Tasting my way through big, bold red wines recently, I hit upon an Italian varietal I hadn’t experienced much before: Aglianico. Common enough, but not common to me, so I’m passing along the pleasure I took in the discovery.
In part, that pleasure has to do with my feelings about the so-called international style in red wines. The term, as I understand it, refers to the tendency toward plush and flavor-packed fruit bombs, usually with some pronounced oak—I think of Aussie Shiraz and Lodi Zinfandel, and I suppose Santa Barbara Pinot Noir; other wines, too. By and large, winemakers around the world are crafting wines this way because the market loves them (although one reads also about the effect of globetrotting consultant winemakers giving a similar imprimatur to wines everywhere, from the Barossa Valley to the Russian River).
I’m of two minds about this, because the truth is that I like the international style the way I love a great California Zinfandel, like a Seghesio Old Vine (absolutely staggering mouthful of fruit and spice, and the best barbecue ribs pairing ever). What on earth is wrong with a wine that fills the mouth, floods your buds with fruit and spice, and keeps the tannins under control? The style isn’t internationally popular because it sucks; it’s popular because it’s a blast to drink. But the sometimes-complaint about it is that it’s just part of a market-driven homogenization in winemaking. Responding to the tastes of an exploding number of consumers, wineries are making wines with less and less regional distinction. Variety, of course, is a great part of the wine journey—no argument there—and I do love coming across something eccentric and particular, with the tastes of earth and spice that speak of specific places.
I guess what I’m saying about the Aglianico I tried is that it was a sort of best-of-both-worlds middle ground. It was a 2004 I Favati Aglianico Cretarossa, and it had the full-fruit quality of a Seghesio Zin, the lusty, “More wine!” mouth-gripping quality I love in a big red, but with more earth and acid than we usually get in American or Australian wines, giving it that old-world character I sometimes miss. It also had the hint of herbal bitterness that sneaks into some old-world wines, and that helps them pair so well with certain foods. I was drinking a Core Santa Barbara red wine alongside the Aglianico, while eating a good grass-fed New York steak in a red-wine reduction, and I was noticing that the Core, which is a wonderfully powerful interpretation of a Rhône blend, wanted more to be drunk by itself, savored as a cocktail. (Run out and try the Core wines if you haven’t already; they’re sensational.) The Aglianico’s earth and trace of bitterness, on the other hand, reached right into the rosemary and pepper notes in my meal and brought out the food-wine arias that always wait in the wings of my mind. So that’s my call: Aglianico as the plenty-big-and-fruity red that brings an earthy herbal quality we rarely find in our more common monster reds.