Campania is a fascinating region, very beautiful, amazingly varied, steeped in history and full of wonderful things to see. Naples is of course at its heart, but there is so much more here too. Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and the islands of Capri and Ischia all offer rewarding experiences for the traveller, as do the ancient wonders of Pompeii and Herculaneum. However the less well known inland areas are also extremely interesting and whilst they are a little off the tourist trail, they do produce some of the region’s – and Italy’s – most exciting wines. At first glance the wines here seem very traditional and almost the antithesis of the soft, overtly fruity new world wines that dominate the wine selections in supermarkets around the world. They are of course labelled by place name as is the custom in Europe, but many Italian wine names include the name of the grape variety too, as is often the case here. Pretty much everything in Campania is made from local indigenous grapes, some of which are very old indeed, with histories that reach back into ancient times. These grape varieties are the driving force of Campania, they define the types of wine the region can make, while the climate and soils reinforce those definitions. Man of course can make choices and adjustments, so there can be some differing styles and emphasis in the wines.
Ancient Grapes Any search for new flavours and excitement should take in Campania as it is home to such fabulous grape varieties.
The Black Grapes:
Aglianico is the region’s mainstay black grape and its name is either a corruption of ellenico or Helleni that betray Ancient Greek origins, or Apulianicum, the Latin term for southern Italy. Either way we know it is very old and was used to make Falernian which was the most highly rated wine of Ancient Rome, the modern Falerno del Massico is made in the same area. Aglianico is traditionally full-bodied, with high acidity – perfect with food – and high tannin that can seem a little rustic in the wrong hands. Luckily many winemakers increasingly seem to know how to tame those hard tannins.
Piedirosso, was apparently mentioned by Pliny the Elder and its name translates as ‘red foot’ because the stems are red in colour. In fact, in the local dialect it is called Palombina or Per’e Palummo which means ‘little dove’ and ‘dove’s foot’ because the stems are made up of 3 stalks that make it resemble a bird’s foot. This grape also has high acid, but is lighter in tannin, so produces quite soft wines. It is often blended with Aglianico to make the wine fresher, especially in Fallerno del Massico and Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio.
The White Grapes:
Fiano is also an ancient variety that is believed to have been used to make the famous Apianum wine in Roman times. Back then the grape was known as Vitis Apiana beacuse it apparently attracted bees (apis). Of all Campania’s whites I find the best Fiano to be the most balanced in terms of fruit and acidity.
Greco is a fascinating grape, capable of making some great dry whites, the best are traditionally made in the area around the town of Tufo and are very mineral and fine. The jury is out about the origins of the name though. Most books say it was brought to Italy by the Ancient Greeks, but Ferrante di Somma di Circello, whose Cantine di Marzo produces fine Greco di Tufo, told me that it was called Greco because it was the best grape to make Greek style wine, by which people used to mean sweet wine from dried grapes. These were the most sought after wines in the middle ages and were known as Romneys by the English wine trade.
Falanghina, much as I love Fiano and Greco, I reckon Falanghina is Campania’s calling card for white wines. It is capable of being much softer and fruitier than the others and can easily be enjoyed without food. Again this was used by the ancient Romans to produce the famous Falernian.
Coda di Volpe was apparently even named by Pliny the Elder, because the bunches are thought to resemble a fox’s tail. The wines seem to have less acidity and to be more textured than the other Campanian whites. The Caprettone, which is used to make white Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, was long thought to be Coda di Volpe, but recent research has shown it to be a variety on its own.
Ancient Wines I have never been anywhere where so much of the ancient world is still visible and all round you. The Campanians are very proud of their past, both as part of the Roman world and as the separate Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and some producers are keen to keep the links with the ancients alive and I came across two fascinating projects that do just that.
True Amphora Wine
Villa Matilde is a terrific producer which specialises in Falerno del Massico – every time I tasted their wines I marked them very highly indeed – and farms some of the original vineyard slopes that made the Roman Falernian wine. This was the first cult wine of Rome and records show that it was served to Julius Caesar and even shipped to England. Salvatore Avallone owns Villa Matilde and wanted to create a wine that harked back to how the Romans made it, but was also recognisably wine – the Romans made wines that as far as we can tell were like a sweet syrup to which they added water and spices.
