Aglianico: An FAQ
In the last few weeks we've been writing articles in our newsletters about Aglianico. We love the grape, and it is overlooked. We think it's time to give it some space.
Our newsletter, though, does not have room for lots of detail. For anyone who wants to drill down and really get to know this wonderful grape, here's an FAQ:
What is Aglianico?
Aglianico is a grape variety grown in Southern Italy, mostly in Campania and Bascilicata. Most experts consider Aglianico to be one of Italy's "noble" varieties, alongside Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. It is the grape that makes Taurasi, the most famous red wine from south of Tuscany.
Why is it called Aglianico?
Most people will tell you that Aglianico is a bastardization of "hellenico", and is a reference to the grape's Greek origins. This myth has recently been demolished on two fronts. Linguists do not see any link between the words Aglianico and Hellenico. Geneticists do not see any link between the grape Aglianico and the grapes of Greece. The best evidence suggests that Aglianico is indigenous to southern Italy, and we don't know how it got its name.
What makes Aglianico a special grape?
Aglianico has thick skins and naturally high acidity, which gives the wines tremendous structure. The combination is perfect for long growing seasons, often at high altitude, allowing the acidity to soften while the structural components of the grape develop full ripeness. The thick skins also help protect the grape from botrytis, which tends to develop late in the season.
What does it taste like?
Aglianico can taste an awful lot like Nebbiolo. Both are grapes that can produce fairly high alcohols but retain balance and freshness. They both have alluring aromas that evoke roses, other red flowers, and even porcini mushrooms. Aglianico often has the same kind of red fruits that you find in Nebbiolo (such as red cherry), but it is also more likely to have blacker fruits.
Aglianico does not tend to have the herbaceous notes that you often find in Nebbiolo, but instead veers towards spice, coffee, cinnamon, and the like. Like Nebbiolo, they produce wines of high acidity and fine tannins, though the tannins in Aglianico tend to be a touch grainier. It is easy to mistake an Aglianico for a Nebbiolo in a blind tasting, though after the reveal you will usually notice the difference.
Are there different kinds of Aglianico?
We think of Taurasi, Vulture and Taburno as the three great DOCs for Aglianico. They are also three distinct biotypes. Taurasi berries are the smallest and least vigorous, resulting in very concentrated wines. Taburno is typically highest in acid and ripens soonest. Vulture tends to be the fruitiest.
Where are the best places to grow Aglianico?
Aglianico typically is grown on volcanic soils or steep mountain sites in Southern Italy. The world's best examples come from the three DOCs mentioned above, Taurasi and Taburno, in Campania, and Vulture, in Bascilicata. You will often find it in other regions of Southern Italy, but with less frequency and often in a blend with other grapes. In Puglia, for example, Aglianico is blended with Primitivo, an "easy" grape that softens the severity of Aglianico.
There are experiments with growing Aglianico in other parts of the world as well. This has occurred mostly in Australia, but there are also promising experiments in New Mexico and Texas. Because of its unique physical properties and excellent resistance, Aglianico may be just the right grape for certain extreme conditions where wine cultivation doesn't otherwise seem possible. It might be a generation or more before consumers can really start to enjoy the benefits of these early experiments. But no matter, in the mean time there is plenty of reasonably priced Aglianico from Southern Italy. On that note...
I want to try Aglianico. What should I do?
That's an easy one!
I am a collector. Should I add Aglianico to my collection?
Yes! Although wine writers and merchants have been extolling the virtues of Aglianico for years, it is still somewhat under-appreciated in the marketplace. This means you can get similar quality to a great Barolo for a lesser price. These are wines that age beautifully and for a long time. The 1968s from Mastroberardino are considered some of the best Italian wines ever made, and they are still going strong!