On Saturday, I took my Italian Wine Scholar final exam on the wines from Central and Southern Italy. It was more difficult than I had anticipated. It covered 12 regions, including Toscana, Campania, Puglia, Sicily and the island of Sardegna.
The Unit 1 exam, which I took last spring and passed, covered six Northern regions, including the wine-producing behemoths Piemonte and Veneto.
The Unit 2 test featured 100 multiple-choice questions and had to be completed within one hour.
Since Southern Italy wine growers take pride in their native grapes, my mind was a blur of some previously unfamiliar varietals -- reds like Piedirosso, Vernaccia Nera and Ciliegiolo, and whites like Verdicchio, Malvasia di Candia Bianca and Carricante, among others.
These grapes are turned into local wines of extraordinary distinction, so much so that Italians are hard-pressed to share them because of their limited production. In recent years, however, as the secrets of Matelica and Castelli di Jesi in Marche and the Vesuvio DOC (a zone of volcanic vineyards) in Campania have gotten out, producers have invested in Southern Italy, where land is cheaper, and planted vineyards.
One of the benefits of my three-hour classes, which I attended every other Saturday from January through March, is that I got to taste six unique wines each week. The learning part is fun, too, but nothing beats a good Italian wine at 10 o'clock in the morning!
Today, I am going to share with you some of the more fascinating and memorable wines we enjoyed. All are available at the Concord Wine and Cheese Shop, which provided the wines.
* Argiolas Perdera Monica di Sardegna, $13.99: The red grape is Monica, which is found exclusively on sun-swept Sardegna, the island that sits in the western Mediterranean Sea, adjacent to Sicily. I couldn't believe how refreshing this medium-body wine felt in my mouth -- almost like an Oregon Pinot Noir. Juicy red berries and a bit of cranberry add to a delicious drink. The ruby-red color is stunning.
* Duca San Felice Cirø Rosso Classico Superiore Riserva, $13: Cirø is a small town of 3,500 people in Calabria that sits on rocky cliffs overlooking the Ionian Sea. The ancient Greeks settled here and planted vines in 1000 AD. Cirø is considered a "cru" location for the ancient Gaglioppo grape that dominates this appellation. It's expressive in cherry and violets, and supported by a mineral frame. Fermentation takes place in steel tanks, which lends to its purity. It's higher in alcohol and aged for an extra year, creating a velvety, dry wine.
* Curva Minor Terre Siciliane IGT, $21: This garnet-colored wine features the tannic Nero D'Avola and the softer Frappato grapes that thrive in the vineyards north and south of the Mount Etna volcano on Sicily's east-central coast. Vines grow in soils layered with lava, pumice and other volcanic debris. This is a well-integrated wine with intense red fruit aromas, flavors, tannins and acidity.
* Lacrima Christi del Vesuvio, $14: Here's a new favorite, a wine from Campania that hails from grapes grown on the sloping vineyards of the active volcano Vesuvius. Vineyards ring the volcano's 90-mile circumference, turning the landscape into a green sea on a canvas of black soils. Lacrima Christi is a red blend made from the Piedirosso and Aglianico, two prized varietals. Piedirosso is softer, more perfumed and elegant; Aglianico, called the "Barolo of the South," is rich, powerful and age-worthy. Together they make a full-bodied, intense rosso that lives up to its gifted name -- Lacrima Christi -- which translates into "Tears of Christ."