History says that the grape was brought to Italy by the Greeks as Hellenica around the sixth century BC. The Romans called it Ellenico and used it to improve the quality of the Falerno, a favorite wine of the poets of that time. In the 15th century under the Argons it was finally named Aglianico.
This grape variety is planted in two regions, Campania and Basilicata. Within these distinctive areas there are three production zones that have the highest tier Italian wine classification (DOCG) based on this grape: Aglianico del Taburno, Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture. Each region has a decidedly different expression of the wine, but the volcanic soils are what tie them all together.
Today Maschito in Basilicata is our destination; a community of 2000 people all the way down in the southern end of Italy, in the arch of the boot. We arrive from Puglia in the east and the scene dramatically changes, like the color of the soil, the small hidden hamlets we drive through, the vineyards and olive oil trees that surround these places, lots of mountains and hills and, in spite of the burning sun, surprisingly cooler temperatures.
Welcome to Basilicata, so sparsely populated with sturdy peoples of very old traditions. The winemaking and drinking traditions here pre-date Rome. One of the oldest and best wines made here is from the Aglianico grape and its name in this specific valley we are visiting is Aglianico del Vulture, produced in the zone of Monte Vulture on the slopes of a very extinct volcano that contributes to its very unique personality. In fact many call Vulture the “cradle of Aglianico”.
Here we meet two brothers that represent Aglianico at its best and have it in their blood, Carmine and Michele De Leonardis seem like twins. They were actually born in the same year, and together they carry on their family tradition of farmers that invested in the land and in their home territory.
As Michele walks through the vineyards that have turned so golden and red, he tells me that he used to live and work in Milan, in his uncle’s restaurant, as many of his friends that go away to look for a better future. Then one day he had a vision and he realized that he had to go back and change Basilicata, but then it happened that Basilicata changed him and his way of looking at life.
When he returned, he joined his brother in a shared vision-- to invest in and revitalize what could be the only expression of his beloved homeland: Aglianico.
This was not an easy task. It’s difficult to grow, it’s still relatively unknown and since 2010, four vintages have been horrendous. When you depend on nature and on your hands to assist what comes from the vineyards under these challenging conditions, it is also difficult to keep having faith. However, these brothers have deep passion in their hearts that guide all their gut feelings and decisions. Michele keeps saying, “We’re not looking for money or for better status. We’re sharing a love and want to inspire others to do the same, to fight for it and to keep stimulating others with positivity and optimism.”
As this family shows us, this is a story of time and faith. Just like its Northern Italian stable-mate Nebbiolo, well-made Aglianico wines really don’t start to come into their best until 3 years or so of age. The time softens the wine’s firm tannic structure and sharp acidity revealing lush layers of sweetened fruit and dried floral aromas intermixed with spiced smoky savory flavors.
Michele and Carmine are so funny together! They remind us of the old Italian movie stars, Franco e Ciccio. As they make jokes, speak in their dialect, and share some of their craziest stories, they take us to a nearby trattoria to enjoy the most delicious, rustic and traditional food to pair with their wines. Pian del Moro, their Aglianico del Vulture from 50 year old vines, together with Masculetum, a much more intense powerful red, are the most obvious choices with food from Masseria Sett’Anni, one of the most renowned restaurants in the region. Now we understand that it is a shame to separate Aglianico from its territory. Fresh produce and a craft food approach are in the DNA here and wine is the keystone in the cuisine.
De Leonardis’ wish is that every visitor returns to their respective homes saying: I wish I was a “Lucano”, a person from Basilicata.