Irpinia in the Crystal Ball

Here’s a premature but heartfelt prediction: some day wine lovers will treat Irpinia with the same respect and importance they currently afford the Côte d’Or.

I’m just back from a trip to southern Italy for Bianchirpinia, an event highlighting the two principal white varieties of this Campanian zone, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, and featuring their new releases – mostly 2011, with a few 2010s.

I was very, very impressed by almost every aspect of the event: the quality of the wines, the number of producers participating, the degree of cooperation and openness exhibited by everyone involved.

Irpinia is the traditional name for an area roughly 50 kilometers east of Naples, high in the hills around the two principal towns of Avellino and Atripalda. Lovers of Italian wine are already familiar with the produce of the zone even if they don’t recognize its old name, since Irpinia contains what were until quite recently Campania’s only three DOCG wines, the red Taurasi, named for the town at the heart of its growing area and made entirely from the ancient Aglianico grape, and the whites Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, each named for the indigenous variety from which it is exclusively vinified and for the town at the heart of its zone.

To call Irpinia hilly is understatement. It’s precipitous, and several of those hills swell into real mountains. They catch the clouds, the winds, and often the rain – though not in the summer of 2012, which was quite dry.

Because it’s high – vines are planted as high as 800 meters – it’s windy and cool, with a long growing season that usually pushes the grapes to full sugar and phenolic ripeness. The hills provide a multiplicity of exposures and microclimates, and because the geology is highly varied, soils are markedly diverse: layers of volcanic ash and/or decayed lava, marine sediments, clays and alluvial deposits, or a mixture of all of the above.

For winemakers, this means it’s crucial to match your grape variety with your site and give each different site and variety the special care and maintenance it requires. Done properly, that results in top-quality wines that show distinctive characters, just as it does in the established crus of the Côte d’Or. What impressed me at Bianchirpinia is just how many producers are already achieving that kind of site-specificity in this young ancient land.

Irpinia, like most of Campania, has been an important wine producer at least since the area was colonized by the ancient Greeks (starting approximately 800 BCE), and maybe before – some historians believe it was the quality of Campania’s wine that attracted the Greeks to it. But like most of the Italian south, Campania’s economy and prestige declined in modern times – most precipitously after Italian unification. After WW II and the end of the sharecropping system that had kept Italy feudal and agrarian for centuries, farmers fled the land, leaving fields and vineyard idle. Ancient varieties like Aglianico, Fiano, and Greco were neglected or overcropped to make quantity rather than quality, and the image of southern wine fell even further.

From this nadir, the wines have resurged magnificently. Under the leadership of the Mastroberardino family, headed by brothers Antonio (now proprietor of the Mastroberardino name and winery in Atripalda) and Walter (now proprietor of some of the family’s best vineyards and the Terredora winery in Montefusco), ancient varieties were resurrected, prestige rose, and young people with whole new attitudes started returning to the land. This is the root of the remarkable cooperation and generosity of spirit I witnessed. Anyone who knows Italy knows how rare that is. I saw none of the backbiting or petty competitiveness that I have seen in other Italian wine zones: There was an almost universal awareness that anything that raises the profile of Irpinia is good for all its producers.

A grand instance of that was the frank acknowledgement of the Mastroberardino family’s centrality to the zone and its wines. As we drove past the Mastroberardino winery in Atripalda, one young winemaker, nodding at it, said to me: “That’s the church, the Vatican. Without Mastroberardino, none of us exists.” When the Mastroberardinos began to propagate and promote Fiano, back in the late ‘80s, there were only about 30 hectares of it under cultivation throughout the whole of Irpinia: Now 562 hectares are cultivated in the DOCG zone. Greco and Aglianico have similar histories.

Which brings us to the present moment.

At Bianchirpinia, 41 producers showed 33 examples of Greco and 38 of Fiano. Of those, on a scale of 20 (I hate points, but what are you gonna do?) I gave ratings of 17 or higher to 27 Grecos and 26 Fianos – a percentage that retrospectively I find staggering. I am a low scorer: This is not typical for me, or for any other class of wines I can think of.

Anyone who doesn’t know Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino would be well advised to make their acquaintance ASAP. Some growers compare Greco to Chablis, because of its minerality. Some call it a red grape in disguise, because of its structure. I always find a little hint of green olives in it, and often a slight and pleasing oily feel in the mouth. It can be very fruit forward, or acidity can lead, but in either case it tends to be mouth-filling and on the big side for a white wine. I love it with shellfish (pasta alle vongole!) and white meats.

