John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – May 27, 2017

Campania and more South Central Italy, and Premium Smart Buys for the Cellar
By John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

This week’s report takes a close look at one of the ancient world’s, and increasingly the modern world’s, most celebrated regions, Campania. Known to the Romans as Campania Felix, or the “happy country”, this southern Italian region lays claim to a superb collection of native grapes (or at least long-term residents) and a rapidly growing cadre of quality-minded producers. I detail the main grapes and recommend a trio of wines from the May 27th VINTAGES release to get you started on your discovery. The general theme of the release is South Central Italy, and I found a Tuscan red and a Sicilian white well worth a look. And if you’re seeking for a few special wines to tuck in the cellar, check out this week’s Premium Smart Buys Guide.

¡Descorchados!

Don’t forget to reserve June 8th for a first-of-its-kind tasting of South American wines in Toronto. Descorchados is the annual wine guide written by friend and Wine & Spirits Magazine colleague Patricio Tapia, one of South America’s most respected wine voices, and this is the first time that he’s bringing the road show to TO. “Only the wineries with wines published in the annual Descorchados guide can participate in the event, which means they performed well in our tastings”, says Patricio. A curated selection of top South American wines by the continent’s top critic? Get your consumer tickets here, trade tickets here.

Campania Felix

Campania is a region of singular beauty in the southern Italian Peninsula. It includes the Phlegraean Islands, Ischia, Procida, Vivara and Nisida, and the jewel, Capri, under its administrative umbrella. With nearly 6 million inhabitants, it is Italy’s 3rd most populous, and, as anyone who has travelled in its capital city of Naples would know, the most densely populated region in the country. Abundant sunshine, dramatic scenery, a rich tradition of gastronomy and the south’s deepest repertoire of fine wines conspire to make the region a joyful place. In fact, the Romans referred to it as Campania Felix, or “happy country”.

A map of Campania (credit: Jacqui Small Publications)

A map of Campania (credit: Jacqui Small Publications); click to enlarge.

Although it lies on a bed of limestone and marl, the soils in virtually every corner of Campania are influenced by volcanic activity. The regular and massive eruptions of the nearby island of Lipari, the Campi Flegrei, Roccamonfina, Monte Vulture and, of course, Vesuvius have deposited ash and tephra throughout the entire region, enriching the soils with a potent mix of minerals. Soils are so fertile that plants and trees burst out of the ground with unusual vigor, and fruit and vegetables reach their maximum flavor potential. The greatest known wine of antiquity – Falernum – was made here.

Getting There

Your most likely entry point into Campania is through the coastal capital of Naples, but be prepared. Even the luggage carousel at Capodichino Airport moves faster than the average, and travellers must jostle and scramble to retrieve their bags from the spinning belt. Perhaps it is sped up on purpose to set the pace and prepare unwitting tourists for the frenetic beat of life in the city.

The streets and highways are also famously chaotic, and you’ll quickly get the sense that you’re unwittingly part of a rally race. Traffic in Naples is governed by no obvious code. It’s every driver for him or herself. Lanes are non-existent, and traffic lights are more suggestive rather than imperative.

Yet astonishingly, the instinct of self-preservation is so finely tuned that accident rates are improbably low. Or perhaps it’s the overwhelming dread of the hassle and loss of time that accompanies a fender-bender that drives Neapolitans to access an inner sense of accident avoidance. The result, in any case, is the most remarkable example of organized chaos I have ever witnessed. It’s even rumored, in a richly ironic twist, that the German government considered removing road signs and traffic lights to recreate the chaos of Naples, thus forcing drivers to pay more attention and ultimately reduce traffic accidents.

(To be fair, the municipal government has been building a metro system to relieve traffic pressure on the tangled streets of Naples. But the project has been dragging on for about three decades. You see, anywhere you peel back a layer in this part of the world you uncover antiquity. And each time a new potentially important site is discovered, subway works are halted until the archaeological superintendence can assess its value. It’s a painstakingly slow process. So many ancient sites from remote history have been found during construction that one well-known Neapolitan comic was prompted to quip: “we’re not sure if they’re actually building the metro, or just looking for it.”)

Inland in the mountainous countryside and the surrounding wine regions, time moves at a more languid pace. But here as well there’s no shortage of museum-worthy artifacts, albeit living artifacts housed in open-air museums. Campania surely vies with Santorini for the honour of harboring the world’s oldest living grapevines. The significance of these ancient vineyards, a glimpse at winegrowing a century or two ago, has only recently been fully grasped. Such a complete databank of genetic material is a priceless resource.

Campanian Grape Primer

(Taken in part from my book, Volcanic Wines, Salt, Grit and Power)

More than any other region in the mezzogiorno, Campania remains a stronghold for native grapes. Indeed, Campania’s principal grape varieties today are largely the same ones that were planted in Pompeii, the Roman trading town made tragically famous in the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD that buried it under pyroclastic outflow and preserved it for posterity.

