Campania Stories 2: Taurasi and Aglianico

Initially, the event that most drew me to Campania, back at the beginning of March, was the tasting of new releases of Taurasi and Taurasi riserva. This has for decades been one of my favorite wines, though it has suffered the fate of most southern Italian wines: It just doesn’t get the attention or respect it deserves. As I’ve said before, I rank the Aglianico grape from which it’s made right up with, and in some vintages above, Nebbiolo. While most of Italy is content to think of Taurasi – when it thinks of it at all – as the Barolo of the South, in Campania they are more likely – and more correctly, given the historical diffusion of viti- and viniculture in Italy – to think of Barolo as the Taurasi of the north.

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All that prologue is to explain the excitement with which I approached the blind tasting of 48 examples of Taurasi and Taurasi riserva of the 2006, ’07, ’08, and ’09 vintages, plus 16 more bottles of Aglianico of the 2008, ’09, ’10, and ’11 vintages. I hoped this broad swathe of Aglianico production from its heartland, Irpinia, would give me a good picture of exactly what was happening in this important zone. For sure, it did, and for sure it made me one happy camper. I found many wines to enjoy and not a few to relish.

That wasn’t the only Taurasi vertical I was fortunate enough to squeeze into my hyperactive week in Campania: I talked about one last month, and I’ll talk about another further along in this post. But first I want to focus on the new releases, which I tasted blind (I always opt to do that when I can: it cuts out all the prejudices of familiarity and label-consciousness and gives me as close as a single taster can get to an objective assessment of the wines).

Villa RaianoThe tasting was very intelligently and helpfully organized. We started with four vintages of Aglianicos from areas outside the Taurasi DOCG: Campi Taurasina, Irpinia, and Campania IGTs: 16 wines in all. The 2011s were very pleasant, the 2010s very tight right now, the 2009s a mixed bag, and the 2008s really fine. Among the wines I thought showed best were several names that will be familiar on the US market: Mastroberardino, Donna Chiara, Villa Raiano. But smaller producers less widely distributed also performed very well: Antico Castello, Antichi Coloni, Caggiano, Di Marzo, and especially Luigi Tecce, whose Campi Taurasini Satyricon was outstanding.

All these wines exhibited excellent Aglianico character – black cherry fruit and tobacco and marked minerality, along with lovely balance and, in the 2008s especially, some real elegance. These IGT wines tend to be quite reasonably priced, and you don’t have to be in a hurry to drink them: They will take some bottle age nicely – even the already-five-year-old 2008s. They are the quality equivalent of village Burgundies, at the price of Borgogne Rouge.

Urciuolo TaurasiThe tasting then moved on to the Taurasi DOCG wines: first the 2009s, then 2008 riservas, then 2007 and 2006 riservas. Within each vintage the presentation was divided into geographic sections: first wines blended from grapes originating in two or more subzones, then wines made in the northern quadrant of the Taurasi zone, then the western zone (which overlaps with the Fiano di Avellino zone), then the central valley (bearing no resemblance at all to the similarly named site in California), and finally the southern zone, indicated as alta valle – high valley. I confess that I couldn’t consistently discriminate between these subzones. There may well be specific characteristics that identify the wines of each, but I’d need more experience to be able to spot them.

One thing I did notice: in the ’09 vintage, I really enjoyed the Versante sud/alta valle wines: They had a juiciness and freshness that really set them apart. These are the examples I tasted:

  • Masseria Murrata Passione
  • Fratelli Urciuolo
  • Tecce Poliphemo
  • Amarano Principe Lagonessa
  • Villa Raiano
  • Colli di Castelfranci Alta Valle
  • Bambinuto

Overall, the 2009 vintage at this early stage of its development is quite pleasing, whatever subzone it’s from – more accessible and less austere than young Taurasi can often be, with nice fruit, good balance, and classic Taurasi elegance.

matilde taurasiThe 2008 vintage on the other hand showed the powerful side of Taurasi, both in regular bottlings and in riservas. Dark flavors dominated – deep black cherry, earth and mineral elements, tobacco, leather. Big, full-bodied wines with still-firm tannins, they will greatly reward cellaring for even a few years. In short, textbook Taurasi, which is no mean compliment. I liked many of the 48 I tasted, but since many of the small producers aren’t available on the US market, I won’t tantalize you with them here. Of the widely distributed producers, I particularly admired these:

  • Donna Chiara riserva
  • Feudi di San Gregorio Piano di Montevergine riserva
  • Terredora Pago dei Fusi 2008 and Fatica Contadina
  • Villa Matilde.

