Despite the fervor for once-obscure Italian regions and indigenous grapes, even the most zealous Italophiles haven’t tasted much, if any, wine from Calabria.
While this mountainous, sea-rimmed region is home to more native grape varieties than any other region in Italy, and has land well-suited to natural winemaking, Calabria—sparsely populated and economically challenged—has been too busy focusing on survival to fine-tune its winemaking tradition.
But that’s changing. A growing group of producers is reclaiming Calabria’s wine heritage—after all, the slender toe of the country’s long boot is where the Greeks planted Italy’s first vines, declaring its rich sea-to-mountain landscape “Enotria,” or “land of wine.” By dialing into their flagship grape variety, Gaglioppo, and elevating many other indigenous varieties, Calabrian winemakers are now crafting world-class wines.
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Hardship and Challenges
Historically, Calabria has not had an easy time of it. Bordered by the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west and the Ionian to the east, with the Strait of Messina narrowly separating the region from Sicily, Calabria was a favorite for settlers and conquerors from the 8th century BC until just about 150 years ago. The oppressive feudal system that lasted until the 19th century, combined with devastating earthquakes, periods of mass exodus, and peasant revolts, has held Calabria back for centuries.
“Calabria is one of the least populated Italian regions because of emigration and economics,” says Marco Salerno, a New York-based Italian wine specialist and part-time winemaker with family roots in both Calabria and Sicily.
In more recent years, the region’s wine industry has suffered from infrastructure challenges and lack of collective regional support. Calabria has no unifying consortium to promote its wines, and—remote and isolated by many mountain passes—it is simply hard to access by plane or car.
Production isn’t large: Calabria makes just 4.9 million cases of wine per year (compared to nearby Sicily’s 69 million cases) and a mere fraction of that wine makes its way to export markets.
Calabria has only dabbled in international grape varieties, but it never had Sicily’s Syrah moment; the island’s success with that grape in the ’80s and ’90s paved the way for discovery of Nero d’Avola and Carricante. The closest it came was when Librandi, Calabria’s best-known winery, turned heads with Gravello, a Gaglioppo/Cabernet Sauvignon blend, which won the region’s first Tre Bicchieri award.
Mastering Calabria’s Native Varieties
Some independent Calabrian producers have been crafting quality-focused, terroir-specific wines for decades, but without collective momentum and a ready export audience, they were a bit ahead of their time. Armando Susanna co-founded Cantina Enotria in 1974 with Cataldo Calabretta and Gaetano Cianciaruso and began making artisanal, site-expressive wines from the Cirò DOC.
Nearly 50 years later, these wines are finally resonating with a market seeking discovery and authenticity. “I think that when authentic products are offered, and if they are good, they have no problem finding their own space on the market,” says Armando Susanna, the founder’s grandson and namesake.
While Librandi (also located in the Cirò DOC) has been selling in the U.S. for decades, the wines are now being more readily embraced in the market today. “Selling Librandi today is certainly easier than it was 20 years ago,” says Ted Campbell, a senior vice president at Winebow, which imports Librandi. “We used to be more focused in metro markets with educated buyers and consumers. Today, there is a lot more interest from other markets in the U.S.” The winery’s heritage, family ownership, and focus on native varieties resonate with retail buyers and sommeliers.
Much of this new interest is a result of the quality revolution taking place in Calabria, as the next generation of vintners has learned how to tame their native varieties. Gaglioppo—the region’s key red grape which accounts for about 90 percent of production—is a thick-skinned, late-ripening grape with fierce tannins, and it can be rustic and harsh. Producers now know that long macerations and higher altitude plantings tease out Gaglioppo’s floral and savory nuances. Some blend it with grapes like Calabrese (genetically the same grape as Nero d’Avola) to soften tannic edges.