Pompeii vineyards

Pompeii vineyards

Written records and residues from amphorae discovered in the town prove that the reds – aglianico and piedirosso – and the whites – greco, fiano, falanghina and coda di volpe – have been planted in the region for at least 2000 years. And they still headline here. The steadfast vision of important wine industry figures such as the Mastroberardino family, especially in the post-war industrialization of Italy, and later in the 1970s and 1980s by other important figures like Leonardo Mustilli, has preserved an enviable viticultural heritage.

White Grapes

Falanghina is the most planted white, whose name derives from the traditional stake training best suited to it. Individual vines are tied to a single stake, in Latin called a falangae, to control its vigorous growth. Leonardo Mustilli in Sant’Agata de’ Goti in the Province of Benevento was the first producer to bottle a pure falanghina in 1979, and in the last couple of decades the grape has become enormously successful in Italy and abroad, a big turn-around for a variety that was not permitted in any of the region’s denominations until the end of the 1980s when it was included in the Falerno del Massico Bianco DOC of Caserta. It is now permitted all over Campania, and it figures in about 50 IGT denominations.

Old falanghina bottles, Mustilli

Old falanghina bottles, Mustilli

The detail-oriented will note that there are two distinct biotypes (and probably others), known as Falanghina Flegrea, prevalent in the Campi Flegrei, and Falanghina Beneventana in Benevento and Avellino. Falanghina is produced most often in fresh, unoaked versions, playing to the Italian market’s demand for the youngest and freshest whites available, though some accomplished wood aged versions exists, like Villa Matilde’s Falerno del Massico Vigna Carraci (though only a small percentage is barrel aged). It’s used occasionally for sparkling wine thanks to its high acids, though in my view is best utilized for crisp, citrus and white-fleshed orchard fruit flavoured wines, which reveal a more sapid, mineral character in exceptional terroirs like the volcanic tuff of Sant’Agata de’ Goti or the poor volcanic sands of the Campi Flegrei. With notable exceptions, it’s usually in the entry-level price range in a producer’s portfolio.

Fiano is one of southern Italy’s greatest white varieties, whose qualities were already well known in the days of Pompeii. It’s loose-bunched and relatively easy to grow. It figures most prominently in the Fiano di Avellino DOCG, and was the first white along with neighboring Greco di Tufo to be granted the top classification in the south. It’s believed to originate in the commune of Lapio, a small town in the hills east of Avellino where ancient, 200+ year-old vines still exist. Regional hero Antonio Mastroberardino is credited with reviving fiano’s fortunes, bottling his first in 1945.

Taurasi from Lapio

Taurasi from Lapio

Fiano has a truly unique flavor, distinguished from other local grapes by its distinctly non-fruity profile, more like a mix of fennel and fresh herbs, hazelnuts and honey, chamomile and acacia flowers that grows more toasty and smoky with time. It can be rather full-bodied and vigorous, and highly age worthy, especially in the heavier clays around the town of Lapio, but most commonly on the mid-weight, sharper side in the more loosely packed ash and sands in the rest of the Avellino area.

Greco is another ancient and celebrated grape, brought to Italy from Thessaly by the Greeks in the distant mists of time. Unlike fiano, Greco is difficult to grow, the wild child of Campanian grapes. “It’s savage and unfriendly”, says Pier Paolo Sirch of Feudi di San Gregorio, “low-yielding and sensitive”. It’s also very prone to oxidation in the winery, and careful handling is necessary to prevent a premature overly deep colour and oxidized flavours. But when it behaves it can be counted as one of Italy’s best, and most age worthy whites.

The finest examples hail from the high elevation (500+ meters) communes within the Greco di Tufo DOCG, including Santa Paolina, Montefusco and Tufo itself. If fiano is not particularly fruity, Greco is even less so, but nor is it floral or herbal. It’s a wine marked more by its big structure, – sometimes downright palpably tannic – with high acids and alcohol, managing the tricky balance between concentration, density and freshness better than most grapes. Winemakers consider it more “mineral” than fiano and in a portfolio tasting it’s usually the last white to be shown.

Coda di Volpe, or Cauda Volpium (fox’s tail) to the Romans owning to the bunch’s curved shape that resembles the tail of a fox, is a widely planted white variety in Campania, most prominently in the province of Benevento (Sannio and Taburno) and occasionally in Avellino. It’s been confused for centuries with caprettone, a distinct variety that has historically been planted on the slopes of Vesuvius, which is enjoying a minor renaissance now that it has been identified.

Whereas coda di volpe produces generally soft, fruity and easy drinking wines for immediate consumption (except in cooler sites on stony, free-draining soil like on the slopes of the extinct Taburno volcano in Benevento, where it gains a steely edge), caprettone, which is limited to the volcanic slopes of Vesuvius, is naturally higher in acid (though not as acid as, say, greco or fiano), and delivers marked saline mineral character and even a touch of petrol.

