Basilisco Aglianico del Vulture 2000
The Monte Vulture (pronounced VOOL-toor-ray) volcano dominates the landscape in the
northern reaches of the Italian province of Basilicata, the instep of Italy's boot. Here volcanic
soil brings to life the sparsely populated region's only DOC wine, based on the Aglianico
grape. Dark and powerful, Aglianico ripens very late in the season; November harvests are
not uncommon. The grape's name itself reflects southern Italy's Greek influence; it is a
corruption of the term Ellenico, meaning “Greek” (in Latin). The Romans thought
highly of the grape, the poet Horace was evidently a fan, and if you didn't know the history,
you'd still be able to taste it in the wine. Taurasi DOCG of neighboring Campania is the
better known (and more expensive) Aglianico wine. The two Aglianico wines are more
cousins than sisters, however, since, as is true in much of Italy, grape varieties differ
significantly from region to region.
Winemaker Michele Cutolo produces his Aglianico from barely 20 acres of vines, all situated on tough, craggy land, combining the low yields that are essential to producing the best of this wine with late harvests and new oak. As with many high elevation vineyards in otherwise hot regions, cool nights offset the hot days to seal in minerality, acidity and phenolic complexity. All vineyard work must be done by hand; there isn't any other choice in this harsh environment. A good year may see fewer than 2000 cases produced. The consensus among most commentators is that this wine can hold its head high in the company of the esteemed Taurasi. Some even put Nebbiolo and Sangiovese wines into the comparison. Aglianico, after all, is a serious sort of grape.
The $24 Basilisco is a translucent ruby with garnet edges. The nose, after two hours of aeration, was pronounced, a little pushy, with some heat from the 14.5% alcohol, a market basket of red and black fruit rather than a single variety. Black licorice comes through, with prune, black pepper, vanilla, clove and roasted coffee. And then there is the dirt; call it terroir (although I am sure the local Basilicata dialect has its own colorful term for the phenomenon). The label “Old World” is no cliché; it simply fits. So many eons ago, the volcano spewed all that lava for a reason.
The Aglianico brings a full and yet altogether pleasant tannic grip in the mouth. You feel at once the wine's potential to age and yet a sense that it has already begun to soften. The acidity is just as forceful, and just as well used. On the palate the front notes are mushroom and mineral soil, with roasted coffee, bittersweet chocolate and tobacco. The fruit is rich black plum, the plum evolves to prune, and you get a spicy component of black pepper and clove. The finish is long and about as solid as that brooding volcano.
The bottom line on the Basilisco is both power and subtlety. I enjoyed it first alone, then with
ravioli, but I can see this wine supporting a roast lamb (I refer to the entire animal, on a spit,
awaiting the hunger of a full extended family) or any array of substantial food.
Verdict: The real deal
Big wines become all the bigger when they show patience and restraint.
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman
The Monte Vulture volcano in Basilicata, Italy.