Despite chronic overproduction and underachievement, however, pockets of quality wine exist. And they demonstrate forcefully that the South's heritage of quality native Italian grapes - aglianico in Basilicata, negroamaro, primitivo and greco in Puglia, and gaglioppo in Calabria - can yet be harnessed.
Puglia, the 360-kilometre-long heel of the Italian boot, produces twice as much wine as Australia, but according to Severino Garofano, the region's leading winemaker, "there's no real tradition of bottled wine here". When Garofano was lured here as a 22-year-old by the firm of Candido 40 years ago, the only wine even to get close to a bottle was rose.
After his stint at Candido, Garofano's tenure at the Cantine Sociale di Copertino ushered in a new era for Puglia's main grape variety, the negroamaro. The mainstay of the increasingly fashionable DOCs of Copertino and Salice Salentino, negroamaro produces a dark, rich, almost raisined wine with a refreshingly bitter twist (negro means black, amaro, bitter).
One of his clients is Vallone, a family firm based in the sumptuous baroque city of Lecce. Old labels - moscato, aleatico, rosso, bianco, vino rosato and cognac - testify to a 150-year history of vino da taglio, wine made for blending. Owned by two bright-eyed sisters,Vittoria and Maria-Teresa, the vineyards in the bountiful 660-hectare estate of artichokes, olives, fruit and vegetables, are planted mostly to negroamaro in the traditional bush vine, or alberello, system. Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, are a more recent development.
In Calabria, Garofano works with Librandi to produce barolo-style reds from the local gaglioppo grape and a crisp, seafood-friendly chardonnay- based blend. In partnership with Librandi, he has just set up Masseria Monaci, a 30-hectare estate planted mainly with negroamaro grapes. Garofano also makes a red from Puglia's primitivo - a version of California's zinfandel - which reaches its apogee in Manduria.
Much of the alberello-trained primitivo has been ripped up for its lack of profitability. But in the hands of quality-conscious producers such as the Perrucci family's Pervini in Manduria, primitivo can make a near- port-strength raspberry/mulberry-style red. Vallone make a sweet, port- like Primitivo Dolce Naturale. Kym Milne, the much-travelled Australian winemaker working with Augusto Cantele in Puglia, is another contributor to the primitivo revival.
Garofano is basically a traditionalist, but he'll use international varieties when they suit the required style. To that end, he's experimenting with cabernet, merlot, syrah and chardonnay.
At Botromagno in Gravina, close to Puglia's western boundary with Basilicata, five-litre demijohns of white and rose plonk testify to Puglia's long- standing bulk wine heritage. The company still makes more bulk than bottled wine, but the trend towards quality is visible. When Beniamino d'Agostino bought the former co-operative in 1991, he hired Garofano, who convinced him that careful selection of grapes was the key to creating quality wines from local varieties, greco di tufo for whites, aglianico and montepulciano for reds.
Tourism and eating out are growing in southern Italy, but Garofano is cautious about the future. "There's great potential because you've got some excellent grape varieties here. But what you really need is a group of producers to get together to create an image for DOC Puglia. Perhaps in three to four years, it will begin to happen," he suggests. If it does, much of the credit should go to him
A selection from Italy's south
1996 Chardonnay Caramia, pounds 5.99, Sainsbury's, Majestic (buy 2, save pounds 1), Safeway, Thresher, Oddbins, Fuller's. Spicy aromas, sumptuous fruit richness with added complexity from partial barrel fermentation. 1996 Critone, Valle de Nato, Librandi, pounds 6.65, Adnams, Southwold (01502 727 222). Zippily refreshing Calabrian chardonnay/ sauvignon blend with a youthfully zesty twist. 1994 Salice Salentino, Agricole Vallone, pounds 4.95, Victoria Wine.This negroamaro/malvasia nera blend is a modern interpretation of a traditional style with fresh but raisined fruit and a firm but supple backbone. 1992 Pier dell Vigne, Rosso delle Murge, pounds 6.50-pounds 8.59, Adnams, Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh (0131 556 6066). Oak-aged aglianico-montepulciano blend from Botromagno with savoury aromas, and mellowing chocolatey fruit. 1992 Graticciaia, Passito, Vallone, Puglia, pounds 15.60, Adnams, Southwold. Distinctive traditional red which derives its damsony sweetness and concentration from late-harvested, sun-dried negroamaro grapes.Reuse content