The region of Calabria is the proverbial toe in the boot shape of Italy with a long history. Its first name was, in fact, Italia most likely derived from the Italic tribes who inhabited the region. They in turn most likely took their name from the word vituli which was the local word for the numerous caves which dot the mountainous area. The Greeks then came to the area bringing the art of winemaking. They called the area Enotria which meant “land where the vine is cultivated high above the earth.” There are records from the 4th century B.C. which indicate a vineyard in this area was worth six times the value of the same size field planted with grains. In fact, there is a group of people living today called the Grecanici who allegedly trace their roots back to Odysseus and the survivors of the Trojan War. The area was named Calabria in the 7th century by the Byzantines.
Calabria is bordered to the north by the region of Basilicata. The rest of Calabria is bordered by the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas. It is one of the poorest regions in Italy. The economy is based on agriculture including grapes, figs, olives and citrus fruits. In terms of the topography, there are some flat long areas near the coast (less than 10% of the total country), however, most of Calabria is mountainous. The Ionian sea has a moderating effect on the temperatures for the vineyards nearer to the coast, but the area is still quite hot and dry during the day. Due to the altitude, temperatures cool down a little at night which allows the grapes to continue to develop thru the growing season. The soils are a mix of clay, sand and marl which is good for wine growing.
Not a lot of wine is produced here. The best known wine is a DOC wine called Cirò (pronounced “CHIR-o”). There are other DOC’s that produce wine, however, for quality wines, with the exception of Cirò, the future and its potential is all that they have. Cirò has ancient roots. Cirò may be the oldest wine in the world still produced today. Local legend has it that the grapes were used to produce Cremissa, in a Greek colony known today as Cirò Marina, a beverage offered as a toast to the gods by the Olympic champions of ancient Greece. In fact, in the 1968 Olympics, the athletes were all offered Cirò with their meals during the competition.
There are about a dozen producers of Cirò bottling about 30,000 hectolitres per year. The DOC Cirò is located along the Ionian coast in low lying hills. Cirò is made also a Bianco (White), and Rosato (Rosè), but it is the Rosso (Rosso) that is most famous and that is the subject of this article. The Rosso must be made with at least 95% of the wine coming from Gaglioppo grapes. The remaining 5% can be Trebbiano Tuscano or Greco Bianco grapes. There are five additional designations for Cirò Rosso; Classico, Superiore, Classico Superiore, Reserva, and Classico Riserva. The first three are geographical restrictions while to carry Riserva title on the label the wines must be aged for 24 months before release.
The Gaglioppo grape is indigenous to the area. The wines it produces are very unique. The grape’s meat is lightly colored. While the skin of the grape is thick, it does not have a lot of tannins. To produce quality wines, producers must be willing let the grapes get fully ripe and then allow the juice to have contact with the skins for a long time to absorb both color and the tannins for structure. To do this well requires temperature controlled modern equipment which can be expensive. There are few producers willing to invest the money and make quality wines.
When it comes to Cirò there is one producer whose wines are the most famous. That is Librandi. In fact many people, even professed wine geeks, would be hard pressed to name another producer of Cirò. Librandi, a four generation family run winery, is headquartered in Cirò Marina. They produce a basic Cirò Rosso, Bianco and Rosado. In addition, their Duca San Felice is a Rosso Riserva. The Rosso should cost between $10 and $15 a bottle. Expect a lighter color ruby wine with an earthy feel to it. Flavors of cherries and rhubarb on the palate. These are not for long term ageing and should be drunk within 3 to 5 years of the vintage. For $16 to $20 a bottle, the Riserva Duca San Felice is a bit more of everything and should be drunk within the first five years. None of Librandis Ciròs see oak.
There are some other producers worth trying. Fattoria San Francesco is a recent winery, yet their vineyards have been producing grapes since the 15th century. They make a lovely Ciro Rosso Classico that sells for around $15. They also make a Cirò Rosso Ronco dei Quattroventi with their better grapes. This wine sees about a year in French barriques which adds some structure and tannins. I don’t find this wine necessarily better, just different.
Both Librandi and San Francesco make White and Rose Ciròs in addition to IGT and other DOC wines. You can feel safe about buying any of them to try. One other producer I have not yet had, but have heard good things about is Terre Borboniche. Their Cirò runs around $15.
I would also like to mention the Ippolitio 1845 winery. These wines are scarce but with a little digging you can find them in the United States. They make a very nice Cirò Rosso, Bianco and Rosado. They also make a single vineyard Cirò Rosso called Colli de Mancuso which is very good. But the star of the show, of all Ciròs as far as I am concerned, is their Ripe del Falco. In 2007 I had a bottle of their 1992 and it was stunning. With great red cherry and dried cherry flavors and a hint of earthy funk, this wine has layers of complexity. It has great structure with a strong backbone of acidity that has allowed it to improve in the cellar. Who said these wines cannot age? This is an exception to the general rule of drinking Ciròs young. I paid around $46 for a bottle at the Wine Expo store while on vacation in Santa Monica California and I wish I had bought more.
Cirò goes well with foods. It is quite versatile. Locally, it is often paired with pork made into salumi. Wild game including fowl is a local match as well. It goes surprisingly well with seafood and is great with vegetables or pasta. Although in Italy wines are rarely drunk without food, these can work that way too if you like. They do have acidity, they are Italian after all, but have reasonable alcohol levels and vibrant fruit.
Ciròs are wines of contradiction. One of the pleasures of drinking these wines is that they “behave” so unexpectedly. The light color can fool one into mistakenly thinking these are light wines. The aromas don’t meet the taste profiles one expects after drinking Cabernets, Merlots or even Sangiovese. They are soft in texture, yet sharp with acidity. They have a delicious sweetness for the ripeness, yet the fruit is a tart cherry. And, they are priced for everyone to be able to try them. I hope you do go out and try a bottle and please let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.