Campania Stories 1: Rare Grapes and Surprising Wines

My stint in Campania during the first week in March was one of the best wine weeks I’ve spent anywhere, ever. It alternated anticipated pleasures with enjoyable surprises. One of the biggest surprises, and biggest pleasures, came in my encounter with three great rarities, the rediscovered grapes Pallagrello nero, Pallagrello bianco, and Casavecchia.

I was visiting Campania for two related wine events – one, new releases of Taurasi and its kindred Aglianico wines of Avellino province (more about this in another post), and the other, an event called “Campania Stories – I Vini Rossi”: essentially, the other red wines of the other provinces of Campania: Benevento, Caserta, Napoli, and Salerno (more about this too in the future).


My focus in this post is one of the most extremely other: a tiny subzone of a subzone of Caserta province, the area until recently referred to as Terre del Volturno IGT, which is in the process of receiving smaller and more precise designations for its three principal grape varieties, Pallagrello nero and Pallagrello bianco, whose exact IGT area is even now being determined, and Casavecchia, now Casavecchia Pontelatone IGT. These grapes, scarcely known to me before this trip, constituted the biggest eye-opener of the week.

My major exposure to them came in the form of a mini-vertical tasting presented by the winemakers of three estates, Selvanova, Nanni Copè, and Terre del Principe. Each winery showed three vintages:

• Selvanova: 2010, 2008, and 2006 Pallagrello bianco

• Nanni Copè: 2008, 2009, and 2010 Pallagrello nero

• Terre del Principe: 2005, 2006, and 2007 Casavecchia.

Every single wine was stunning, and every knowledgeable Italian wine journalist present was absolutely bowled over. This is a new dimension in great Italian wine, a whole new set of flavor profiles to explore. Need I say, Great fun!

Giovanni Ascione

Giovanni Ascione

“Pallagrello nero is a grape extraordinarily noble.” So says Giovanni Ascione, owner of the Nanni Copè estate and one of the variety’s most passionate partisans. I agree with him wholeheartedly, just as I share the enthusiasm of Peppe Mancini and Manuela Piancastelli, the owners of Terre del Principe, for all three varieties. The latter couple rediscovered and began reviving these grapes when they set out, slightly more than 20 years ago, to find the vines and wines that Peppe remembered from his childhood. In that short time, they have recreated an ancient wine zone and created, within Italy at least, a modern reputation for wines famous in antiquity. Though still rare, these wines are steadily gathering support: There may be as many as 20 wineries now working with them.

acqua vignaWinemaker Gennaro Reale of Selvanova led off the tasting with three vintages of a single-vineyard, 100% Pallagrello bianco labeled Acquavigna – probably because the vines are planted on a slope lying within a wide meander of the Volturno river. These were lovely and intriguing wines, with aromas of citrus, pineapple, and honey (the 2010), orange peel (the 2008), and pineapple, banana, and citrus (the 2006). On the palate they were equally exotic: the ’06, for instance, had lovely balance, with fresh acidity enlivening soft pear-and-orange fruit, with a long, dried-orange-peel finish. Despite what all those fruit elements might seem to indicate, these wines were fully dry, and they were big – definitely dinner wines, not aperitifs. Pallagrello bianco can never be mistaken for another Chardonnay-wannabe: This is a distinctive wine, occupying a very special niche within the panoply of Italian white varieties.

sabbieGiovanni Ascione followed with Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, his traditional field blend of roughly 90% Pallagrello nero, almost 10% Aglianico, and a sprinkling of Casavecchia. He showed 2008, 2009, and 2010 – his first three vintages, of which the ’09 and the ’10 both got Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso and Cinque Grappoli from the Italian Sommeliers Association. This Pallagrello nero is the only wine he makes, from slightly more than three hand-tended (mostly by him) hectares. He has every single vine entered on an Excel spreadsheet, and he follows each one as if it were his only child. His production is tiny – 620 cases – and exquisite.

Here are my notes on the 2008: “Nose: chocolate, tobacco, black cherry jam. Dry chocolate/cherry on the palate; round, with soft tannins and bright acidity. A meaty finish, with leather undertones. Overall, intense and fine, with seemingly a long life in front of it. The aroma opens over time to leather and dried beef. A chewable wine, textured and rich.” I’ll spare you the rest of my notes on the ’09 and ’10: They’re in the same vein. My final comment says it all: “These are amazingly complex wines – intense, complicated, and quite wonderful.”

Go here for a different but equally enthusiastic take on these wines.

(By the way: despite the names, there seems to be no relation between Pallagrello nero and Pallagrello bianco varieties. There may be a connection between the nero grape and Casavecchia, but even that is uncertain: These three varieties are not close kin to any other known grapes.)

Peppe, ManuelaThe tasting was closed by Peppe Mancini and Manuela Piancastelli of Terre del Principe. They presented three vintages of Centomoggia, a 100% Casavecchia that has won its share of Tre Bicchieri and Cinque Grappoli awards. Some 15% of this wine derives from vines that are between 100 and 150 years old – the mother plants that Peppe uncovered in his original researches, back in the 1980s, which are the source of almost all the Casavecchia vines now in production.

CentomoggiaWe tasted the 2005, 2006, and 2007 vintages of Centomoggia, and to call them big and distinctive is an understatement on both counts. Even the youngest of them was huge, a strapping baby Paul Bunyan of a wine, and the 2005 was almost monumental, despite seeming to have years of maturation still ahead of it. The aroma was almost a dinner: cacao, black pepper, spices, and beef jerky. In the mouth, it was soft, round, dry, and big, tasting of beef, black fruits, and black pepper, with a pleasing and absolutely fitting leathery finish – and nevertheless intense and fresh. A quite astonishing wine, and its younger sibs all showed clear family resemblances to it.

Subsequently, I had the opportunity to visit both Nanni Copè and Terre del Principe. Giovanni Ascione drew for me barrel samples of his 2011 and 2012 Sabbie del Sopra il Bosco. These two vintages shared the same level of quality, the same elegance, and the same allure that I tasted in his three bottled vintages – so I have been lucky enough to experience the entire range of Ascione’s production. For the record: His whole cellar is about the size of a two-truck garage – in fact, his colleagues enjoy teasing him about being a garagiste.

At Terre del Principe, Manuela and Peppe poured five vintages of their unoaked Pallagrello bianco Fontanavigna (2011, ‘10, ’09, ’08, 07), six vintages of their Pallagrello nero Ambruco (2009, ’08, ’07, ’06, ’05, ’04), and the 2008 vintage of their blend Piancastelli (75% Pallagrello nero, 25% Casavecchia). I’ll spare us all the many repetitions of superlatives that punctuate my tasting notes. All you really need to know is that every sample was excellent, with even the whites (marked by almond and pear flavors throughout) taking bottle age very well. The Ambrucos smelled and tasted of black fruit – especially blackberry and mulberry – and tobacco and leather through all the vintages, with the oldest, the 2004, showing the loveliest balance and elegance of the lot. The Piancastelli blend too was richly endowed with sweetish dark fruit and a whole bouquet of herbs, “a wine,” as Manuela remarked, “that you can eat.”

In short: This was an extraordinary concentration of great wines from a very tiny zone – a zone I’m sure the wine world will be hearing more of in the future.

4 Responses to “Campania Stories 1: Rare Grapes and Surprising Wines”

  1. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: Excellent post about this tasting, which I also attended. Beautiful descriptions of the wines and weren’t the examples of AcquaVigna simply stunning?

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Indeed they were!

      I’m not sure you noticed, but I linked to your post about Giovanni Ascione and his wines.

  2. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Extraordinary, Tom. i can’t wait to try them!

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