The Island of Ischia enjoys two high quality indigenous grapes, biancolella and forastera, related to no other known varieties on the mainland. Indeed, they were once trademarked names of Casa D’Ambra, the oldest producer on Ischia, though the rights were given up when the Ischia Bianco DOC was modified in 1992 to include the grape names. Of the pair, usually bottled pure, Biancolella is the more pale, delicate, floral, pretty variety, like a gentle whiff of spring flowers. “It’s not by coincidence that the native grapes of Ischia have feminine names”, Giuseppe Mattera Casa D’Ambra tells me. “These are refined, elegant wines.” Forastera is the more perfumed, fruity, imposing, fuller bodied grape, perhaps with more immediate international appeal. But again, everything is relative; even forastera is a delicate, lightly salty white wine in the grand context of wine.

Red Grapes

Of the red grapes grown in Campania, aglianico is by far the headliner. It’s also one of Italy’s greatest red grapes, capable of producing wines of extreme complexity and longevity. It is responsible for the region’s only two DOCG red appellations, Aglianico del Taburno and Taurasi. The former is made from a distinct variation on the variety, known locally as aglianico amaro, which tends to be softer and rounder, less structured and earlier maturing than the aglianico of the Taurasi area. But again, everything is relative; all versions are on the structured, tannic and acid end of the spectrum, acquiring occasionally a brute force that can shock the uninitiated.

Aglianico is believed to have originated in Greece. The Romans referred to it as vitis ellenica, or the “Hellenic grape”. Its tight bunches make it prone to rot, which explains its superior performance in the dry zones of Taurasi and Taburno. The best have that unmistakable Italianate character of dryness and austerity, more gravel than sandpaper, with a highly complex range of flavours that occupies the savoury pie of the aroma wheel: leather, tobacco, pot-pourri, tar, licorice, sun-warmed terra cotta, and much more. Aglianico is often referred to as the nebbiolo of the south (thanks mainly to the grand old Taurasis of Mastroberardino), sharing the characteristics of high tannins and acids, savoury flavours and extreme longevity. Though its colour, and fruit character, are generally much darker and more brooding than nebbiolo’s. Another similarity is the blunting effect of an over-lavish use of new wood, which dulls the otherworldly perfume of both grapes. Aglianico also produces magical, medicinal wines on the slopes of the Vulture volcano in neighboring Basilicata.

Piedirosso (aka Per e’ Palummo) is the next most planted red grape in Campania after aglianico, yet another ancient variety described in considerable detail by Roman authors like Pliny the Elder. The name, meaning “red foot” (or “pigeon’s foot”) is a reference to the red colour of the stems and veins of the leaves, which are said to resemble the red feet of pigeons. The precise character of piedirosso is difficult to pin down, and the style variation is wide. “It’s the most difficult variety in the world, an anarchist”, states Raffaele Moccia of Agnanum in the Campi Flegrei with noted hyperbole, who happens to make one of Campania’s better examples. “Either you know how to make it, or you don’t make any. You might only grow canes and leaves.”

Most vintners complain of the variety’s lack of colour and structure, though Moccia’s is both deeply coloured and tannic. Other examples I try are light and pale, which confirm the grape’s historic use as a blending component to soften the tannic impact of aglianico.

Sciascinoso is another typical blending partner with piedirosso, most famously in the Lacryma Cristi Rosso DOC. It’s a much easier variety to grow and vinify, yielding fresh, red fruit-scented wines with modest alcohol and tannins and lively acids. Pure piedirosso can be found in the Ischia, Campi Flegrei, Taburno and Sannio DOCs, among others, and is generally best consumed young, with a light chill for the lighter versions. Pure Sciascinoso is exceedingly rare.

The rest of the minor grapes grown in Campania would take another full article to log (there are about one hundred cultivars in total), which I’ll leave aside for now. But as the interest in native varieties continues to grow, both from producers’ and consumers’ perspective, we’ll no doubt be hearing much more about the odd local specialties in years to come.

John Szabo’s VINTAGES May 27th Buyer’s Guide:

Campania

Taurasi DOCG was the first southern Italian denominazione to be granted the “G” for garantita (“guaranteed”). The production area covers 17 villages mainly in the valley of the River Calore east and slightly north of Avellino, centered on the town of Taurasi itself. The Nativ 2011 Taurasi ($31.95) is a typically savoury, herbal, spicy, developed red and black berry fruit and wood spice flavoured example, complex and authentic Taurasi. It’s still not quite yet at prime, but very nearly there.

In the meantime, try the…


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That’s all for this report. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

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Castello Di Gabbiano Riserva Chianti Classico 2013