tuna or swordfish alla Ghiotta, a preparation with onion, garlic, capers, green olives, tomatoes and raisins.

To learn more about Calabria’s D.O.C.s, climate and geology, see Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, or her more recent work: Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavors.