Years ago, preparing to go abroad, I bought a 300-page book on Italian wine and painstakingly wrote down the name of every wine in it.
When I got there, I found at least 100 more I’d never heard of.
Italians live and breathe wine; there’s a little vineyard around the corner of every farm house, a little fermenting barrel in every basement. It must be great to be Italian.
This means that, while most American wine fans know about the chiantis of Tuscany, the barolos of Piedmonte and the proseccos of the Venice region, there are dozens of Italian wine-making regions that are less familiar.
Let’s visit a couple of them.• Umbria: Tourists driving south on the Autostrada del Sole can easily glide through this region hardly noticing it. It’s only 100 miles long, and the speed limit is 81 miles per hour.
That’s a shame. Just southeast of better-known Tuscany, it’s a beautiful region of mountains, meadows and lakes, known by poets as “il cuor verde d'Italia” — “the green heart of Italy.” It’s home to the major city of Perugia and the smaller city of Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, from whom today’s pope takes his name.
Some of the best Umbrian wines, dark and hearty, are made at two wineries, Arnaldo-Caprai and Azienda Agraria Perticaia, around the town of Montefalco. Grapes include the aromatic sangiovese of chianti fame, the softly fruity merlot, the dark-hued colorino and an ancient, recently revived grape called sagrantino, with its spicy black cherry, licorice flavors and firm tannins. Written of as far back as 1088, sagrantino nearly disappeared by the 1960s, but now is being brought back by growers who believe in its value.• Salento, Puglia: If Italy is shaped like a boot, its heel is the Salento area of the region called Puglia, on the Adriatic and Ionian seas. Major towns include Foggia, Bari and Brindisi.
It has a descriptive name as well in the local dialect: “Lu Salentu: lu sule, lu mare, lu ientu” or “Salento: the sun, the sea, the wind.” Off the major tourist trails, it’s a land of rocky coasts and sandy beaches, sun-blasted white houses and Greek and Roman artifacts. Its cuisine is simple, heavy on vegetables and local wines.
Near Salento’s southern tip lies Masseria Li Veli, a winery with a cellar built on the ruins of a late medieval structure and a 2,500-year history.
Modernized by the Falvo family in 1999, the winery is working to save native grapes — verdeca, negroamaro, primitivo, susumaniello, aleatico — that had been disappearing from the area.
In a world dominated by cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, these two regions offer some fascinating alternatives.