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Serious Grape: Calabria's Gaglioppo Claws Its Way Out Of Obscurity

Editor's Note: In this week's Serious Grape, wine whiz Talia Baiocchi gives us the dirt on an Italian grape you should know and love.

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Gaglioppo grapes on the hang in Calabria. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Watch your back, Aglianico, Gaglioppo just may be Southern Italy's newest darling variety.

For decades, the bottom half of the boot has been fighting against economic hardship, corruption, and a culture of wine production dominated by cooperatives that bled bulk wine. But as critics began to take notice of Campania's ancient Aglianico [Ah-lee-on-eekoh] grape (affectionately called the "Nebbiolo of the South"), many of the regions from Italy's ankle on down—notably Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily—have begun to enjoy considerable attention for the advances they've made over the past decade.

For Calabria—once considered to be Italy's biggest reject wine region behind the Molise—the phonetically charming Gaglioppo [gah-LYOHP-poh] has been the centerpiece of the region's mini-renaissance.

It's a late ripening grape that, depending on the altitude and soil, is capable of yielding wines of varying weights and styles. For most, Ciró—Calabria's most well-known region and home to its top producer, Librandi—may be their only reference point for Gaglioppo. The wines that hail from this low-lying, arid D.O.C (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, a classification used to signify and protect Italy's most important terroirs) yield the most powerful and tannic expressions of the grape. Not least among them is Librandi's famed 'Duca Sanfelice Riserva', a wine that needs a decade or so to come to terms with its tannic angst.

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[Map: Wine66]

Conversely, the lesser-known expressions of Gaglioppo grown in Calabria's higher altitude vineyards—in D.O.C.s like Savuto—expose the grape's sensitive side. The best examples, like Odoardi's Savuto bottling and Statti's Calabria IGT yield a leaner, floral variation on Gaglioppo with plenty of acidity and an earthy, ever-so-enigmatic edge.

Like many of Italy's ancient varieties, the origin of Gaglioppo is a subject of debate. Many believe it was brought to Southern Italy by the Greeks around the same time as Aglianico, and was the celebratory drink of the Olympic Games some 3,000 years ago. Others (the Italians, of course) argue that the grape is of native origin, and a recent study conducted by the Italian government suggests that Sangiovese may be its parent. Gaglioppo is also suspected to be same variety as Marche's Lacrima di Morro, a grape grown in the D.O.C. of Lacrima di Morro d'Alba and defined by its distinct aroma of violets. A link between these two isn't difficult to entertain; the high altitude expressions of Gaglioppo often own similar floral aromas. However, the strain of Lacrima grown in Morro d'Alba may well be a mutation of Lacrima Nera that, in terms of DNA, may more of a distant cousin than a twin to Gaglioppo. Needless to say, Italian grape relations are famously ambiguous.

Wherever it is that Gaglioppo came from, its continued cultivation in Calabria's twelve D.O.C.s is worth paying attention to. Right now the number of producers exported to the U.S. is relatively small, but with estates like Statti, Odoardi, and Librandi paving the way, Calabria and its Gaglioppo have finally begun to claw their way out of obscurity.

Wines to Try

Statti Gaglioppo IGT 2009 ($15, find this wine) : Pure, high-toned expression of the variety that favors floral aromatics over the intensity and brood.

Odoardi Savuto 2005 ($15, find this wine): Same floral, herbaceous aromatics here, but a bit more lush with plenty of dark fruit and licorice. A crowd pleaser.

Ippolito Ciró Rosso 2007 ($12, find this wine): A peek into the darker side of Gaglioopo. dark, intense, fruit, earth and a funky edge.

Librandi Ciró Rosso 2007 ($10, find this wine): Though this hails from Ciró, Librandi's entry level Ciró Rosso still leans toward the grape's softer side. Lean, herbal, and distinctly spicy.

Librandi Duca San Felice Ciró Riserva 2007 ($17, find this wine): Structured with a face full of of dark fruit, game, and tea, but in need of a solid decant or a few years in bottle to shed its tannic edge. If you're patient, it's a wine that will drink far above its price point with some time in the cellar.

About the Author: Talia Baiocchi is a wine writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the founding editor of WineChap.com in the U.S., and writes a weekly series demystifying New York's restaurant wine lists on Eater.com. She contributes to the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. In her former life she worked as a dressage trainer for unicorns.

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