Among the older riservas, I would single out both Mastroberardino’s Radici 2007 and its Naturalis Historia 2007.

tecci poliphemoI’ve posted earlier about Mastroberardino’s magnificent, six-decade vertical of Taurasi, but I was also lucky enough while I was in the Irpinia zone to experience one other impressive vertical. Sabino Loffredo, owner of Pietracupa and a fine winemaker in his own right (his 2009 Taurasi stands among the best of that vintage, and his white wines – Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino – are top-notch) organized a vertical tasting of his friend Luigi Tecce’s Taurasi Poliphemo. This covered the vintages 2008, ’07, ’06, ’05, ’03, and 2001, all of which were absolutely classic Taurasis, with clearly delineated dark fruits (I kept tasting mulberries in addition to blackberry and sour cherry) and tobacco flavors, lovely soft tannins, and admirable earth-and-mineral notes.

Luigi Teccephoto © Tom Hyland

Luigi Tecci
photo © Tom Hyland

Tecce describes himself as a “less than minimalist” winemaker, insisting that he does nothing to the grapes. “Soils are everything,” he says, and his are high – at or above 500 meters – and a mix of volcanic and marine layers. He ferments his Taurasi in chestnut before moving it for some months to used barriques and then finally to botti to repose for some time before bottling. He harvests late – in ’07, in the snow; in ’06 he finished harvest on November 26th – and he doesn’t even use temperature-controlled fermentation: in short, winemaking the way it used to be in Italy before the impact of California technology, with all the advantages and disadvantages that implies. In Tecce’s case, his meticulous attention to his five hectares of vines makes it work magnificently. These very limited production wines are worth searching for. (For another enthusiastic review of this tasting, go here.)

But so are many – probably most – of the wines I tasted all week long. In all honesty, I didn’t taste a bad bottle the whole week I was there, so you should be willing to at least try any Taurasi of these recent vintages that you come across. The market is in some flux: Italy seems finally to becoming conscious of the vinous treasures it has in the south, especially in Campania, and my guess is that the US market will not be far behind in awareness. So with a little luck, we will start seeing more examples of Taurasi here, soon. Speriamo, eh?

3 Responses to “Campania Stories 2: Taurasi and Aglianico”

  1. Kyle Says:

    I neither agree nor disagree with you regarding the Nebbiolo-Aglianico which-is-best controversy, because it’s a comparison between apples and oranges. Nebbiolo has been grown with an eye on quality in the Langhe for well over a hundred years by now, and the wines reflect this. Emphasis on quality has come to Irpinia more recently, and if you taste through the wines you will note some that (really) stand out, but also some in which it is clear that the winemaker is still working on getting technique down. In other words, Irpinia is to a degree a work in progress, and climbing. At present Nebbiolo probably has an edge, though some older Taurasi will give like-aged barolo or Barbaresco a serious run for its money, but whether this edge will still be present 50 years from now is an open question.

  2. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Tom:

    Enjoy your travels.

    Your Campania pieces remind me of Vergil’s 4th eclogue, and an impending Golden Age. Surely Vergil’s time in Campania influenced this work, perhaps because of all the wine and bucolic vistas (or is that anachronistic?).

    Still, I have not found a wine of Campania to trump the best of Barolo, and in this sense, I concur with Ed McCarthy. But many wines of Campania are vastly superior to many wines of Piedmont, and that is a testament to the winemaker and winegrower…and perhaps to Publius Vergilius Maro.

    Best regards,
    Joe

  3. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Tom, I do agree that Aglianico is a top variety (and Taurasi a great wine), but I respectfully disagree that it is a greater variety than Nebbiolo, which in my subjective opinion, is finer, and ranks with Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the world’s greatest red varieties. For me, Nebbiolo is the finest. Barolo and Barbaresco at their best exceeds Taurasi. All of this is subjective, of course, but I wanted to weigh in with my opinion.

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