“We want to be Calabria, not ‘southern Italy.’ We have a strong identity, so we need to invest in what is specific to us for people to recognize us.” — Paolo Librandi
Producers are also turning their attention to other local stars like the red Magliocco and the white varieties Greco Bianco, Mantonico, and Pecorello. In 1993, Nicodema Librandi, the cofounder of Librandi, created a spiral-shaped vineyard dedicated to experimenting with indigenous Calabrian varieties—some nearly extinct. Librandi sought out old vines from all over the region and partnered with the University of Milan to produce the first officially registered clones of Gaglioppo, Mantonico, and Magliocco.
“We want to be Calabria, not ‘southern Italy,’” says Nicodema’s son Paolo Librandi, who now runs the winery alongside his brother, Raffaele (who is the current president of Cirò’s consortium). “We have a strong identity, so we need to invest in what is specific to us for people to recognize us.”
The younger generation’s decision to return to the region to carry on the tradition is the key to Calabria’s prospects, says Librandi. “What makes me positive about the future is the number of quality producers which has grown enormously in the last 10 years,” he says. “This change is everything—it means there are young people working hard to be recognized in the market.”
A Burgeoning Natural Wine Movement
Helping Calabria get the attention of the American wine trade is the region’s growing natural wine movement. “There are dynamic young Calabrian producers who are often found in the natural wine corner,” says Walter Speller, the Italian wine specialist for Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages. “They are the risk takers and the rebels.”
One such group of mavericks is the Cirò Boys, an informal collective of natural and organic producers that includes Cataldo Calabretta (grandson of the Cantina Enotria cofounder) and Francesco de Franco of ‘A Vita. Their work is part of what they like to call the Cirò Revolution—a focused effort to express the terroir of Calabria through its native grapes.
Currently, these producers are working on the Cru Microvinification Project founded in 2019 to explore the differences of the Cirò DOC’s unique sub-regions through the Gaglioppo grape. “Together, we vinified small batches of wine pertaining to vineyards from each subregion, all made up of Gaglioppo,” says Salerno, who has been participating in the project. Reminiscent of the terroir and altitude studies ongoing with Malbec in Mendoza, the Gaglioppo study documents the variety and quality of Cirò’s vineyard sites.
Among Calabria’s nine other DOCs, Cosenza is following Cirò’s path with a number of ambitious natural winemakers like Dino Briglio of L’Acino, Eugenio Muzzillo of Terre del Gufo, and Vittorio Maradei. They are championed by small importers and popular natural wine events like Raw Wine, which gives them the kind of exposure that previously eluded many small Calabrian producers. “There is so much mass market wine from everywhere that tastes alike,” says Michel Abood of Vinotas Selections, who imports Le Moire. “These wines are not just vibrantly alive, but also beautifully respectful of their terroirs and grapes.”
Holly Berrigan, the owner of MYSA Natural Wine, a natural wine club and online retailer based in Northampton, Massachusetts, has recently discovered Calabria as a great source of natural wine at excellent value. “I’ve had some great [conventional Calabrian wines] in Italy and only discovered the natural producers in the U.S.,” she says, “which have been great representations of their most popular styles, with tons of life and at some of the most affordable price points in the natural wine space.”
Of course, placing Calabria’s future hopes on these natural wine producers comes with challenges, too. “Their international recognition will take time, not least because the volumes they produce are small and the wines often controversial,” says Speller. “What needs to be factored in, too, in my opinion is that these mavericks are associated with the natural wine camp first and Calabrian second.”
Yet any wine or movement that helps bring the increasingly high-quality wines of Calabria into the wine conversation is a positive, most agree. “What our region needs is a little bit of promotion by sommeliers and people who sell wine in the retail sector,” says Librandi. “Sometimes the average consumer just doesn’t know what to expect.”
Amy Zavatto is the author of Prosecco Made Me Do It: 60 Seriously Sparkling Cocktails, Forager’s Cocktails, and The Architecture of the Cocktail. Her stories appear in Liquor.com, Imbibe, Beverage Media, and many others. She judges at the American Craft Spirits Association annual competition and the New York Wine & Food Classic, and she earned her Level III Certificate from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, but her favorite way to learn is through taste and travel. She’s a big fan of underdogs and talking with her hands.