James Beard Award-winning sommelier Shelley Lindgren is currently working on a new book about the wines of southern Italy. Here she gives us her 12 best discoveries from the Italian coast.

By Megan Krigbaum
Updated June 07, 2017
© Frankie Frankeny

This spring, Shelley Lindgren was finally and deservedly given the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service at her San Francisco restaurant A16, confirming what many have known for a very long time: she’s the greatest Italian wine brain, sommelier and advocate in the country. Her depth of knowledge is evident in the staggering, unique selections she’s pulled together for her three restaurants. She’s completely changed and challenged what Americans think about Italian wine.

Currently, Lindgren’s mind is on the wines of southern Italy, as she’s doing research for a forthcoming book on the subject. And quite frankly, we’re insanely jealous of all of her travel, much of which has taken her to islands, beaches and craggy coasts.

"A lot of the of the islands and coastal areas in Italy that are a little more remote really have their have their own wine identities. They’re like treasures in the coves and cliffs and mountains," says Lindgren. "Obviously, southern Italy can be very warm and hot in the summer, but it cools down at night, so even places that are flat, like in the boot, in Puglia, where 90% of the wines are red, you have this really delicate acidity, and the tannins are round because of the warmth, so you get a real depth of fruit on the midpalate. They make great roses and drink it by the gallon. They eat tons of seafood in southern Italy, so regions like Campania and Sicily produce an incredible amount of white wine. People think of these as red wine areas, but that’s changing—it’s approximately two-thirds white wine. And you’re starting to see once lesser-known white wines from Italy being more and more recognized as some of the top white grapes in the world."

Since we can’t all go sailing around the boot with Shelley on her next voyage, we asked her to tell us about her 12 favorite bottles from the Italian coast. Here, her top picks:

1. Southern Italian Sparkling: NV Murgo Emmanuelle Scammacca Brut Sicilia

"When I was researching the wine list for A16 around the area of Campania, there was difficulty finding representation of sparkling wines from southern Italy. They existed but, didn't have importer representation, by and large. Emmanuelle Scammacca winery from Mt. Etna in Sicily was a clear front runner for method champenoise-quality production and it was a very exciting moment the first time it became available. Murgo has been the leader in sparkling wine in Italy for well over a decade. We have gone back and forth pouring the rosato, with it's cranberry color, and the brut with its mineral, mandarin and brioche flavors, perfect for some marinated anchovies or sott'olio eggplant and local ricotta to start a meal. The Nerello Mascalese grape, with its often comparative similarities to Pinot in structure, along with the acidity and minerality from the volcanic soil really make the wine memorable."

2. Italian Riviera : 2013 Bruna Pigato

"There’s some back and forth on what Pigato really is. Although it's not the same grape as Vermentino, it’s related to Vermentino. There are a lot of producers in Liguria that make both Pigato and Vermentino. Liguria is a great big herb garden, basically. There’s tons of basil and other herbs all over the Amalfi coast. The herbs are different than what we have here in northern California. They’re more lush and soft green, I think because they’re so close to the seaside. They just grow wild and everywhere. That’s why there’s so much pesto in Ligurian cooking. Pigato reminds me of all those herbs. It tends to be a bit richer than Vermentino, but still has very high acidity, with slightly more minerality than Vermentino, which is super lean and dry. Vermentino tastes of stone fruit and flowers and Pigato is more herbal, like lemon verbena."

3. Adriatic: 2013 Zidarich Vitovska Verde

"My coworkers at SPQR used to joke that this wine was my spirit grape. We all love it, but it's really fun to introduce to our guests if they are unfamiliar because it's so delicious. The Carso area of Friuli is incredibly beautiful and bucolic. It’s all farmland and from there, you can see Trieste in the distance because it juts out into the Adriatic. It’s incredibly gorgeous. Because of the Adriatic and the strong Bora winds, the trees lean dramatically towards the Adriatic, signifying the extreme conditions. It gets really hot in the Carso and the soils are bright red because of all the iron; it’s a fossilized seabed. So it’s a tiny little area right by the sea and the local grape is Vitovska. Only a handful of people make it, but it’s becoming more and more known. And it’s just perfect for rustic cuisine like seafood antipasti and prosciutto. I would called it a medium-bodied white with pretty firm acidity and orange blossom aromas, but less perfumed than Malvasia."

