Add one more name to the growing roster of distinguished wineries in southern Italy: Donnachiara. This family-owned enterprise vinifies all the classic grape varieties of Campania – the whites Falanghina, Fiano, and Greco, and the noble red Aglianico.
I’ve been singing praises of those varieties for 30 years now, and nothing makes me happier than to see a new winery enter the scene with a line of elegant and totally characteristic wines. This raises the bar for everyone, producers and consumers alike, and that can only be good.
Unfortunately, it is still news to too much of the wine public that those four varieties are among the finest in Italy. Aglianico in particular I firmly believe to have the potential to become the noblest red variety in the whole vine-laden peninsula. When the time comes that producers and consumers accord Aglianico the respect that the Piedmontese now give Nebbiolo and the Burgundians have long granted Pinot noir, I’m persuaded this ancient southern variety will give them both a run for the money. The grape yields a wine capable of extraordinary depth, complexity, and longevity, as Mastroberardino’s fabled 1968 Taurasi Riserva has been showing for four decades now.
Ilaria Petitto is the fifth and newest generation of the family behind Donnachiara and the latest in a long line of dedicated and capable women to head the enterprise. They have been grape growers for five generations, making wine for their own consumption. It was the drive of Ilaria’s mother – the Donna Chiara for whom the winery is named – to fulfill the dream of her mother and grandmother (Marchesa Donna Chiara Mazzarelli Petitto) to produce pure and elegant versions of Campania’s most characteristic indigenous varieties. The family had for some time been accumulating vineyards in Irpinia’s prized zones – Taurasi for Aglianico, Tufo for Greco, and so on. 2005 saw the birth of the commercial winery.
Irpinia isn’t a familiar name to most American consumers, but it deserves to be as famous as Napa, or – dare it be said? – the Côte d’Or. Its hills and valleys lie about 30 kilometers (more by twisting local roads) east of Naples. Its high, cool slopes and rich volcanic soils support a vigorous agriculture – Irpinia is famous for its hazelnuts, among other crops – and its microclimates provide the prolonged growing season that Aglianico in particular demands. That fecundity was one of the main reasons the ancient Romans called the whole region Campania felix — Campania the blessed. Irpinia is the home, the center, for southern Italy’s most prestigious DOCG wines, Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Taurasi. In short, Irpinia is a formidable wine zone, with a potential for quality on a par with more famous zones in Italy and the world – so the Petitto family’s choice of locations for their vineyards was canny in the extreme.
I had the opportunity to taste the whole line of Donnachiara wines last week in Ilaria’s company. We started with a seemingly modern take on an old grape: a Falanghina spumante. Dry and refreshing, with nice Falanghina minerality and acidity, this charmat-method sparkler might well hearken back to a very old tradition. In the south, they used to make sparkling wines out of all sorts of grapes, even the austere Aglianico, so the only real surprise about this wine is how enjoyable it is.
Donnachiara’s still Falanghina showed equally well, with even more of the characteristic minerality and acidity in evidence. It even displayed a touch of elegance. While that is not a common trait in Falanghina, which usually relies on a sort of straightforward friendliness and liveliness, I soon found out that elegance is a hallmark of all the Donnachiara wines – most markedly the whites, but also the Aglianico-based wines as well.
The 2010 Fiano di Avellino (all the whites were of the 2010 vintage) seemed the stand-out white wine to me. Medium-bodied and exquisitely balanced, with classic Fiano fruit – a distinct taste of almonds and hazelnuts in the long finish – and a pronounced elegance, already showing signs of depth and complexity, this is a wine that is impossible to fault. Given the Fiano grape’s well-known (at least it is well-known in Campania) ability to age, it would be a good idea to cellar some bottles of it for 5 to 10 years – if you can keep your hands off it. At a suggested retail price (SRP) of around $18, that may be difficult.
I liked the Greco di Tufo too: It showed perfectly the wonderful, slightly oily, almost olive-y, distinctly earthy flavors of its variety and zone. More robust than the Fiano, and not its match in elegance, Greco to my mind and palate makes the perfect wine for shellfish and grilled finfish, while I’d rather keep the Fiano for fowl and veal and even pork – but that’s very subjective: Other folks may well prefer the match the other way around. For the record, I drank both with a salmon carpaccio garnished with flying fish roe, and both were delightful. SRP for the Greco is also around $18, Falanghina around $16.
The red wines formed a handsome suite of increasing refinement: Campania Aglianico IGT ($18), Irpinia Aglianico DOC ($20), and Taurasi DOCG ($35). The IGT wine sees no wood at all, the DOC 4-6 months in barriques, and the DOCG 24 months – but only a small fraction of the barriques are new, so the wines show no striking oak flavors. Instead, they all reveal increasingly vivid characteristics of Aglianico, ranging from a deep, black fruit flavor that resembles intense sour cherry, to a compound of mineral-and-earth-and-mushroom that runs through them all like the bass support in a Charles Mingus number. Above all, they strike the palate as elegant – poised, complex, big enough to be assertive but polished enough to be inviting. These are very welcoming – and very welcome – wines.
Donnachiara wines are imported by a division of Charmer Imports.