Ancient, rare, and resurrected are three adjectives Jancis Robinson uses to describe a trio of Campanian grapes: Casavecchia, Pallagrello bianco, and Pallagrello nero. The wines these three make I would call huge, complex, and elegant, and I think medals should be awarded the people who saved these varieties from extinction. They rank among the most exciting and distinctive new (old) wines I have encountered in many years.
I’ve written a little bit about all three already, and I hope to do more in the future: These are grapes and wines that deserve attention. I’ve tried to find out some more about them, but there just isn’t a lot of information out there. The most complete and up-to-date English-language source I know is the recently published Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz Wine Grapes, and the few paragraphs it contains on the three convey less information than a solid sense of how little is known.
Here’s the gist of it: All three are historical Campanian grapes, at one time of great importance and prestige. That much is verified by their having been planted, in the 18th century, in the famous but now vanished vineyard called Vigna del Ventaglio by the architect/landscapist Luigi Vanvitelli. Vanvitelli was architect to the Bourbon kings of Naples, and he designed their enormous palace at Caserta to rival their cousin Bourbons’ little summer place at Versailles.
Here in the extensive and ornate gardens – again, the goal was to outdo Versailles – was where he placed the Vigna del Ventaglio, a semi-circle of vineyard laid out in ten plots to resemble a hand-held fan. Each plot contained a different variety of importance in the kingdom of Naples, and three of those were Pallagrello bianco, Pallagrello nero, and Casavecchia.
Such DNA studies as have been done to this point on these varieties have found no links to any other known grapes. Indeed, Pallagrello bianco and Pallagrello nero, despite their names, are not even related to each other: They are totally separate varieties. There may be some kinship between Pallagrello nero and Casavecchia, but the fact is far from certain, and the nature of the relation, if it exists, is totally unknown. Their very unidentifiability would seem to suggest that these are very ancient varieties indeed: All the new grape varieties that are popping up now have traceable DNA trails. But that is just a guess, as is everything about their origin and antiquity.
The next sure fact is that all three varieties suffered mightily, first from the devastation of phylloxera and then from the depopulation of Campania caused by poverty, emigration, and two world wars. All three varieties were thought to be lost forever, to have simply gone extinct, and it was only as recently as the 1990s that surviving vines were found and identified in abandoned vineyards, and their serious propagation began anew.
Peppe Mancini and Manuela Piancastelli are the people universally acknowledged to have rescued and revived all three varieties, and I was lucky enough to visit their vineyards and taste with them the last time I was in Campania. Peppe, a lawyer and winelover, was haunted by the memory of the wines he had tasted as a child, and he and Manuela scoured the countryside until they located a few pre-phylloxera vines of each variety. That was the end of his law career and her journalism career: They became full-time grape growers and winemakers. Their handful of 150-year-old vines (150 is a guess: they might be even older) became the parents of the 10 hectares they now cultivate at their Terre del Principe estate, and of all the other Pallagrello and Casavecchia vines now growing again in the ancient homeland.
Here, with apologies, are my (much abbreviated) tasting notes from that visit. The apology is because of my reservations about tasting notes – but there is no other way to convey to you just how deeply I was impressed by these wines.
2010: All the charm of the 2011, but bigger and rounder; almonds in the finish. Very fine.
2009: Almonds in the nose now – Manuela says that’s characteristic of Pallagrello bianco. Very round and fresh, with a long dry pear finish.
2008: Very similar to ’09; still fresh and very lively. Long dry fruit-leather finish. Very impressive.
2007: Not as fresh as the ’08, but still live. Bright acid and dry fruit dance on the palate. Good long finish. A supple grape that makes a distinctive wine: clearly a variety to reckon with.
Pallagrello rosso Ambruco
2009: Rich, deep purple color (on all the reds). Blackberry nose. Blackberry-mulberry-leather palate. Leather and nut finish. Big, but round, with a touch of elegance. Quite fine, and very distinctive.
2008: Aroma of blackberry and tobacco. Palate rounder, smoother, more elegant than ’09: altogether more developed. Long tobacco finish.
2007: Tobacco, leather, blackberry nose. Palate similar to 2008, but with less leather, more fruit. Very long nutty/tobacco finish. Elegant and fine.
2006: Closing down a bit; just going into eclipse. Finish still fine.
2005: This either hasn’t entered eclipse or has already emerged – elegant, balanced, tasting of black fruits and leather. Quite fine.
2004: More mature aroma and very developed flavors. Nicely balanced, very elegant, very deep and complex. Manuela says that 2004 and 2007 were the warmest vintages, so this wine may be a bit advanced – which would seem to indicate that the best vintages will be very long-lived. She likes 2008 very much.
2005: Amazingly complex nose of cacao, black pepper, spices, and beef jerky. In the mouth, soft and round, fully dry: beefy, with black fruit and leather finish. A huge wine, intense and fresh, with years of life in front of it.
2006: Nose slightly closed but clearly big. Big, soft, black fruit and chocolate palate, black pepper and mineral following. Long leather and fruit and pepper finish. Another huge, young wine. Quite fine.
2007: All chocolate in the nose. Soft black fruit and chocolate on the palate, with hints of sweetness. Pepper, spices, chocolate in the finish. Tastes very young and wants years to deepen, but its link with the older wines is very clear, as is the reason Manuela and Peppe chose to show these wines in this order.
As you can infer from those last remarks, Casavecchia is the hardest of these wines to understand, especially when young, because it is the most different from the wines that most of us are used to. You’ve got to come to it with an open mind, suspending your Cabernet expectations for sure, and maybe even your Nebbiolo and Aglianico expectations. Casavecchia makes no compromises, no apologies. I think that may be what I like best about it.
All three Terre del Principe wines are imported to the US by Vias Imports Ltd.