New growth in the winemaker's graveyard

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The entire production of Chile and Australia could fit into either Puglia or Sicily. Yet only a tiny percentage of the contents of the bottomless southern Italian wine vat actually ends up in a bottle of wine. Don't ask me where it does go; I can't afford an expensive lawsuit.

The entire production of Chile and Australia could fit into either Puglia or Sicily. Yet only a tiny percentage of the contents of the bottomless southern Italian wine vat actually ends up in a bottle of wine. Don't ask me where it does go; I can't afford an expensive lawsuit.

However, the southern regions are gradually waking to the potential of both native vines and new-fangled varietals which suit this parched, arid territory. Recent years have seen the rise of a number of distinctive reds made from local grape varieties, sometimes rounded out with merlot or cabernet sauvignon to broaden the appeal. Whites rely more on chardonnay but they too have begun to prove they are a match for la cucina moderna.

Since suffering from the hangover of gearing production to plonky rosso and bianco, the new Sicilian wave owes much to Diego Planeta, who introduced international varieties on an experimental basis. By next year, the Settesoli co-op, of which Planeta is president, will have planted over 800 hectares of international varieties along with 720 hectares of the indigenous black grape nero d'avola. Carlo Carino, whose lengthy stint at Montrose in Australia's Mudgee taught him how to make warm-climate wines, has been consulting since 1989 with Planeta and Settesoli. He's a proponent of re-grafting international varieties such as chardonnay and merlot, and also believes syrah could be even better suited to Sicily's hot climate than cabernet sauvignon. A chardonnay and shiraz (syrah) from Corino will be available at Sainsbury's in July under the Inycon label.

Vying with Sicily for potential, Italy's kitten heel of Puglia contains a wealth of diversity in its indigenous vines, in particular primitivo and negroamaro, whose unique and distinctive flavours are only just beginning to be recognised. On a smaller scale, the two regions of Campania and Basilicata also have their interesting native grapes, in particular the red grape aglianico and the whites, fiano and greco. Even Italy's ruggedly mountainous toe of Calabria contains interesting varieties such as gaglioppo, dubbed by some "the barolo of the south".

Carlo Corino shows how the south is benefiting from the attentions of oenologists who would at one time have thought it a winemaker's graveyard. Italian consultants have brought kudos and international authority to the south's wines. Northern producers have come, seen and invested. BRL-Hardy, the giant Australian company, has even leapt into bed with Calatrasi in Sicily in a joint venture not simply to make wines honed to UK palates but to get across the New World varietal approach.

In the architectural paradise of Lecce, they will undoubtedly erect statues one day to Severano Garofano, the homegrown hero who single-handedly raised the profile of Copertino and Salice Salentino. Equally, with newfound confidence, the more dynamic local producers, the likes of Candido, Torrevento, Leone di Castris, Vallone and Pervini, have shown willing to change the bad habits of several generations in order to create a wine culture based on quality.

Southern Italian selection 1996 Brindisi Rosso, "Vigna Flaminio", £4.99-£5.50, Booths supermarkets; D Byrne, Clitheroe (01200 423152); Grog Blossom, London NW6 (020 7794 7808). Made by Vallone from a blend of three local varieties, negroamaro, montepulciano and malvasia nera, this Puglian rosso is suffused with a combination of vivid cherryish fruit, sweetness and spice.

1999 Primitivo A.Mano, £5.75-£7.95, Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh (0131 556 6066); Sandiway Wine, Cheshire (01606 882 101); Noel Young Wines, Cambs (01223 844 744); La Reserve, London (0207 589 2020). Better than ever, this is a sumptuous example of primitivo with aromatic power, wild berry fruitiness, southern spice and bite.

1999 La Segreta Rosso, Planeta, £8.49, Swig, London NW3 (0207 431 4412); Wimbledon Wine Cellars, London SW19 (0208 540 9979). A headily perfumed Sicilian red made from nero d'avola with a sprinkling of merlot for extra tobacco scents and juicy-soft raspberry and cherry fruitiness.

1997 Aglianico del Vulture I Portali, Basilicata, £6.49, Majestic Wine Warehouses. A modern take on the aglianico grape from Basilium emphasising the vibrant black cherry fruit and softness and adding a note of spiciness using French oak.

1998 Passomaggio, Abbazia Santa Anastasia, £8.50, Lea & Sandeman, London SW10 (020 7244 0522). A stylish, hand-crafted blend of the local nero d'avola with a touch of merlot, matured in oak to add richness and a touch of vanilla to the damson fruit flavours.

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