Fiano can seem more delicate than Greco, and is certainly more elegant, very aromatic – white flowers, hazelnuts – and markedly mineral on the palate. Some growers compare it to Riesling, but I think that is truer of style and the wine’s fine age-ability than of its flavor. Fiano loves food of all kinds – roast veal, fish dishes, chicken in cream sauces, cheeses – but it also makes a lovely wine to just sip by itself.

These two whites are the real deal, and I think they are only going to get better and better as many of their young producers learn them more thoroughly and explore more surely the intricacies of their many terroirs. Here are a dozen top-notch producers (not all of which, alas, are yet available in the US). Look especially for their single-vineyard wines.

  • Cantina del Barone: 2011 Fiano di Avellino Particella 928
  • Donnachiara: 2011 Fiano di Avellino; 2011 Greco di Tufo
  • Feudi di San Gregorio: 2011 Fiano di Avellino Pietracalda; 2011 Greco di Tufo Cutizzi
  • Mastroberardino: 2011 Fiano di Avellino Radici; 2009 Fiano di Avellino More Maiorum; 2011 Greco di Tufo Novaserra
  • Picariello Ciro: 2011 Fiano di Avellino
  • Pietracupa: 2011 Fiano di Avellino; 2011 Greco di Tufo
  • Tenuta Sarno 1860: 2011 Fiano di Avellino
  • Terredora: 2011 Fiano di Avellino Terre Dora; 2011 Greco di Tufo Loggia della Serra; 2011 Greco di Tufo Terre degli Angeli
  • Urciuolo: 2010 Fiano di Avellino
  • Villa Diamante: 2010 Fiano di Avellino Vigna della Congregazione
  • Villa Matilde: 2011 Fiano di Avellino
  • Villa Raiano: 2011 Fiano di Avellino Alimata; 2011 Fiano di Avellino Ventidue; 2011 Greco di Tufo Contrada Marotta

Since these wines have a well-attested track record, it needs no crystal ball to predict that the Grecos will be fresh and pleasing for 4 or 5 years. The Fianos will last almost twice as long, growing more elegant and distinguished as they age. Would that I did!

9 Responses to “Irpinia in the Crystal Ball”

  1. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: A wonderful opening statement. Good of you to state this.

    Nice of you also to mention the cooperation of local producers who work together to promote their area and their wines. As you wrote, this is not always the situation in other regions of Italy.

    And as always, a pleasure to taste with you!

  2. Jonathan Levine Says:

    The San Gregorio Fiano is a fave of mine. I do agree with Ed, good wines but a bit of a stretch.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Jonathan: You and Ed seem to be not noticing my time scheme. I’m not talking about right now: I’m saying that sometime in the future — how far in the future I don’t know — but sometime in the future, Irpinia will stand as high in winelovers’ estimation as the Cote d’Or does now. Of course that comparison would be a stretch now — though I think, on the basis of the wines I just recently tasted, that many of Irpinia’s wines are already better than just good, and that the time of parity with Burgundy may be closer than either you or Ed seem to think.

  3. Ilaria Says:

    Hi Tom,
    Thanks for mentioning Donnachiara’s Fiano and Greco

  4. Ed McCarthy Says:

    I certainly agree that the wines and varieties of Irpinia are top-notch, as you state, Tom. But I think you’re stretching it to say that they will (or should) have the same respect as the wines of the Côte d’Or. Pinot Noir is a much-loved grape variety, and no region does it better than Burgundy. The same holds true for Chardonnay and white Burgundy.
    But it’s not a competition. The fact that these wines are better than ever is the best news.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Indeed, that these wines are better than ever is the good news, for sure. Nevertheless, I’ll stick to my guns: not today, not tomorrow, but if present developments continue as they are going, sometime in the future Irpinia’s stature will rightly compare to the Cote d’Or’s, and for parallel reasons. Aglianico is a world-class red grape that only in Campania (and nearby Basilicata) gives matchless, long-lived wines. And the white varieties, especially Fiano, have the depth, complexity, and ability to age that make them a fair parallel to Burgundy’s Chardonnay. I don’t mean to make this a competition: I use the comparison solely to indicate the respect I think this zone and these wines are worthy of.

  5. Ole Udsen Says:

    Reblogged this on OLE UDSEN WINE BLOG and commented:
    Tom Maresca is a thoughtful and passionate writer on the wines of Italy. Read his most recent post here. I entirely share his love for the white wines (and reds) of Irpinia, as well as his conviction that this area is a future star that people will speak of as reverently as Burgundy. The wines are from characterful, unique varieties and show powerful expressions of terroir.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thank you, Ole. I’m very happy to have the agreement of someone so knowledgable about these wines as you are.

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