No sooner had I finished my previous post, with its paean to Italy’s native grapes, than along came a lunch with an importer who devotes himself to those very kinds of wines. At an appositely southern Italian lunch at SD26, Franco Bengasi, VP of Wine Emporium NY, offered eight examples of Campanian wines from his line, each crafted from a regionally specialized variety. Almost all were very reasonably priced. All were impressive. All were enjoyable. Even more important, each was distinctive, differing from each other and very different indeed from the increasingly homogeneous ocean of Chardonnay and Merlot and Cabernet that we’re all drowning in. If you’re bored with them, it’s time you looked toward Campania and its treasure-trove of newly revived ancient varieties.
For me, Campania is now the most exciting region of Italy. Terroni (hard to translate: literally, people of the earth; effectively, dirt people) is the dismissive term for southerners, who are still the butt of northern Italian prejudice. But many young, well-educated, and ambitious southerners are starting to turn “people of the earth” into a badge of pride, as many of them return to work the land that their parents and grandparents fled. But they’re not going back as sharecroppers chained to a mere subsistence. Rather, they’re returning as skilled professionals and sophisticated entrepreneurs, determined to revive what were once the glories of Italian viticulture by growing the great traditional varieties and vinifying them with care and respect. To see their enthusiasm first-hand is to pierce the Berlusconi cloud and to realize the profound change that is overtaking Italy. That is exciting for an Italophile. To taste the wines these young people are making is to experience the renaissance that is in progress – and that is doubly exciting for a vinophile.
OK: enough rhapsody. Let’s get to the wines, with the single caveat that Marco Melzi, the Italian wine expert who presented them, offered at the lunch: “These wines are not front-loaded. They all – especially the whites – can be quite reserved and even a bit shy, like the people who make them. They need and repay a little attention and a little patience – Let them open and watch them change, especially with food, for which they were intended.”
The first wine of the day was I Borboni’s NV Asprinio Spumante. Once upon a time, Asprinio was the white wine of Naples, served by the carafe in every simple restaurant and pizzeria. Often enough in those days – my memory tells me – it was not so much a white wine as a brown or amber-colored one, saved from death by oxidation by its bright acidity. Now, vinified under controlled temperatures and in stainless steel tanks, Asprinio makes a pleasantly raspy, mineral-inflected, pale yellow wine that drinks very nicely, in either its still or sparkling forms, with seafood and pizza and pasta – in short, an excellent wine with everyday foods, just as it was in Naples in the past.
Next came a 2011 Fiano di Avellino. The Mastroberardino family played the role of savior for this variety when it was near extinction, back in the 1970s. This example from Cantina dei Monaci tasted a little fat despite its fine minerality, in part because it was following that very lean Asprinio Spumante, and in part because that roundness is characteristic of the 2011 vintage of Campanian whites. If you like your white wines with a little flesh padding their muscle, Campania 2011 is your vintage of choice.
We then tasted Fontanavecchia’s 2011 Falanghina del Sannio Taburno. Taburno is a DOC zone near Benevento, in the ancient Samnite territory (Sannio). Falanghina as a variety has undergone a tremendous revival in the past 25 years, building from near-extinction to now great popularity in Italy and, increasingly, abroad. Leonardo Mustilli, of the Mustilli winery, was the great protagonist of Falanghina. This very good example we tasted from the Fontanavecchia winery was rather full-bodied for Falanghina, with a touch less obvious acidity than usual, but again that is typical of the 2011 vintage.
The final white was Apicella’s 2011 Costa di Amalfi Tramonti Bianco. This was the most site-specific wine of the day. The grapes are grown on steep, terraced hillsides along the Amalfi peninsula, and they are local specialities: Biancolella (which also appears in wines from the island of Ischia) and Bianca Zita, which may – or may not – be Falanghina, or maybe Forestera. No one – especially not this writer – is at all sure. What I do know is that the wine was big, soft, round, and well balanced, and that it showed its best with the seafood pasta it accompanied. I suspect – though this is only a guess – that it will get even better with one or two years of bottle age.
Gragnano was our first red wine. It takes its name from one of the tiny towns on the Sorrento peninsula, and it has to be the archetypal pizza wine – fresh, vibrantly fruity, almost but not quite sparkling, eminently quaffable, and of a youthful purplish color so intense that it reminds those of us of a certain venerable antiquity of mimeo ink. A delightful wine, Gragnano once was Naples’s everyday red wine, and it deserves to be so once again. This 2011 example from Cantine Federiciane was just plain fun: It made my mouth water for a classic pizza Margarita.
That Gragnano was vinified from Piedirosso and the world-famous Sciascinoso. In the distant past, before the days of the DOC, Piedirosso used to be ubiquitous in Campania as the blending companion of the more austere and prestigious Aglianico (yes, even in Taurasi, in those days). Now, Piedirosso is being cultivated and vinified in its own right.
The 2011 Piedirosso from Apicella that we tasted next showed why. A lovely bottle of complex, rich, and balanced wine, it was wonderfully ready to drink and still promised interesting development and reasonable longevity. In addition, it offered a chance to taste really authentic Piedirosso, since it originated in a vineyard of ungrafted vines – that is, Piedirosso on its own roots – a rarity, to be sure. It loved the classic Neapolitan brasciole that SD26 paired it with.
The next wine was even more rare. 2008 Monte di Grazia Rosso is made from 10% Piedirosso and 90% Tintore di Tramonti, of which, according to Jancis Robinson (in her authoritative new tome, Wine Grapes), less than 10 hectares are known. This example is also from an ungrafted vineyard, and it yielded an utterly distinctive wine: a mint-herbs-earth nose; black fruit, earth, and mushrooms in the mouth; and a long, dried-porcini finish. A great food wine. Only 5,000 bottles made.
The final wine was the only disappointment of the day – for me, at least: Others liked it more. Fontanavecchia’s Aglianico Grave Mora 2004 had seen enough barriques that its slightly late-harvested, old vine Aglianico flavors were partially obscured, which I thought was a real shame. But this was a minor cavil in the face of the day’s abundance of distinctive and distinguished wines. They are the real terroni, and they bring honor to the name.