Antonio Mastroberardino is one of my oldest friends in the wine business. Our first meeting, now shrouded in the mists of many memories, took place sometime in the ‘70s. He was already then a first-rate winemaker and a warm human being, with an unexpectedly scholarly turn of mind. Over the decades, the two of us have watched each other weathering.
So it was an emotional moment for me, just two weeks ago, when he – now almost 85 – entered the room at the end of a six-decade vertical tasting of Mastroberardino Taurasi. Five of the wines – vintages 1952, 1961, 1970, 1985, and 1996 (the other was 2006) were of his making, and his appearance at the moment that all of us in attendance were registering astonishment and admiration at their phenomenally high quality and freshness was a perfect cap to the occasion and, in a way, to his and my long acquaintance. It had the feeling of something special, something grand and celebratory, a little like a Pavarotti farewell concert.
In addition to its emotional impact on me, that tasting also crystallized for me some fundamental truths that I had been gradually realizing over many years of drinking Taurasi. To wit:
- Campania’s Aglianico stands among the world’s noblest red wine grapes – in my opinion the equal of, and perhaps the superior to, Piedmont’s Nebbiolo.
- Taurasi is, at this moment in Aglianico’s long history, its supreme manifestation.
- The Mastroberardino family embodies Taurasi’s modern history, as central to Aglianico’s existence and its excellence as Biondi Santi is to Brunello.
These are truths that need to be proclaimed to every wine lover everywhere.
What had initially brought me to Campania were two events, the presentation of new releases of red wines from the provinces of Benevento, Caserta, Napoli, and Salerno, and the presentation of new releases of Taurasi. Along with the many visits to wineries that were dotted through the week (you’ll hear more about them in future posts), I was among a small group of international journalists invited to attend this important vertical tasting at Mastroberardino’s winery in Atripalda.
Piero Mastroberardino, Antonio’s son and now the head of the firm, presented the wines. After a few remarks about the history of the family and their involvement with Taurasi – his great-grandfather started exporting Taurasi in 1878, for instance – he let us taste the wines without comment. His confidence in the wines was such that he clearly felt no need to guide anyone’s response. And he was absolutely right. At first, no one spoke as we sipped the wines in sequence – we started with the ’52 – and looked at one another “silent, with a wild surmise” (apologies to John Keats). After that came what can only be described as excited babbling as we all tried to verbalize what we were experiencing.
It was like no other tasting that I’ve ever been at for the extraordinary level of excellence of each wine, for their stunning typicity, and for Mastroberardino’s consistency of style over the past 60 years. Each wine looked, smelled, and tasted archetypically Taurasi. Each showed a balance, an elegance, a silkiness that clearly marked the house style. And at the same time, each was clearly distinctive in itself and distinct from its siblings, reflecting the character of the different vintages. I know this is a lot of superlatives, but what I’m trying to describe was felt by every person in the room. Here’s the saddest thing I can say to my readers: To fully grasp the greatness of these wines, you had to be there.
Here are the particulars. Quoted remarks and details of each harvest’s weather are drawn from information Piero distributed at the tasting.
Great color: brilliant garnet heart edged in orange. Ethereal nose of blackberry, cherry, tea, and tar, complex and delicate. The same on the palate. The wine still tastes fresh, and carries all its complexity into its finish. The wine gave more and more as it opened – spice, tea, incense – with no sign of fading. The harvest in those days started in mid-November and ran to mid-December. (Piero showed some photos of grape-laden vines with snow on them.) In 1952, rainfall had been scanty during most of the year, but the middle of August was very wet, slowing the maturation of the grapes and causing a late harvest with good acid levels and soft tannins in the grapes.
It’s worth noting that the Mastroberardinos rated 1952 a four-star, not a five-star, vintage.
Taurasi Riserva 1961
This vintage they rated five-star. Very wet spring followed by very dry summer and autumn brought on an early harvest, marked by sharply reduced quantities and small berries “with higher sugar content and lower acidity than the average. There were some fermentation difficulties,” but overall “the harvest was characterized by the exceptional quality of the grapes.” This wine had a huge aroma, with similar elements to the 1952, but bigger and fresher, and on the palate it followed suit. This was a perfectly precise, perfectly ready wine – just gorgeous – and it got better and better as it opened.
