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Tracing the wine praised by Roman poets
By John H. Isacs

WHAT was the world's original first growth? I'm guessing most readers don't know and even worse, haven't experienced the grape that made this historic wine.

In Bordeaux, Chateau Haut-Brion is the oldest of first-growth wines and was making acclaimed wines while Pauillac was still a swamp. However, some 1,250 years earlier, the recognized first growth of the Roman Empire was Falernian, a wine made from the Aglianico grape.

Nurtured by the Phoenicians, proliferated by the Greeks, adored by the Romans and coveted by the Popes, Aglianico is believed by several noted oenologists to have the longest uninterrupted history of cultivation and consumption of any grape. In fact, the origin of the grape is still disputed and science-oriented ampelographers (students of varieties and strains of grapes) have yet to successfully trace the elusive DNA trail of this variety.

Most wine historians believe the grape to be of Greek origin. They maintain that vines were first planted in southern Italy by Phoenician traders and soon thereafter by Greeks settlers.

A more recent theory propagated by professors at the University of Milan claims the variety grew wild in southernmost reaches of the arch of the Italian peninsula and was consumed by indigenous people as early as the Bronze Age. These academics assert that the Phoenicians and Greeks merely adopted the variety when they first settled in southern Italy.

The earliest documented accounts of the grape date back to the sixth century BC when Phoenicians cultivated Aglianico vines along their coastal settlements in what is now modern day Basilica. During the early Roman Empire the grape rose to prominence when it was the major component of the celebrated Falernian wine. Poet Pliny the Elder and numerous other Roman personages passionately sang the praises of this noble variety in their poems and other writings.

Recent Renaissance

The history of the Aglianico grape may be long and storied but most the superior producers and examples of Aglianico wines today are quite new. In truth, the 19th and 20th centuries were not kind to southern Italian wine producers. It wasn't until the late 1980s and 1990s when new investment and interest in making quality wines helped the region rediscover the wealth of their history.

Aglianico wines are perhaps the finest examples. From being the greatest ancient wines, the variety almost disappeared until being rediscovered and once again coveted in the late 1990s.

The two most acclaimed expressions of the Aglianico grape are Aglianico del Vulture DOC in Basilicata and Taurasi DOCG in Campania. The grape favors hot and dry climates and is one of the latest ripening grapes, sometimes being harvested in elevated vineyards as late as mid-November.

Aglianico del Vulture DOC wines must be made of 100-percent Aglianico grapes and conform to strict yield and aging requirements. The best vineyards in this region are located on the lower slopes of the dormant volcano Mount Vulture that are rich in volcanic ash. The Taurasi DOCG Aglianico wines must comprise 85-100 percent of the grape and also have limited yield and minimum aging requirements.

Vintage variation

Aglianico wines are known for being somewhat inconsistent from vintage to vintage. Especially for the age-worthy examples that you wish to cellar for a number of years, you must be careful of the vintage. Most recent vintages have been good, with the 2005 and 2008 vintages standing out.

However, despite marked vintage variation, even more important than picking the right vintage is picking the right producer. Even in good years many producers in Basilica and Campania make ordinary wines, while top producers, especially those with elevated vineyards, generally make good wines even in off years.

Aglianico in Shanghai

Because it's not a mainstream grape, Aglianico wines from top producers offer some of the best price-value ratio among red wines available within our city limits.

Established in 1998, Cantine del Notaio has been a key catalyst of the Aglianico rebirth. With prime, elevated vineyards, a modern winery and ancient grotto carved into the volcanic rock where the wines are aged and stored, the winery makes some of the best Aglianico del Vulture DOC wines as well as more modern interpretations of the grapes.

Their range of traditionally styled DOC wines includes Il Repertorio, La Firma and Il Sigllo while their modern and more approachable IGT wines include the La Raccolta, L'Atto and Il Rogito. All six wines offer a quintessential robust Aglianico experience at different price ranges.

In the Taurasi region of Campania, Feudi di San Gregorio is also playing an important role in Aglianico's dramatic rise to prominence.

Founded in the mid-1980s, this is one of the most progressive estates in southern Italy with a magnificent modern winery designed by a Milan-based Japanese architect. Most important, they make some of the best Aglianico wines including the Rubrato DOC - the Taurasi DOCG and Serpico DOC that's made using vines over a century old.

Cantine del Notaio was established in 1996 and is an important cooperative in Campania. Their Aglianico DOC wines Terre di Surrupaca and Terre di Surrupaca Rosso Classico are also available in our fair city.

Aging and serving

While younger and more approachable IGT versions of Aglianico wines are being made, the most serious DOC and DOCG wines need considerable aging to soften their naturally strong tannins and acidity. Aging the wines for the better part of a decade or longer will help the aggressive young tannins morph into supple and velvety tannins as the complex fruit and other aromas and flavors more fully reveal themselves.

The best Aglianico wines are big and robust and once opened need upward of an hour or more breathing time. The combination of acidity, tannins and relatively high alcohol also require that these red behemoths be served at about 16 degrees Celsius.

Strong wines beg for boldly flavored dishes and therefore game or heavily spiced dishes are classic companions of Aglianico wines.

But the wine has great food pairing breadth, going well with everything from flavorful pizzas and pastas to hearty stews and grilled meats.

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