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Ultimate Guide to the Basilicata Wine Region

The Basilicata wine region is situated between Apulia and Calabria in the south of Italy. See our collection of wine pictures. ­
iStockphoto/Adrian Hoppe

­When people think of Basilicata, wine most likely isn't the first thing on their mind. Instead, poverty, poor conditions and large unpopulated area­s probably come first -- then, maybe, wine. In addition to the simple fact that it's competing with giants like Sicily, Apulia and Tuscany, Basilicata just doesn't have an abundance of agriculture or a large workforce.

Situated between Apulia and Calabria in the south of Italy, Basilicata is one of the few regions in Italy that is mostly landlocked. Only two tiny pieces of the region stretch to meet water -- the Ionian Sea on one side and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the other. Basilicata has had to endure quite a bit, as it was all but forgotten after the unification of Italy. Land was given to people who didn't care about it and it sat unused, unkempt and unwatched [source: Wine Country]. Pirates and bandits wreaked havoc throughout the region.

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­There are so many negatives that it may seem like Basilicata doesn't have a lot to offer, but there is wine. It may not produce the most w­ine, but wineries in Basilicata make enough to be noticed. Poor soil conditions that make the rest of the land infertile just happen to be perfect for the cultivation of grapes and the continental climate doesn't hurt either [source: McCarthy]. In fact, Basilicata is responsible for one of Italy's most respected wines, Aglianico del Vulture. For a long time it was the only wine from the region worth talking about, but recently a few new wines have broken onto the scene.

Visit Basilicata and you will find an untouched Italy, a part of the country where you can travel for miles without seeing another person. Amid the landscape, you'll see grape vines covering the side of a volcano. In Matera, you'll find a World Heritage Site. And in Venosa, you'll find ruins from the Roman era. There's something to be said for the simplicity of the region. And of course, you'll find the proof that Basilicata can make a good wine when you taste the Aglianico del Vulture.

Read on to discover how wine in Basilicata began.

The h­istory of the Basilicata wine region plays out like the plot of an epic summer blockbuster. There are pirates, a volcano and World War II even comes into play. If you want to hear the story in order, start with the volcano, Mount Vulture. Eruptions from more than 40,000 years ago made small portions of land in Basilicata perfect for growing grapes, something the Greeks didn't hesitate to take advantage of when they arrived thousands of years later [source: McCarthy].

While there is still a debate as to the origin of the Aglianico grape in Basilicata, most people believe that the Greeks brought it with them when they took control of the region in the 6th century B.C. After all, Aglianico is very similar to the Greek name for the grape, ellenico [source: Sonkin]. Whether the grape vines were already there or the Greeks implanted them, Basilicata's story is the same as the rest of Italy. The Greeks showed up and started turning grapes into wine.

Now before we get to the pirates, we have to talk about the Roman Empire. It was during the 3rd century B.C. that Rome extended its borders, enveloping the region of Basilicata. They were conquering land all over the place, putting up cities and building their troops along the way. Unfortunately, the trees of Basilicata became a casualty of their conquests. Entire forests were wiped out to supply materials for construction and the land suffered [source: Wine Country]. Sadly, so did wine production.

Then things got worse -- the Saracen pirates showed up and pillaged villages, killing everyone in their path. People were forced to flee their homes and many of them took refuge in the mountains [source: Wine Country]. Basilicata was caught in a downward spiral that would continue for hundreds of years. The economy was in shambles and for a long period, bandits ruled the land, taking anything they wanted.

So how did they turn it all around? Truthfully, they're still working on it, but things did improve after World War II. In 1971, the grapes that had been planted on the slopes of the extinct Mt. Vulture finally got some recognition. Aglianico del Vulture received a DOC designation, giving the locals something to cheer about at last. Since then, Basilicata has added two more DOC wines to its roster, possibly marking the beginning of a new era for wines made in the region. Only time will tell.

Read on to learn more about how the volcano influenced the winemaking of the reason.

There's just not a lot of good land for the cultivation of grapes in Basilicata. If it weren't for­ the volcanic soil surrounding Mt. Vulture, there would be almost none at all. Luckily, volcanic soil is perfect for growing grapes. It absorbs heat from the sun's rays throughout the day and then releases it slowly during the night. This keeps grapes from experiencing sharp fluctuations in temperature and protects them from frost, which can damage their quality or ruin a crop entirely.

One of the few advantages Basilicata has to offer besides volcanic soil is a continental climate surrounding Mt. Vulture. It stays cool there, which allows the Aglianico grapes that grow on its slopes to ripen longer. Often the grapes aren't harvested until late October, just before the danger of a frost [source: Awaiting Table]. This late a harvest isn't typical in southern Italy. Basilicata's neighboring regions harvest grapes much earlier, usually in the beginning of September.

Until recently, Aglianico was pretty much the only grape talked about in Basilicata, but it isn't the region's only grape. Despite poor conditions throughout much of the region, two other DOC appellations besides Aglianico have been recognized, Terra dell'Alta Val d'Agri and Matera. The one that's a mouthful translates to "Lands of the upper valley of Agri." Here, Agri is referring to the Agri River, which winds through Basilicata and spills out into the Ionian Sea [source: 123 Exp-Geography]. For a long time, the people of Matera simply ate the grapes they harvested. It wasn't until someone decided to start crushing them up and making wine that the area gained some recognition and earned a DOC designation to go with it [source: Italian Made].

The list of famous wines in Basilicata is a short one. In fact, most people would probably stop­ it at one, Aglianico del Vulture. Made from Aglianico grapes and born on the slopes of a volcano, it is a favorite not only among locals, but all over Italy and many parts of the world as well. In other words, if Basilicata handed out a lifetime achievement award to one of its wines, it would undoubtedly be bestowed upon Anglianico del Vulture. It was the first wine from the region to be given a DOC designation [source: McCarthy]. Aglianico is a red wine, as are most of the wines produced in Basilicata.

That first DOC designation came in 1971 and Basilicata would have to wait another 32 years before being awarded with another. People from the region got together and started pushing for a DOC classification for Terra dell'Alta Val d'Agri and in 2003, their efforts paid off. Aglianico del Vulture was no longer Basilicata's sole DOC wine -- Terra dell'Alta Val d'Agri was joining the party. Terra dell'Alta Val d'Agri comes in three different types: rose, red and red reserve [source: Terre dell'Alta Val d'Agri].

In the wake of Terra dell'Alta Val d'Agri's success, another area was able to capture the attention of the wine world and in 2005, Matera was honored with a DOC denomination as well [source: Vino Matera]. Matera comes in six different types, with three reds (Rosso, Primitivo and Moro) and, less common for the region, three whites (Greco, Bianco and Spumante).

While both Terra dell'Alta Val d'Agri and Matera are considered to be of high quality, wine growers producing them have a long road ahead if they hope to achieve the same type of recognition, respect and legendary status that Anglianico del Vulture has received.

For more wine-related information, visit the links on the next page.

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Sources

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  • Terra dell'Alta Val d'Agri. "Welcome to Terra dell'Alto Val d'Agri." (accessed 02/12/2009)http://www.terredellaltavaldagri.it/index_eng.htm
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  • Vino Matera DOC. "Matera DOC Wine." (accessed 02/12/2009)http://www.vinomateradoc.it/EN/
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