The south of Italy, that is. There is probably now more enological excitement in Italy below Rome than there has been since Lucullus ruled the gastronomic roost. New wineries are opening, old ones are expanding, and more and more attention is being paid to the rich heritage of native grapes that southern Italy has preserved for two millennia. Of no part of the south is this truer than Campania, once the Roman Empire’s Côte d’Or and now home to a revived and thriving viticulture.
All of which is very gratifying to me, since I’ve been trumpeting the virtues of Campanian wine for (too) many years. Maybe it’s genetic (my paternal side is deeply Neapolitan), but I find the cooking of Campania the most enjoyable of all of Italy – and I love the food of Rome and of the Piedmont, so I don’t say that lightly. Also, I think the wines of Campania potentially the best of Italy, which I don’t say lightly either. Aglianico I believe has the capacity to surpass the accomplishments of Nebbiolo, and the whites Fiano and Greco can, I think, do the same to the wines of Friuli and Alto Adige. None of the three is there yet, at least not consistently, but they’re capable of it, and that’s what makes the renewal of southern Italy so exciting.
No winery has played a larger role in activating the Campanian wine scene than the young but already accomplished Feudi di San Gregorio. Feudi (that’s pronounced FAY oo dee) came into being not quite 25 years ago, in the wake of the earthquake that devastated the Avellino region and subsequently brought a flood – well, a freshet – of government and EU money to the ever-needy south.
Now headed by a youthful, energetic, and imaginative Antonio Capaldo, Feudi has in its short life span accumulated some excellent vineyards in the Taurasi, Greco di Tufo, and Fiano di Avellino DOCG zones, as well as others in Puglia and Basilicata. It has built a handsome, state-of-the-art winery and restaurant complex in Avellino, won itself a few Tre Bicchieri, and even managed to evolve a bit, from an early overdependence on small, new oak cooperage (nothing gets Tre Bicchieri or high Parker and Wine Spectator scores faster than a lot of yummy, sweet oak vanilla) to a greater faith in the qualities of native grapes and the special volcanic soils that are the gift of all those millennia of seismic activity.
I had lunch a few weeks ago with Antonio Capaldo while he was in New York, and he had several very interesting things to say and several striking wines to show.
“Parts of the south of Italy seem the same as they were two centuries ago. After the last earthquake, it became even wilder and emptier. That was when Feudi got started. Now we’re trying reconfigure the winery and communicate our very special products to the public. In the US, we’re lucky to be dealing with many young restaurateurs and sommeliers who are very open and curious and willing to try something they don’t know. There’s a level of seriousness here that we don’t find in Italy, where everyone is convinced they already know everything about wine.”
I asked what was involved in “reconfiguring the winery,” besides building new or enlarging the facilities.
“Basically, we’re trying to go back to making wine the way it was fifty years ago, before the fad for new oak. We’re learning from the small growers, the old-timers. Aglianico for instance is a grape that doesn’t like much oak, and it does better in big botti than in barriques. So we are gradually retiring our barriques. Already the white wines are vinified completely without them, in stainless steel, at low temperatures. We’ve put our agronomist in charge of all winery operations, because we really believe that what happens in the vineyards is much more important than what happens in the cellar. This is a long-term commitment: We’re trying to take the long view. When you change something in the vineyards, for instance, with red wines it may take 15 years before you see the results. You have to be patient, and you have to be consistent.”
Happily, white wines show the effects of changes much sooner than reds, and the wines I tasted that afternoon bore out Capaldo’s claims. While the red wines still showed some effects of small oak, and were moreover still tight despite their years since harvest, the white wines showed an absolutely crystalline varietal purity.
Not that the Feudi 2004 Taurasi, the 2002 Taurasi Riserva Piano di Montevergine, and the 2005 Irpinia Aglianico Serpico lacked intensity or character: If anything, they were a touch too intense, and still seemed a few years away from becoming the rich, expansive wines Aglianico is capable of. Reds from grapes of Aglianico’s distinction just take a long while to mature and, so to speak, relax.
Feudi’s 2009 Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more welcoming. Both showed wonderful varietal character, the Greco all mineral and green olive, the Fiano leaner but at the same time bigger and more mouth-filling, with hints of hazelnut in with its forward minerality (those volcanic soils!). Even the surprise wine, called DUBL, a metodo classico sparkler vinified from Greco, showed good Campanian character amidst its beautiful perlage. Clearly, the field work is already paying off for Feudi, and one can hope that this marks the start of a long, ascending curve for the winery and for Campanian wine generally.