I Love Italian Wine and Food – The Calabria Region
Calabria is the toe of the Italian boot. It is located in the southwest corner of Italy, with 500 miles of coastline on the Ionian, Mediterranean, and Tyrrhenian Seas. Its total population is about 2 million. The countryside is mountainous, and prone to earthquakes. For centuries peasants worked very hard to eke out a living from its poor soil. During the last century over a million people left Calabria to seek a better life in Northern or Central Italy or overseas.
Historically, the region’s first name was Italia, probably from the Italic tribes that inhabited the area. Over time, Calabria has belonged to the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Others who lived in the area include Armenians, Bulgarians, Catalans, Goths, Spaniards, Normans, and Bourbons. Talk about multiculturalism.
While Calabria has been poor, its agricultural production is important. For example, it is the source of about 25% of Italian olive oil. Other agricultural products include vegetables, especially eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus, and mushrooms. Its citrus fruits and figs are special. There is plenty of wheat for pasta, country-style bread, focaccia, and pizza. The main meat is pork, and some Calabrian salami is famous. Other meats include lamb and goat. The seas yield anchovies, cod, sardines, swordfish, and tuna. Cheeses include Caciocavallo Silano and Crotonese, reviewed below. Christmas and Easter are accompanied by traditional desserts. You won’t go hungry in Calabria.
Perhaps you haven’t heard of Calabria’s cities including Cosenza, Reggio di Calabria, and the regional capital, Catanzaro. The largest of the three, Reggio di Calabria, has fewer than 200 thousand people. But big cities are hardly a requirement for good wine. Few would ever claim that Italy’s best wines come from Rome, or the surrounding area. Hills and mountains, sunny days and cool nights, maritime breezes, low rainfall, and poor soil are all factors that can lead to excellent wines. Calabria definitely has winemaking potential.
Calabria devotes about sixty thousand acres to grapevines, it ranks 13th among the 20 Italian regions. Its total annual wine production is slightly less than twenty million gallons, giving it a 15th place. About 91% of the wine production is red or rosé (a bit of rosé), leaving 9% for white. The region produces 12 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. Only 2.4% of Calabria wine carries the DOC designation. The region is home to almost three dozen major and secondary grape varieties, half white and half red.
Widely grown international white grape varieties include Chardonnay, Trebbiano, and Malvasia. The best known, strictly Italian white variety is Greco Bianco, which makes an excellent sweet wine that is very hard to find outside of the region. In general, Calabrian white wines are difficult to find in North America.
Widely grown international red grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The best known strictly Italian white variety is Gaglioppo, whose flagship wine, Ciró we review below. Keep your eyes open for wines made from the indigenous Magliocco red grape.
Before reviewing the Calabria wine and cheese that we were lucky enough to purchase at a local wine store and a local Italian food store, here are a few suggestions of what to eat with indigenous wines when touring this beautiful region.
Start with Pitta Chicculiata, Pizza with Tuna, Tomato, Anchovies, Black Olives, and Capers.
Then try La Carne ‘Ncantarata dei Fratelli Alia, Pork Loin in Honey-Chili Glaze. For dessert, indulge yourself with Fichi al Cioccolato, Chocolate-Covered Roasted Figs.
OUR WINE REVIEW POLICY While we have communicated with well over a thousand Italian wine producers and merchants to help prepare these articles, our policy is clear. All wines that we taste and review are purchased at the full retail price.
Librandi ‘Duce San Felice’ Ciró Reserva 2001 13.5% alcohol about $15
Some claim that Ciró is the oldest existing wine. It is said to come from a wine consumed by victorious Calabrian athletes on their return from the Olympics well over 2500 years ago. This DOC wine grows in the low hills near the Ionian Sea in eastern Calabria not far from the Sila Massif plateau. If you ask me, the geographical characteristics worked out quite well for this wine.
Ciró is made from the indigenous Gaglioppo red grape, which has a light-colored pulp and very thick skin. In spite of the grape skins, this wine contains light tannins. Personally I found the tannins excellent, they melted into the food and I say this as someone who is not overly fond of tannins. I tried this Ciró with barbecued boneless beef ribs marinated in a somewhat spicy tomato sauce and loved the way the fruit flavors accompanied the food. Sometime after the meal I reread the wine store’s review and agreed with their quote “…This Librandi has tangy texture with complex, juicy red fruit, and overall it’s very attractive. It’s just great for barbecued meats…”
Crotonese is a pure sheep’s milk cheese found in Calabria. It is made in 4 pound wheels with a very light rind. Its color ranges from pale yellow to creamy yellow. Crotonese is an excellent grating cheese. Another recommendation is to slice it thinly and drizzle olive oil, especially Calabrian Crotonese olive oil, over it. Its flavor is both salty and sweet, and is mildly sharp. I tried it for lunch with a mixture of humus (ground chickpeas) and processed vegetables, toast, and the Ciró Reserva. The wine and cheese flavors blended well. Another recommended wine for Crotonese cheese is the classic Tuscan Brunello di Montalcino at about three times the cost of this Ciró.