Great wines lock themselves in your memory, so any time you taste something similar, inevitably the prototype pops up. While I was sampling a young Taurasi the other day, my mind wandered back to Mastroberardino’s 1968 Taurasi Riserva, for me an iconic wine.
Long ago, Victor Hazan, in his book Italian Wine, called it the best Italian red wine of the twentieth century. I’m not sure about that. Italy has produced a lot of great wine since then – but if Mastro’s ’68 Riserva isn’t #1, it’s certainly a contender. A still-live one at that: I drank it last two years ago, and it still showed both life and greatness.
I first encountered it so long ago I can’t remember the occasion. The wine was about 10 years old at the time, and by then, I had drunk many older Barolos and Barbarescos, Gattinaras and Spannas, Chianti Classicos and even some Amarones – many of them great wines, all of them northern. Then, somewhere, some person who should be a saint in heaven poured me a glass of Mastroberardino’s 1968 Taurasi Riserva.
I knew of Taurasi. I had drunk with pleasure Mastro’s Lacryma Christi, both the white and red, and admired them as accessible, food-friendly wines and also for showing some intellectual grit, some complex flavors beyond what their (still-today) modest price promised. But that first taste of Taurasi rearranged my enological world. From then on, my eyes turned to the south, and my palate followed suit.
You have to remember that the wine world 30 years ago was very different, smaller, more confined to western Europe. In the States, wine was French, with Spanish, Italian, and German merely footnotes and California a page that hadn’t yet been turned. I knew Lacryma Christi because every Italian-American restaurant offered it, along with Soave Bolla (pronounced as one word) and Ruffino’s Chianti Riserva Ducale. Those were pretty much the choices of Italian wine one had back then, and those only in major metropolitan areas. The US wasn’t a wine-drinking nation. Such connoisseurs as there were didn’t talk about stainless steel and temperature-controlled fermentation, much less battonage and barriques and new oak vs. toasted oak. No one drank fruit bombs, because no one made fruit bombs. Wine was about balance and elegance, about restrained power and grace. In California, most wine was probably still being vinified, or at least stored, in redwood. And in southern Italy, in those days, most wine was made and stored in chestnut.
Chestnut is something of an embarrassment now. Not to use oak these days is more déclassé than liking hot dogs (I do). But the embarrassment is misplaced. Chestnut did something for wines that oak never can: It made them velvety. Mastro’s white wines made in chestnut had a dimension they’ve never had since. His Fiano di Avellino especially had that unforgettable touch of velvet – and the ability to age for 20 years with grace. I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that Mastro’s 1968 Taurasi Riserva saw chestnut and not oak, which may be part of what made it so seductive and so age-worthy.
I won’t make any attempt to describe what the ’68 Taurasi tasted like, not just because (as I’ve said before) I hate tasting notes. After all these years, my mind has no doubt elaborated those flavors beyond accurate recall. What I do recall is that that Taurasi opened up for me whole vistas of wine flavors, of possibilities of wine styles, that I can only characterize as southern. It was, I still think, a totally different stylistic approach from what I had learned up to that time from Piedmont and Tuscany, from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Shortly after that, I met Antonio Mastroberardino, the gentle, scholarly head of the family firm. I was an academic, so I immediately appreciated Antonio’s thoughtfulness and precision, his reluctance to overstate or hype, his evident wish to clearly explain everything about his wines. It’s a teacher’s instinct, and Antonio would have made a fine teacher. No one could fail to be charmed by his courtly demeanor. A natural gentleman, he conveyed even his strongest enthusiasms – and they were many – almost apologetically, as if he were somehow intruding on your privacy. You had to love that.
There is also the fact that I’m not merely Italian-American: I’m Neapolitan-American, which – as Sophia Loren would be glad to tell you – is a whole other country. My grandfather and grandmother emigrated from the province of Naples. Until my grandfather died – when I was still quite young – he spoke Neapolitan to me, and even though I’ve lost it all, the music of that dialect still sounds absolutely right to my ears.
Beyond even that, there was Antonio himself, who looked a lot like all my uncles. I’ve come to think that something happens to Neapolitan men of a certain age, that they all converge on the same face. However that may be, talking to Antonio felt to me like talking to one of my own family, so I’ve always felt very close to him and his family.
All of that has folded into my experience of the Taurasi ’68: I can never drink the wine without thinking of all my meetings with Antonio, under all the gradations of prosperity and catastrophe that he has been through – the breakthrough onto the international market, the devastating 1980 earthquake, the building of the new winery, the death of his beloved wife Teresa, his many official honors, the start of the Pompeii project, the painful family troubles, the resurgence of the winery. All those things are constellated for me not just in Mastro’s wines, but particularly in the 1968 Taurasi Riserva.
There is a special reason for that. Italians have always had an ambivalent relation to their many masterpieces. After all, if you grow up with a Caravaggio hanging in your parish church or pass by a Bernini monument every day on your way to school, you grow a little casual about them, about the whole notion of greatness. That’s a cultural gulf that most of the rest of us will never cross, and it says something of importance about the way Italians deal with the world.
This was most concisely, vividly, and endearingly illustrated for me years ago at Vinitaly, the big annual wine fair in Verona. I enthusiastically dragged a wine-writing colleague to the Mastroberardino booth to introduce him to the wines I loved. Antonio was there and poured for us. He ran through the gamut of his wines, and all was proceeding impressively, each wine excellent in itself and a bit more complex and interesting than the one that had preceded it – until we reached the 1968 Taurasi Riserva. I had praised it extravagantly to my friend, and as Antonio poured it he described it as finely structured and youthful, with years of life before it. My colleague gave me a look of great dubiety, and rightly so: We both were tasting a distinct edge of oxidation in the wine, indicating that it was not all that vigorous and live. Aaaargh! I thought to myself. Are Italians shooting themselves in the foot again by hyperbolizing what – even if it won’t last forever – is still a very good wine? Then I noticed that the bottle Antonio was holding was less than half full. “Excuse me, Antonio,” I said; “when did you open that bottle?” “Let me see,” he answered, “Today is Friday, so it must have been Tuesday. Yes, Tuesday.”
As I said before, you have to love that.