Before Sicily’s Mount Etna and its Nerello Mascalese grape became the flavor of the month, a different volcanic red was Southern Italy’s darling: Aglianico del Vulture. Unlike lava-spewing Etna, Basilicata’s Monte Vulture is long dormant, but its geologic footprint remains—as do those of other spent volcanos in neighboring Campania, where the Aglianico grape thrives.
Campania’s Taurasi appellation, about an hour’s drive from the Monte Vulture area, is the most famous Aglianico-based red, nicknamed “The Barolo of the South” for its longevity and aromatic complexity. But just as Aglianico belongs with Nebbiolo and Sangiovese in any discussion of Italy’s noblest red grapes, the Aglianico del Vulture appellation is every bit as important as Taurasi. Today’s wine from Musto Carmelitano is a new-generation take on Aglianico that emphasizes finesse over force—no small feat given the grape’s reputation for burly, inky-black reds. This bright, fragrant, unoaked example has become a go-to wine for me when I aim to ‘convert’ someone into an Aglianico drinker. The level of nuance, aromatic complexity, and genuine class in this bargain-priced bottle is downright astonishing: If you enjoy darker-toned, mineral reds from Malbec, Syrah, and/or Cabernet Franc, Aglianico del Vulture belongs in your regular rotation!
To repeat, we’re talking about the Aglianico grape del Vulture, or, “from Vulture,” the above-mentioned extinct volcano in northern Basilicata. An extremely mountainous, and relatively small, region wedged between Puglia (the “heel”) and Calabria (the “toe”), Basilicata has historically been one of the poorest and least-traveled regions in Italy. I think that a lot of casual Italophiles have an image of southern Italy as being universally flat, arid, and sun-baked, and while this is true of some places—Puglia in particular—much of southern Italy is thickly forested, mountainous terrain. Of Italy’s 21 regions, the one with the highest-elevation ‘capital city’ is Basilicata (Potenza). Vineyards on the slopes of Monte Vulture climb to 700 meters’ elevation in some places, and as such this is a relatively cool climate—providing the already late-ripening Aglianico with an extremely long growing season. It’s not uncommon for Aglianico del Vulture to be harvested in mid- or even late November (even later than Piedmont’s Nebbiolo in some instances).
From a grower/winemaker perspective, the magic of Aglianico is that it is hardy—thick-skinned and resistant to disease—and capable of improving with age. Some similarly resilient varieties (Carignan comes to mind) never manage to shed their “workhorse blending grape” image, but Aglianico is ‘featured player’ material—thanks in large part to its aromatics. In comparison to both Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, Aglianico is undoubtedly a more full-throttle variety—loaded with color, extract, acid, and (often ferocious) tannin. When I first started studying Italian wine in earnest in the late 1990s, the style du jour in Vulture (and in Taurasi) emphasized Aglianico’s outsized proportions—often augmenting them even further with lots of new oak. But of course, the same could be said of many Barolo wines of that time. Traditionally (and this continues to be true in most cases), I’ve compared Aglianico del Vulture to the Malbec-based wines of southwest France; there’s a similar tannic structure and dark fruit profile, if perhaps less of the ‘animal’ element in the Aglianico. If this wine from Musto Carmelitano is any indication, we may be entering a kinder, gentler era.
The Musto Carmelitano property has been in the same family for generations, and boasts some incredibly old vines on Monte Vulture (some in the 80- to 100-year-old range). For generations, the family sold their grapes to others, but in 2007, Elisabetta Musto Carmelitano and her brother, Luigi, started bottling their own wines. Elisabetta and Luigi are hardly the “to the manor born” types you come across throughout the wine world. This is a small-scale labor of love: they organically farm about 32 acres of vines in and around the village of Maschito, which lends its name to this bottling (“Maschitano”).
Perhaps the most useful analogy for this wine would be the ‘Langhe Nebbiolo’ wines of Barolo—lighter-weight, unembellished expressions of a complex variety (although it should be noted that, unlike the Barolo DOCG, Aglianico del Vulture doesn’t require any minimum aging period in oak barrels). The 2015 Maschitano Rosso was fermented and aged only in stainless steel, after which the wine spent a brief period aging in bottle before release. In the glass, it is a satisfyingly deep, opaque purple-ruby with garnet highlights at the rim. The aromatics are textbook Aglianico: black and red raspberry, cherry, black plum, and huckleberry meet a savory flood of tobacco, tar, violets, coffee, crushed stone and black pepper. One of the wine’s most distinguishing features is its fine-grained tannins and bright acidity—both can be extremely sharp, even aggressive, in many Aglianicos, but not here. It’s a dark-toned wine but also extremely elegant and easy to drink. Although you could lay it down for 5+ years, there’s no reason to wait—this wine was designed for near-term drinking and is delicious and distinctive with about 30 minutes in a decanter. Serve it at 60-65 degrees in Bordeaux stems and put its firm structure and quite ‘autumnal’ flavor profile to work with a gutsy recipe like the one attached. There is so much wine here for the money—I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Monte Vulture / Aglianico del Vulture DOC