I and several other tasters were surprised that the wine the Mastroberardinos chose to represent the decade of the ‘60s wasn’t the 1968 Taurasi Riserva, which a goodly number of Italian wine aficionados consider a leading candidate for Italian Wine of the Century. If their point was to show that they had more than one string to their bow, they certainly succeeded.
Taurasi Riserva DOC 1970
Another four-star rated vintage, and the first one under the newly installed DOC regulations. Cold winter, hot spring, with growth slowed by rains in June. “Summer was hot. Autumn, mainly dry and sunny, allowed good grape ripening. Vinification started on October 20 and ended with excellent results in mid-November.” Overall: “a great vintage.”
Aside from the merest whiff of acetone at the beginning, everything about this wine was in perfect order, from the precision of the varietal flavors to the delightful juiciness of the fruit. The berry flavors – blackberry, mulberry, sour cherry – just kept getting brighter and richer as the wine opened. If my memories of drinking this wine in the ‘80s are accurate, it was initially a pretty formidable wine, with very firm tannins. If so, they have softened beautifully, and the wine now is a complete delight.
Taurasi DOC 1985
Five-star rating for the vintage. “This was a great harvest, one to remember. Average rainfall. A very favorable seasonal pattern, alternating hot and rainy May, hot and dry June and July, hot and rainy August, warm and dry September with a strong temperature differential of about 15 degrees Celsius between day and night.” Early harvest, “about 15 days before the average.”
1985 was a great year for wine through most of Italy, and I have vivid memories of many of these wines, because as new releases they were hard work to taste: big, concentrated wines, with firm – in some cases aggressive – tannins and masses of fruit lurking underneath. The bottle in question was still tight in its aroma, still very firm on the palate, and clearly very, very young. It showed wonderful sweet, berry fruit, dark and intense, and it opened very slowly in the glass, still not ready to give itself freely. What showed now was already big and generous, but for my palate it needs years yet to show fully all that it has. How many 28-year-old wines can you still regard as adolescents?
Radici Taurasi riserva DOCG 1996
Four-star rating. If the ’85 was an adolescent, this wine was an infant – gorgeous, but an infant. A somewhat irregular growing season – rain in August, during veraison, and very low temperatures in September – slowed down maturation and gifted the wines with what the Mastroberardinos describe as “a perfect aromatic profile.” Harvest lasted until mid-November, “with some snowfall.”
The aroma was unquestionably intriguing, marked with earthy, mineral elements and rich dried fruit scents – very youthful. The palate was all sweet berryish fruit, lush and generous and at this point undifferentiated. The dried fruit returned in the long, intriguing finish. This was a thoroughly lovely wine, but so evidently young that you almost feel like a pederast for enjoying it so much. It will be hard to cellar this wine, hard to keep your hands off it long enough to let it mature properly.
Radici Taurasi riserva DOCG 2006
Four stars. According to the Mastroberardinos, “the fresh climate and well-distributed rainfall allowed a great vintage.” Because the grapes matured slowly, harvest was late, ending in mid-November. “The wines are characterized by an elegant aromatic expression and a good longevity outlook.”
I found the aromas earthy and rich and slightly tannic. In the mouth, the wine showed a blend of sweet berries, tar, and tobacco, with an initially long finish that extended itself even more as the wine breathed. Balance and structure are ample for long life, but I don’t think this beauty will even begin showing its best for 10 years yet.
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The consistency of style and quality that these wines showed across 60 years of vintages is simply amazing. That is an incredible accomplishment, made possible by the fact that, as Piero told me, the family has more than 100 years of Taurasi in their cellars, and they use selected bottles regularly in their in-house tastings precisely to ensure that continuity of style. It is a style that in mature wines achieves the level of elegance and harmony that had wowed us all.
It struck me, sitting there with my six gradually emptying glasses in front of me, that the many other impressive wines I had been tasting all week were lovely instrumental solos, but that each of these Mastroberardino wines was a whole symphony in itself – not a great metaphor, nor a very clear one, but the best I can do to convey to you the richness they conveyed to me.