So he created a wine that is a blend of Aglianico di Falernia with 3% Piedirosso that was fermented and aged in 25 litre amphora that are lined with bee’s wax. The resulting wine is rich and delicious with concentrated fruit and lots of character.
Up From the Ashes
Every region needs a large scale pioneer and guiding hand, and Campania is lucky enough to have at least two, but the original is Mastroberardino which for a century, between 1878 and about 1980, was the only important commercial winery in the region – everyone else made wine for local consumption. Mastroberardino intially led the way to produce quality wines, to breathe new life into this region and to rescue its indigenous grape varieties. That task has now been taken up by others including Feudo di San Gregorio, but Mastroberardino are still important and make some very fine wines indeed.
In 1996 they helped the archeological superintendent of Pompeii to investigate five vineyard sites within the boundaries of Pompeii town itself. They carefully made casts of the vine roots from the holes that had left behind – just as they famously did with the human victims at Pompeii – and identified the vines. They were Piedirosso and Sciascinoso and both are still grown here. Then using all the sources they could they replanted the vineyards using the same viticultural techniques they think the Romans used, which I have to say look very modern to my eye. The resulting wine is called Villa die Misteri and is named after the large villa just outside the city walls that has the most spectacular wall paintings. Sadly I have not tried it as it is very expensive, but the whole project is very exciting and thought provoking.
Stories of Wines & Wineries
Frankly I was spoiled for choice on this trip, so many producers went out of their way to show me wonderful wines and to give me great experiences. Here are the ones that stay with me and for me sort of encapsulate the region. As there is so much ground to cover, I will restrict myself to the highest grade of Italian wines, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita / DOCGs – I will tell you about some of the other wines another day.
Campania’s most well known and leading wines all come from the Irpinia region, which covers the same territory as Avellino province around 30 miles inland from Naples. The three most important DOCG, one red and two white, nestle together. This dominance of white wine shows just how cool the region can be. The winters are long and harsh judging by the conditions in March and while the summers are hot and dry there is always a tempering influence from the mountains that dominate the landscape.
Taurasi DOCG is arguably the most well known wine from the region and was made famous by Mastroberardino, which was the only serious, export led winemaker here until the late 1980s, there are now nearly 300 producers. The dominant grape is Aglianico, but it can be blended with up to 15% of Barbera, Piedirosso and Sangiovese, all of which have softer tannins than Aglianico, so make the wines fresher. To give you an idea of what it is like, Taurasi is rather lazily called ‘the Barolo of the south’ and I can see why. The wines have similar tannins and acidity to Barolo, but in truth are more properly full-bodied and are normally much more mineral – I always think you can taste the slate and the salt in Taurasi. The soil is actually sand and sandstone and so the area is Phyloxerra free and the vines are on their own roots. This can be a hard edged and unrelenting wine and so not to everyone’s taste. The best examples though manage to tame the grape’s wilder instincts and make the wines approachable, if still very savoury and dry. I struggled to see the charms in some, but my favourites were simply superb.
Cantine Guastaferro This small estate made the most impressive Taurasi wines that I tried all trip, indeed they were some of the best red wines that I have tasted over the last 12 months. Raffaele Guastaferro farms 7 hectares at around 300 metres above sea level on south east facing slopes. The great secret is that the vines are – are you sitting down? – between 150 and 200 years old! This means they produce tiny amounts of very concentrated juice and that shows in the finished wines. Raffaele modestly told me that he has a magic vineyard and so he does not have to do much work in the cellar!
All Cantine Guastaferro’s wines are superb, although I didn’t taste his white, but his Primum Taurasi and Primum Riserva was magnificent with great concentration, ripe fruit, beautifully managed tannins, lots of minerality and even a twist of blood orange. My favourite was the 2006, but they all wowed me and deserve a place in any serious cellar.