4. Crudo Central: 2013 Andrea Felici Riserva Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi

"Verdicchio, Fiano, Ribolla Gialla are all white wines that can age incredibly long. They have acidity and tannin that make them perfect for aging wine. I’ve had lots of older Verdicchio that has been really pristine. This is a brand new wine for us. It’s a beautiful Verdicchio that comes from this small little town the Jesi area, where I think he’s the only winemaker. In cooking school, I learned studied this Chinese cooking technique that uses different organoleptic qualities in food to create balance. Our chef Matthew Accarrino's great sense of balance often reminds me of it. You have a little acidity, salt, sour and sweetness and you experience all these elements on the palate. This is a wine that does that same thing. When you’re mixing food and wine together, it’s really exciting to find a wine like this."

5. Amalfi/Ischia: 2013 Cenatiempo Lefkos

This wine is incredible. Ischia, where it’s from, was a wine trade island back in the Phoenician times. It was written about in the Odyssey. This was where the Sirens came from! Up until World War II the only thing that happened on Ischia was wine. Since then, they’ve started building restaurants and other sites, too. The have these natural sulfur baths, too, because it’s a dormant volcano. More and more, people like the Cenatiempo family, are digging deep into their histories and their grapes and making wines in the Ischia Bianco DOCG rather than Campania. Cenatiempo, which is all biodynamic, has taken over very wide, ancient caves that have been burrowed into the hillside. The caves have a natural draft of air that comes through, and they have old palmentos for making the wine, similar to what you find in Sicily, and in Greece as well. Biancolella is their main grape and it has a wonderful mineral quality, but it also has citrus and a richness to it that can go with your whole meal. Ischia is known for its rabbits. They eat tons of rabbit. There’s a famous dish called coniglio all'Ischitana. It has tomatoes, garlic, white wine and basil, predominantly. Campania, including Ischia, here, are famous for their tomatoes that grow in volcanic soil and they’re really flavorful."

6. 2013 Girolamo Russo Etna Rosso Rosato

"This winery is on the north face of Etna. What’s incredible about Etna, being the largest volcano in Europe and on the largest island in the Mediterranean, is that you think of a volcanoes and you imagine that the vineyards are probably on the slope of a volcano. But Etna is so huge that there are tons of craters all over the place, not just one. When you’re visiting a place like Girolamo Russo, you don’t know how high up you are because it levels off, and there are vineyards, and then you go up again and there are more. It just feels massive. It’s amazing. We visited winemaker Giuseppe Russo last year—it was his first vintage making the rosato. His mom made us zucchini cakes and pasta alla norma. We had an opportunity to try the rosato and it has a nice zing to it, like that tart red fruit; it has everything you want in a rosé. It’s so refreshing and well structured."

7. 2013 Istine Rosato di Sangiovese Toscana

"Rosé is increasingly popular, but not as widely produced in Tuscany, but Angela Fronti makes a great one from Radda in Chianti because she and her sister like to drink it. It gets really hot there. This rosato is a rosé that has a savory quality to it, almost like saline, that works well with olives and vegetables and tomatoes lighter meats. It’s fuschia in color; it's a heartier rose. Angela is very dedicated to organic farming, and she only uses stainless steel and very old oak. It’s the modern young winemaker approach to Tuscan wines. She has a family history of winemaking, but she has a different mission and is running it in a way she believes in. It’s a really exciting time of new energy in the winemaking scene. They’re not worried about what their neighbors are doing. They have a vision. It’s not like you can be wishy-washy when you’re farming grapes and making wine. You have to have a clear idea of what you want."

