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Basilicata: Bandits, Exiles, Exodus (and Grapes, too)

Posted by Joe Salamone on June 4, 2009

Basilicata is located between the toe (Calabria) and the heel (Puglia) of Italy's boot. This region has long suffered due to its remote and mountainous local. Living here has never been easy and between 1945 and 1955, 600,000 people left the region in pursuit of a better life in Italy's wealthier north and elsewhere.

Basilicata has been Italy's "Wild West" - in the 19th century the region was home to many bandits. In the 20th century, Mussolini used the region as a place of internal exile for Italian Jews and anti-Fascists. Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli chronicles his days of exile in the region. Even the title is extreme, suggesting that not even Christ would venture into Basilicata. Today, though the region enjoys more wealth than it had, it remains one of the least populated parts of Italy.

The cuisine of Basilicata, like much of the food of the less affluent south of Italy, relies heavily upon vegetables, pasta, pork products, and hard sheep's milk cheeses along with fresh cheeses such as ricotta, mozzarella, and burrata. Peppers, especially pepperoncini and the great peperone di Senise, command a large role at the table. Tomatoes, chicory, broccoli rabe, mushrooms, and lampasciuoli (the slightly bitter bulbs of tassel hyacinth) are amongst the most important vegetables. Chick peas, favas, lentils also figure into the region's soups and pasta dishes. Spicy Lucanica sausage is famous throughout Italy. Lamb and kid are often stewed and are the region's most important meats.

The history of the Aglianico grape, like many grapes in Italy, is subject to competing theories. Some believe that the name Aglianico derives from the Italian word for Hellenic (ellenico) and thus, believe that Greek Albians brought the grape to southern Italy. Others believe that Aglianico was originally a wild vine that was domesticated only later to be used by the Greeks.

Regardless, Aglianico is Basilicata's only DOC, though sparkling and still versions of Malvasia and Moscato are common. Aglianico has served as an important cash crop for the region. The grape was both turned into a hearty rustic wine, that reportedly often tasted unclean, and was shipped to northern Italy to add vigor to Barolo and other wines, much in the same way as Hermitage was used to help anemic Bordeauxs.

Raising vines, like much else in Basilicata, was never lucrative. Take for example, Rino Botte's family, who had to abandon grape growing in the 70s, because their harvest couldn't command a high enough price to be financially viable.

Faced with the low price their sold grapes would fetch, many produces adapted by beginning to bottle their own wine. The growers bought barriques, hired famous consultants, and embraced modern winemaking with breathtaking speed. While generally positive, there are many examples where this winemaking resulted in very promising wines being smothered in new oak or wines that suffered from overripeness. Macarico's wines represent how modern winemaking techniques can be employed to create a wine of restraint and balance.

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