2006 Guastaferro Primum Riserva Taurasi DOCG 1-2 years in Botti (large barrels) From 150-200 year old vines. Opaque, almost black and treacley colour, some slight tawny on the rim. Smoky nose, cinders, meat, ash, caramel, dried red fruit, blood orange and some leather too, as well as that tight minerality. Gorgeous palate, really oily rich and mouth coating, totally dry wine with a fine balance between the fruit and austerity, makes it taut, that slate taste creeps in here too. Glorious, with fine grain tannins, tasty, smoky wood, cooked fruit, gamey and absolutely superb. Some refreshing blood orange acidity lends purity. Lovely spicy tingle on the finish. Simply stunning, the tannins are firm but not too much, they are enjoyable and the finish is epic – 94/100 points.
Feudo di San Gregorio
Produced on an entirely different scale and readily available all around the world, I also found the Taurasi from Feudo di San Gregorio to be very impressive – as well as everything else they made in fact. This is a big winery, but their passion and attention to detail cannot be denied. They have only been in existence since the mid 1980s, but in many ways are the engine – the Mondavi, the Torres – of Campania and put it on the map at least as much as Mastroberardino. For many of us our first taste of this region was a wine from Feudo di San Gregorio. When I visited it was a bitterly cold day, so sadly I saw nothing of the vineyards, I was just grateful to get into the warm of the winery, which also boasts a Michelin starred restaurant.
2010 Feudo di San Gregorio Taurasi Taurasi DOCG Deep opaque colour, deep ruby with just a garnet tinge. Gamey, basalt nose, smoky, iron, roses, plums, red cherry, it still offers primary fruit despite being 5 years old. Beautiful palate, very tight and drying fine grain tannins, loads of black fruit, it’s earthy and beginning to be leathery, with coffee and mocha oak and running through it all is some refreshing, balancing acidity. Really good wine, gamey, meaty, rich and fine with liquorice spice and that touch of slate. The fruit carries the tannins and drying character well, without being aggressive – 91/100 points.
There is plenty of Aglianico grown outside the Taurasi zone of course, and many of them are very good wines indeed, have a look at this one which is a very drinkable IGT from Benevento. Tenuta Cavalier Pepe too make a very wide range of quite excellent wines. This blend of 70% Aglianico with 30% Sangiovese was quite delicious and would be my Wine of the Week if it was available in the UK. In fact Tenuta Cavalier Pepe is an excellent winery and everything I have tasted from them has been very well made, including their Taurasi and Aglianico rosé.
The White DOCGs
Fiano di Avellino DOCG is probably the most impressive of the three white wine styles produced in Irpinia, although they are all good. Avellino is ringed by mountains and apart from grapes the big crop here is hazelnuts as it has been since Roman times. Although the Italian for hazelnut is nocciola, the Latin is abellana and the Spanish is a still recognisable avellana. I really fell for the Fiano grape, it seems to me that it makes very fine wine indeed, mineral and acidic to be sure – the area has volcanic soils which often make for mineral wines, think of Etna and Santorini – but the best have lovely deep flavours, often of hazelnuts and almonds. The best examples often had orange peel characters too that I like very much, as well as apricot, which put me in mind of Viognier or Gewürztraminer, but with much more acidity, in fact by having texture and acidity, they remind me of the best examples of Godello from Galicia.
I tasted many fine Fianos, but the stand out wines came from Rocca del Principe. This delightful winery is in Lapio, right on the border between the Taurasi and Fiano di Avellino zones, which means they can make both wines here. The name means fortress of the Prince, because a local royal house were based in Lapio in the early middle ages. Rocca del Principe Fiano vines are grown high at 500-600 metres above sea level, on south east facing slopes. They age the wines for 6 months on the fine lees, which imparts complexity and a delicately creamy richness.
I tasted 9 vintages of the Fiano here, from 2014 tank samples, which were delicious, lovely and fresh, to the 2006 which was showing some age, but was still a great wine. The young wines had a more linear style, while the older bottles had more rounded richness, which suits the wines, I think. They were all superb dry white wines, but my absolute favourite was the 2009. 2009 Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino Fiano di Avellino DOCG Musky notes, butterscotch, cinder toffee, apricot and orange peel on the nose, together with some hazelnuts. The palate offers lovely sweet fruit, making it round and rich, but balanced by the minerality and cleansing acidity. I found it very like a dry Gewürztraminer, or perhaps a Godello. The texture is big and mouth coating, oily even, while the fruit and complexity gives it elegance , which together with the acidity and minerality give superb balance. A great dry white wine – 92/100 points.
