March 14 - Maschito, PZ, Basilicata
Today we went to Basilicata, a drive of almost two hours from Venticano in Campania. I'd been looking forward to this jaunt because I'd never been to that little-visited region, and they have Aglianico del Vulture there. The terroir and localized clones result in a very different wine from the big, powerful but ultimately suave Aglianicos of Campania.
The Basilicata I saw was at odds with the Basilicata I'd always read about.
Yes, Basilicata, way down there
The place is usually described in brief but dismissive terms. Words like "bleak", "rugged," even "desert-like" crop up often. Since the region was never a center of great urbanity, and since it isn't filled with "brand-name" art works, it's inevitable that the typical guidebooks would give it short shrift. Although I must note that the highly urbane Horace, great poet of the early Empire, came from Venosa, a small town we drove through today. Signs all over the town celebrate this. Or not: a graffito on the outskirts proclaims, "Orazio era frocio!" (Horace was queer!)
Anyway, back to Basilicata as a whole. I was impressed by the wide-open spaces and green hills, by the sparse population and the spare beauty of the few hilltop towns we saw. The open-skyed, undulating plateau with its grain fields and pasturage called to mind large tracts of Anatolia. Here and there were orchards of peach and cherry just now in flower, olive groves, vineyards, a gently vertical counterpoint to the horizontality of the endless green grasses.
Abandoned stone houses, some of them a single room, stand here and there in the fields, expressive even now of the terrible isolation and poverty of previous generations. Yet this countryside is carefully tended; hardly a hectare is without human attention. A poignant landscape and a beautiful one. The orchards and wildflowers are in bloom now, the young grasses fresh and green.
This Basilicata is no desert. I'm sure when British guidebook writers venture here in July, they feel they've entered an alien zone that wars with a sensibility formed by walks in Devonshire and postcards of Chiantishire. Granted, the summers are dry and hot, the grass does turn brown, and the landscape must seem dauntingly harsh. It's really another example of how Italy is two countries. I don't mean North and South; I mean a land of summer and a land of winter. The differences can be as startling as the difference between summer and winter in, for example, the Great Lakes area. The tourist brochure version of the country hasn't got much to do with the real place.
Parco eolico ("wind park"), known to us as a wind farm. Right now the landscape is as green as Ireland and often as devoid of trees as the Oulde Sod
(NB: This Old Sod is treeless.)
VISIT TO A WINERY
Fortunato Sebastiano took us to see the winery of the Musto-Carmelitano family. It's in the town of Maschito [sounds like "mosquito", is said to derive from a Latin word meaning "place of male vines"], province of Potenza (PZ). Led by the young Elisabetta, the tiny azienda has just begun to make its own wine. Formerly the production went to the cantina sociale (growers' co-op).
At present the Musto-Carmelitano winery has only about 3 hectares (7 acres) under vine. Like other farmers there, they also grow wheat, olives and several other cash crops. In other words, they're real farmers, not well-heeled city folk who decided to have some fun with wine. And there is no hint of a Tuscan monoculture (all vines all the time!) in this zone.
This winery's vineyards are, as so often, scattered round the area in small parcels. Some of the vines are as old as 80-90 years, meaning they're at the end of their productive life, and some are "new" at 20 years. Every grape grown in and around Maschito is Aglianico. Further, their two single-vineyards wines display a strong individual character that reflects the soil, the vines' age and the exposition of each wine's materia prima (raw material). As you might expect, the Musto-Carmelitanos' Aglianicos display a depth and an emerging complexity that bodes well for the future; the 2007 vintage, not yet bottled, is their first "serious" production.
The Musto-Carmelitanos use a modified form of the traditional alberello (bush) kind of vine-training -- so modified that it looks a lot like Guyot. This helps further reduce the yields on plants that often produce few bunches of grapes due to age, which gives the fruit more concentrated juice and aromatic polyphenols in their thick skins. The elevation (2000 feet) and large range of day-night temperatures also play their part in making fine grapes at the harvest in November.
Elisabetta makes three levels of Aglianico del Vulture. The base red, Maschitano IGT, is, frankly, unworthy of the denomination and the other wines in her lineup. Tellingly, Maschitano is made of purchased grapes. I'm told that this wine has a local following because, as Fortunato told me, "the other base wines around here are so dreadful." Even though I didn't think much of this one, I do admit that it's far better than some of the horrifying vino sfuso (bulk wine) I've been drinking lately. (When I'm paying for wine, trust me when I say I don't go all-out.)
The wines produced from Elisabetta's own grapes are another
story altogether. Both have the grit and character you'd hope to find in an Aglianico del Vulture, not to mention an intriguing complexity lurking within. As I said, both of these other wines are crus -- single-vineyard wines -- and the quality leap from the Maschitano to these is a dramatic and inspiring as all the wind farms you see over the hills of Basilicata.
Serra del Prete ("Priest's Hedge") DOC is made of fruit from 40-50 year-old vines. The wine has the structure and hints of volcanic ferocity that I associate with the denomination. Although this is a tank sample and the wine has much developing to do, the tannins are vivid and yet smoother than you'd think, with no hint of bitterness. Dark cherry fruit, a clean attack on the palate. Balanced, rich, yet quite different from the "sunnier" Aglianicos of Campania. Currently at 14.5%, this wine will be bottled in the autumn and released in spring 2009. No wood. Should be highly drinkable upon release.
Pian del Moro ("Blackberry Field") DOC is ageing in large oak (tonneaux). The tannic influence of the oak is at its peak right now. I think this wine, made from the Musto-Carmelitanos' oldest vines, will be rich, complex and age-worthy for some time. The fieriness of Aglianico del Vulture is in this one, and no doubt this quality will be modified somewhat -- let's hope not too much -- by the wood. A powerful, balanced wine in the making.
We are still in the earliest days of Musto-Carmelitano wines. The vines, terrain and the will to make top-class wines from an underdog area -- it's all there. Fortunato told me that, when Aglianico del Vulture is finally elevated to DOCG status, the village of Maschito will be at the geographic centre of the zone. And, I suspect, Elisabetta and her family will have played a significant role in the denomination's rise.