By Sasha Smith, NYC Correspondent

This week we headed to Southern Italy, much firmer ground for me. I drink these wines more than their northern counterparts because, one, I love all those gutsy red varietals (Aglianico, Nero d’Avola, etc.) and pretty, summery white ones (Fiano, Greco, etc.) and two, they’re cheaper. It’s still a bit of alphabet soup with all the grape names, but this week I decided to relax a bit and just go with the flow, Italian style.

Robert Scibelli taught this week’s class. A 2005 diploma recipient and International Wine Center staffer who’s now gunning for an MW, God help him, this is a guy who clearly knows his Southern Italian wine. He led us through a helpful exercise where together we answered the type of question that might show up on an exam: The Southern Italian wine industry is currently enjoying a Renaissance. What developments in the vineyard, winery, and market have brought this about? Some of the reasons are pretty standard – lower yields, temperature controlled fermentation – but others are more specific to the region. For example, Sicily has been very smart about exploiting its island-wide IGT designation, which gives them lots of flexibility and the ability to label their wines by varietal, which plays well in international markets.

As for the wines, we started with a Fiano di Avellino that was, as we might write in our exam tasting notes, “good quality for a commercial wine,” but again I ran into my whole subjectivity problem. I was working at a wine store in Michigan the first time I tasted a Fiano. It was this time of year, and drinking that fresh, minerally wine from Campania was like the first day of spring training – proof that winter was not going to last forever, even though it felt that way. Point is, this is a wine that always makes me happy, even when it’s not top-quality.

The 2003 Ceuso was a great example of a Sicilian IGT wine that’s built for the export market. Half Nero d’Avola and half Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, this wine is a great bridge between the indigenous and the international. For sure there’s some oak going on, but it’s well-integrated. The wine has layers of earth and fruit that seem to linger on the palate for days.

More traditional was an Aglianico del Vulture 2003 D’Angelo ‘Valle del Noce.’ According to at least one of the six sources I’ve been using to write my study outline for Italy, Aglianico is considered by some to be the third-best varietal in Italy, after Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Personally, I’d place it second (sorry, Sangiovese). This wasn’t the best Aglianico I’ve ever had – top honors go to a Le Querce Aglianico Del Vulture I had at Lupa once – but it had all the characteristics that I love. Robust tannins and acidity, cherries and dark, ripe fruit (someone in class said blueberry, which I thought was dead-on), earth, even some chocolate and a little leather.

Our final wine was a 2004 Cantina Colosi Malvasia from Lipari. It was a relief to taste something sweet after all that rustic power. Right now I have my fingers crossed that some sweet wines show up on the exam, simply because they’re easier to figure out. The nose and palate are often pronounced and specific – honey, peach, apricot, toasted nuts – so there’s not a lot of fumbling around for the right descriptors (“am I smelling pencil lead – or pencil shavings?”). Also it’s pretty clear when the sugar/acid balance is right and when it’s not working. If you feel like you’re drinking a liquid lollipop, you’re in trouble.

Speaking of trouble, next week we start in on North America. I’m really worried that we’re going to get caught up in all sorts of nonsense about the evils of over-oaked, over-extracted California Chardonnay and Cabernet. Seriously? Most boring wine rant. EVER.