8. Roman Holiday – 2012 Damiano Ciolli Silene Cesanese Olevano

Olevano in Lazio, where this wine is from, is about a 30 minute train ride outside of Rome. The whole Catelli Romani area has such a great history of winemaking. There are a lot of forgotten parts of Lazio because many of the people who grow up there move straight to Rome, or they make a beeline to Florence or Venice. Damiano Ciolli is a small producer who’s part of the future of Cesanese. He took the winery over from his father. He replanted all of his dad’s vineyards from the old-school pergola system to a trellis. There is been a real problem with overproduction in Lazio because of the pergolas. They were making as much wine as they could. Damiano replanted all the grapes but kept one corner on the pergola system so he and his friends could have a wine to by the liter in the piazza at lunch. I can’t recommend his Cesanese enough; it goes with everything. It’s the way he makes the wine. It goes with artichokes, sausage, lamb, with vegetables. It’s an incredibly versatile wine and it has a lot of character. It can almost be compared to a northern Rhone with a little spice and roundness. We always have a Cesanese and often Damiano Ciolli by the glass."

9. Crusader wine – 2012 Bonavita Faro

"Messina is in the northern corner of Sicily, three miles away from Calabria. You can see Calabria from Messina. When the Crusades were happening, Messina was a main stopover. That’s one of the things it is really famous for: Crusaders hanging out there on their way to Jerusalem. Giovanni Scarfone at Bonavita is just the most incredible winemaker. In Faro there are only about 5 wineries and 20 of the hectares (it’s only 30 hectares in total) are owned by Palari. So the Bonavita only has a few hectares. The little town where he lives in Faro, on the way to the vineyards, is so narrow (even by Italian standards) that most cars won’t fit on the streets. Giovanni is very handsome, in that quintessential Sicilian way: hard-working, dark black wavy hair, chiseled. He’s just out there doing what he really believes in. He’s just so dedicated to this farming and to making this wine. When we first opened, you could find maybe a few producers, maybe two or three, from Etna. Now there are 60. Faro isn’t volcani—it’s basically on clay, and it’s very close to the sea, so the wines have completely different flavors. Now, I smell a Faro and I go, “Oh, that’s so Faro. Like that’s Faro.” Nerello Mascalese didn’t have as much breadth as it does now. So, when you have a wine like this, it’s really exciting. I think Giovanni makes maybe 350 cases of red, most of which comes to the U.S."

10. Oenotria – 2012 A Vita Ciro Rosso Gaglioppo

"When the Greek first colonized Calabria, they landed in Ciro and would take wine in terra cotta pipes down to the ships and ship it off to Greece. This wine's in a medium bodied wine category where the grapes don't get as ripe as they do in Puglia, but we’re much farther south. It has this sort of fig, tomato leaf character. Calabria is definitely going to be a big region to watch out for."

11. The 'New Tuscany' – 2012 Tormaresca Masseria Maime

"When Antinori went down to Puglia did they found an incredible property at Masseria Maime; It’s a farm right on the beach. It’s an old olive tree farm that has these vineyards on the sea. It’s incredible. Even though Antinori is a large operator, they have done a really good job in their Puglia properties. And they’re doing a really good job with Negroamaro—a classic Negroamaro with a little Malvasia in there. They’ve left it very pure and beautiful. The wine has a lot of depth of fruit, bing cherries and black olives. I’m really happy that someone like Antinori bought this; they have projects where they’re really dedicated to preserving and they have the means to do that."

12. La Montecchia Fior d'Arancio Moscato Giallo, Colli Euganei

"This is sparkling Moscato Giallo made by Giordano Capodilista. His family’s nobility of some sort. He has a castle on his property and a farm and he is the most gentile farmer. He’s like a living history book. We’ve been pouring his wine since we opened. You can have it as an apertif or a brunch wine. I love it for after meals because it’s something like 7% alcohol. This also has a jasmine quality. I’ve been pairing it with aged goat cheese. It’s also like a perfect uplifting finish to a meal because it has that little bit of effervescence and sweetness. Slightly sweet, but not like a passito. Just, like, an uplifting finish to a meal. It’s so fun to bring that to people. It’s also versatile. It’ll go with tons of desserts or cookies or cheeses. We love it."

Related: A Wine Strategist's Guide to Pairing
Italian Grapes from A to Z
Sicilian Wine from Mount Etna