I also tasted a range of vintages at Ciro Picariello, which is another superb little, 7 hectares again, estate that produces excellent Fiano di Avellino, as well as Fiano Irpinia from outside the boundaries of the DOCG, and once again the wines are well worth trying.
I also found the 2013 Fiano di Avellino from Feudo di San Gregorio was very good indeed, while their single vineyard version, the 2013 Pietracalda Fiano di Avellino had a little more fat on its bones, so was richer and finer, yet still very mineral and had great finesse.
Fiano is also grown outside the boundaries of Avellino too and especially good examples are available from the Sannio DOC just to the north, take a look at this one here.
Greco di Tufo is quite different. The wines made from this grape, in the area around Tufo anyway, tend to be leaner and more overtly mineral. In fact some of them reminded me of bone dry Rieslings, although a better comparison might be to Assyrtico from Santorini. Greco of course is more widely grown in southern Italy, but can be pretty inconsequential from elsewhere. It seems to need the tuff soils of Tufo, after which the town is named, which is compressed volcanic ash, which allows the minerality to really shine through.
Once again Feudo di San Gregorio’s wines were a very good introduction to the grape, both their normal Greco di Tufo and their single vineyard Cutizzi Greco di Tufo are very good quality indeed. I loved the taut mineral style, but with concentrated fruit and just a touch of richer cream adding weight.
I was also very impressed with the Greco di Tufo made by the venerable Cantine di Marzo, I really approved of the lithe, taut, mineral style, which also suits their excellent traditional method sparkling Greco called Anni Venti.
Equally good were the Greco di Tufo from the wonderful Tenuta Cavalier Pepe, all of whose wines seem to be first rate, and the excellent low sulphur example from the Azienda Vitivinicola Le Ormere, but I will tell you about those producers another day.
One last DOCG Aglianico is widely grown and the increasing quality caused the authorities to create a new DOCG in 2011. This is Aglianico del Taburno which covers the Benevento area, where much more easy drinking Aglianico is produced as well, much of it IGT. The vineyards are often very high, up to 650 metres above sea level and the wines that I have tasted certainly have a fresher style than the intensely mineral Taurasi wines. I especially enjoyed the two example that I tried at Fattoria La Rivolta. This is an excellent winery that is one of the leading lights of Benevento and farms in a near organic way. Their wines pleased me greatly, but then I was eating a rather lovely rustic lunch at the same time, so I might be biased!
2013 Le Mongolfiere a San Bruno rosé DOCG Aglianico del Taburno Fattoria La Rivolta 100% Aglianico The colour was most attractive, a sort of cross between copper and coral with ripe strawberry and cherry. The palate was very pure and fresh with high acidity and ripe cherry all the way through to the end. I enjoyed this very dry rosé, which was perfect with the local salami – 88/100 points.
2011 Terra di Rivolta Aglianico del Taburno DOCG Aglianico del Taburno Fattoria La Rivolta 100% Aglianico aged 18 months in barriques The nose was rich and offered ripe black cherry and plums, some coffee spice, earthiness, liquorice and dark chocolate too. The palate had lovely supple tannins, sugar plums and black cherry flavours and some refreshing high acidity. There was a savoury bitterness that built up from the mid palate, but it was delicious, like the inherent astringency in Nebbiolo. I thought this wine was very good indeed – 91/100 points.
The Good Campanians
There is much to enjoy from Campania. There are good wines, exciting grapes and fascinating stories everywhere you look. There is so much passion there, so much dedication and so much determination to make great wines. I have only scratched the surface in this piece with a peep at the DOCGs, and a few other delights, but I hope that something took your interest. Anyone who loves good wine would enjoy most of the wines that I have mentioned. The variety of wine in Campania is enormous, but so too is the potential. We shall return to Campania soon, so keep dropping back.