South Italy’s Silver Lining

Why I’m drinking Southern (and wrote a book about it)

South Italy’s Silver Lining
What's not to love about the Amalfi Coast? (bluejayphoto / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
Oct 5, 2021

As I write this column, humanity seems to be in particularly deep trouble from rising temperatures, raging wildfires and deadly flooding, not to mention the latest mutants of a killer virus.

But, looking at a sliver of a bright side here, has there ever been a better time to be a lover of Southern Italian wines?

I am not making light. I am just finding hope in my world by looking at the facts.

And from my perspective as an American who lives in Italy and loves the country, with a penchant for the Italian South, this is a golden age of wine. This seems to be the Mezzogiorno’s moment to shine.

Of course, I would say that. My just-released book, South of Somewhere: Wine, Food and the Soul of Italy, chronicles a variety of emerging wine scenes in Southern Italy in the 21st century. This personal narrative aims also to convey some lessons for all of us from the Italian South, to which I first traveled with my grandmother on a trip to her native Vico Equense in 1968.

For me, if there is one word that defines Italy and particularly the South, it’s “resilience.”

How many times have Italians been knocked down (the South usually getting the worst of it) only to stand up again?

Pandemic? Italy has dealt with them since the initial plagues of the first global empire: ancient Rome. Natural disasters? When has the volcanic, seismic South not suffered eruptions and devastating earthquakes?

The South embodies Italy’s culture of renaissance—the inspiration that comes out of the darkest hours. And Southern Italian wine is now in a renaissance after a long winter of obscurity.

Southern Italy is one of the most beautiful and often tragically underachieving places on earth—blessed with sunshine, volcanic soils and a wowing diversity of grape varieties both known and uncatalogued. Yet historically it’s been held back by factors such as poverty, corruption, criminality and a lack of vision and entrepreneurship.

 Robert Camuto visiting a pergola-trained, terraced vineyard on Italy's Amalfi Coast
Many vineyards in coastal southern Italy are planted on steep stone terraces and still trained in the traditional pergola style, with the vines high overhead, creating a shady area.

The quality boom in Italian wine started in north and central Italy in the mid-1980s in Piedmont and Tuscany. Quality (as defined at the time) became more important than quantity. Wine changed from a source of calories to a source of pleasure. Gradually, a new way of looking at wine traveled south.

Nowadays, the keys to making great wines are democratized. With a bit of know-how in the vineyards and cellar, great wines can be made wherever you can grow great grapes. Southern Italy was ripe for change.

Today new generations of winegrowers from the South—smart, educated, environmentally minded and aware of their own terroirs and traditions, as well as the global wine scene from Burgundy to Napa—are working to make something of their familial lands and local grapes. It’s happening from Calabria to Puglia to Basilicata’s Mount Vulture to the Roman countryside of Lazio.

Also democratized in the era of the Internet and social media are the levers of global communication. The result of all this is that the granddaughter of sharecropping peasants in the rural South can now make wine and bottle it for her followers in Northern Europe, New York, Tokyo, London and L.A.

 Robert Camuto looking out at Italy's Sorrento Coast
Robert Camuto returned to Vico Equense, his grandmother's hometown, on the Sorrento Coast this summer.

Fact is, great Southern wines are both more prevalent and available than they have been historically. You can see this anecdotally at restaurants everywhere with great Italian wine lists. But don’t just take my word for it, look at a measure of both quality and U.S. availability by examining Wine Spectator scores for wines from, for example, the large and varied Southern region of Campania.

Since the 2005 vintage, the region has produced more than 300 wines scoring 90 points or higher on the magazine’s 100-point scale. In the 10 vintages prior, great wines were produced far less frequently by a smaller concentration of wineries.

More than a decade ago, I wrote about the scene taking shape on Sicily’s Mount Etna in my last book, Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey. At the time, a handful of smart players saw the potential of Nerello Mascalese and transformed a rustic tourist red into a fine selection of Etna Rosso crus that are highly sought after today.

I believe that great terroirs come to the fore not because of some magical force but because of the right people at the right time with vision, a bit of investment and hard work. You can find examples of this all across the South now in emerging areas that complement Italy’s better-known vineyards.

As a result, now you can drink a wholly different Italian wine—local, indigenous, sustainable—every night of the year. Many of these bring uniquely rewarding pleasure.

 A scenic vineyard and hilly countryside in Basilicata
The mountainous and hilly Basilicata region is best known for reds made from the Aglianico grape. (Robert Camuto)

Consider the tannic punch of Calabria’s Gaglioppo (a Sangiovese relative) or the bitter kick of Roman Cesanese, reds that meld perfectly with salumi or Mediterranean spice. Forget the overripe versions of Aglianico del Vulture, Primitivo or Sagrantino and try their fresher and energetic progeny. Have you sampled the complex mineral-driven whites of Campania’s Fiano di Avellino or aged Etna Carricante lately?

Italy remains a collection of old city states where loyalties are given to the local belltower. Everywhere in Italy defines itself in contrast to its neighbors. Everywhere is south of somewhere else. The farther south you go, the wilder it gets. For me and wine lovers who like to drink well and also drink different daily, this is a good thing.

Robert Camuto’s South of Somewhere: Wine, Food and the Soul of Italyis published by the University of Nebraska Press—At Table series. The premiere presentation of the book will take place in New York City at Rizzoli Bookstore in the Flatiron District on Oct. 18. (Admittance is free, but reservations are recommended; register here via Eventbrite.)

 Cover of Robert Camuto's book South of Somewhere

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