With stunning locales, diverse landscapes, and a unique combination of terroirs with a history of wine production dating back to the 8th century, there is much to learn about Calabria, and a week in this southern Italian region is not enough.
Calabria is warm but also cold. One can ski on the snowcapped mountains looking at the sea in winter in Calabria. To experience it, I would have to try my hand at skiing. But my lack of enthusiasm for outdoor sports can be a topic of discussion for another day. For now, let’s focus on the wonders of the Calabrian region as I return with an enriching experience of judging at Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the only travelling international wine competition that takes place in a different wine-producing area every year. This year the competition was held in the town of Cosenza in Calabria, Italy. There were 7,300 wines (white and red) judged over three days by 350 wine experts invited from around the world. The competition had 56 panels, and I was chairing a panel of six tasters (representing six different countries) tasting about 40-45 wines every day.
So, what were we doing when we were not judging at the competition? We were attending masterclasses on Calabrian wines, visiting local wineries, hiking on the mesmerising Sila mountain, spending evenings on the beach, or enjoying musical performances in ancient castles on the hilltop. All this while sipping copious amounts of Greco Bianco, Mantonico Bianco, Magliocco (also called Greco Nero), and Gaglioppo (wines made from ancient grape varieties).
As if that was not sufficient, I signed up for two more days of a press tour to explore the wine regions in Calabria. What piqued my interest even further is that, despite spending 16 years in the wine and spirits industry and having visited most of the Italian wine regions, I had hardly ever encountered a bottle of Calabrian wine.
Our two-day-long itinerary took us along five routes and five stops symbolising the main aspects and peculiarities of Calabria, the province of Cosenza, and the varied wine-producing areas. Cosenza presents different climatic and geomorphologic characteristics in each sub-area. Due to centuries of historical exchanges forced due to geographical proximity, Calabria also offers glimpses of cultural connections with North Africans, Greeks, Turks, and Arabs.
The area has a history of the production of a great variety of wines influenced by geographical location. Two mountains to the north and south embrace the province showcasing two national parks — Sila and Pollino, and the fresh and healthy breezes of two seas, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian, to the east and west that envelop its coasts.
Cradle of wine in Italy
Calabria’s ancient grape varieties such as Mantonico Bianco and Sangiovese gave birth to almost all other indigenous grape varieties known in modern-day Italy such as Catarratto, Grillo, Nero d’Avola (popular Sicilian grape varieties), also others such as Trebbiano Antico, Ansonica, Zibibbo, Frappato, Nerello Mascalese and many more. Magliocco, an ancient grape variety, holds a significant place in Vino Calabrese. As the researchers dig more into the history of the Calabria peninsula, sometimes referred to as the toe of Italy’s boot, they claim that it may have been the birthplace of wine production in the East Mediterranean region.
The Cirò region produces the most popular wines in Calabria. According to history, in ancient times, Krimisa, the wine from the region, was the ‘official wine’ of the Olympics (you see the Greek influence there), and Cirò is now the most prominent Denominazione di Origine controllata (DOC) appellation region for Calabrian wines.
While visiting the old town of Cirò, we learned that for centuries, Calabrian people lived in the mountains to defend themselves from a vantage point against enemies. They were also cultivating grapes and making red wines on these challenging terrains. Only in modern times (in the last two centuries), did Calabrian people settle in the coastal region and start planting vines to produce white and rosé wines.
A sleepy little town on the mountain narrating the story of Luigi Siciliani and the birthplace of the Gregorian calendar, the Old Cirò city speaks of a bygone era, still standing proudly overlooking the Ionian Sea.
Vines & wines
The vineyards of Cirò are the source of Calabria’s best-known wines. There are mainly two grape varieties contributing to the production of Cirò wine: Gaglioppo and white Greco. Gaglioppo grows in drought prone and rugged soil, suitable for this vine, which, among other things, is very hardy and characterised by early ripening. It is a red grape variety, and the wine made from it has an intense ruby-red colour with vinous aromas. The alcohol content of the resulting wine is high (it often exceeds 14 degrees) with a considerable body. Therefore, the wine obtained from Gaglioppo grapes lends itself well to ageing from 6-8 years.
Greco Bianco, the wine obtained from Greek grapes, has an intense straw-yellow colour with a tendency to golden and amber reflections, a characteristic aroma of dried fruit, a soft and harmonious flavour, to be drunk young and possibly within two years.
On our first day, we halted at the experimental vineyard of Tenuta Rosaneti of Az. Librandi. The estate has a range of micro-zones defined in terms of soil and microclimate. The spectrum varies from cool areas and soil ideal, for example, for Sauvignon Blanc to warm, exposed clay hillsides ideal for Magliocco.
From the top of the Rosaneti hills, one can see the Ionian Sea and the imposing mountains of Sila, with often snow-capped peaks. In between is the myriad of beautiful villages clinging to the hilltops.
With Gianluca Ippolito, the fifth-generation winemaker at Ippolito wines (a significant wine label from the region), we visited one of the oldest vineyards that belong to his family. The vineyard with hard clay soil produces the best red wines in Ippolito’s portfolio.
Calabria has a range of fresh produce and can be a paradise for food lovers. An endless list of nature’s offerings here is incomplete without the mention of cedar and bergamot, besides others such as a wide variety of local cheese and meat, tomatoes, a range of seafood, and citrus fruits such as oranges, mandarins, lemons, and clementines.
While the narrow and one-way streets of hilltop towns like Scilla have effectively taught Calabrians to navigate the way along the mountain slopes, hopefully, the wine producers don’t lose their way between ancient and modern times.
Calabrians need to carve their path while steering through the unchartered territories between the traditional and modern world of wine.
Information: Planning a trip to Calabria?
Calabria has three airports, but the best international connection is from Lamezia Terme International Airport, which connects the region with other major airports in Italy. One can also reach there by train or car. Long-distance trains run from Milan, Rome, and Naples to the capital Reggio Calabria Centrale. For the adventurists, rent-a-car option is good as it lets you explore the remote hilltop towns and coastal cities at your pace. It is advised to travel light because managing heavy luggage around could pose some challenges. The best time to visit is May-August.