Campania Stories 3: Grapes Galore!

Back at the beginning of March, I had a great time in Campania, tasting one fine wine after another in between gorging on fresh mozzarella and ricotta di bufala. I had to keep reminding myself that this was supposed to be work, and that I probably shouldn’t enjoy it so much, but I just couldn’t keep that stern admonition in mind for very long, and before I knew it I was enjoying myself again. Darn!

The serious purpose that had brought me to Campania, and the source of most of my pleasure, was a pair of events: one the new releases of Taurasi and the red wines of Avellino province, which I wrote about in my last post, the other the new releases of the red wines of Campania’s other provinces, Benevento, Caserta, Napoli, and Salerno. Such fame as Campania’s red wines have largely belongs to Taurasi, but Aglianico is by no means Campania’s only noteworthy red variety, and provinces other than Avellino, as I found out, are quickly cutting their own paths to distinction. Producers all over the region are exploiting its rich history and abundant resources to make themselves contenders for the crown.

Campania, it is claimed, contains more traditional grape varieties than all of France, and I encountered a good fraction of them during my stay. Most growers don’t specialize but raise both red and white grapes.

Nicola Venditti

Nicola Venditti

My very first visit, the evening of my arrival in Campania, was to Venditti, an 11-hectare (~25-acre) estate in Benevento. The owner/winemaker, Nicola Venditti, cultivates 20 varieties traditional to his area, including some that, as he puts it, “aren’t in the catalog.” So much for Jancis Robinson’s heroic labors.

Venditti’s principal white varieties include Falanghina, Grieco (which he insists is not Greco), and Cerreto – the latter a very localized variety unknown elsewhere. From these he vinifies a Sannio bianco (Grieco and Cerreto), a round, soft wine, creamy from being matured sur lie, with pleasing wet-stone and fresh pear aromas and flavors. A bit too full for an aperitif, it is what Venditti refers to as his white wine for everyday, while his 100% Falanghina del Sannio, which is a very classic rendition of the grape, he describes as “for Sunday.” “For feast days,” he makes Bacalat, a blend of Falanghina, Grieco, and Cerreto. This too is a big wine, with scents of the sea and the Mediterranean macchia. It is pronouncedly herbal and mineral in the mouth, and to my palate calls out for a big grilled fish.

His red grapes are just as varied: Aglianico of course, and Piedirosso, plus Montepulciano (which, despite the name, is probably a clone of Sangiovese), Ulivetta, and Barbetta, which turns out to be clone of Barbera very different from anything grown in the Piedmont. He maintains a gradation similar to that of his whites: His everyday red is Sannio Rosso, a blend of Montepulciano, Ulivetta, and Aglianico, quite nice and lively, with excellent fruit, fine balance, and a long finish; it was delicious with primi. Next came Barbetta, a wine unlike any other Barbera I’ve ever tasted: big, round, cherry/berry-ish, with plenty of acidity and a very persistent, bitter-chocolate finish. A single-vineyard Aglianico, Marraioli 2008, followed next, a first-rate wine with textbook Aglianico character. After that came Bosco Caldaia 2007. This is a blend of Aglianico, Montepulciano, and Piedirosso, deep and dark in color and aroma and flavor, a wine that Venditti rightly considers appropriate to grand occasions.

So that was the start of this visit to Campania. The next morning I visited Villa Matilde, a considerably larger estate in Caserta, not far from the Mediterranean coast and near the border with Lazio, in the stretch of spent-volcano hill country that the ancient Romans regarded as the best vineyards in Italy, the source of their prized Falernum. Villa Matilde was born of a passion to rediscover that wine, and while no one can be certain that the grapes now cultivated in those volcanic soils are the same ones the Romans grew, the quality of the wines they produce can’t be questioned.

In the years since its founding, Villa Matilde has acquired properties in Benevento province and in Avellino, from which it produces Aglianico IGT and Falanghina IGT (both Benevento) and Greco di Tufo DOCG, Fiano di Avellino DOCG, and Taurasi DOCG (all Avellino), all of excellent quality – but the heart of the estate and the hearts of Maria Ida and Salvatore Avallone, the daughter and son of its founder, are still fixed on the meticulously cared-for ancestral property.

villa matilde siblings

Maria Ida and Salvatore Avallone

There they produce DOC Falerno del Massico, white (100% Falanghina) and red (80% Aglianico, 20% Piedirosso), wines of great richness and power – important dinner wines both. Even more impressive are their big brothers, the white Caracci (100% Falanghina) and the red Camarato (80% Aglianico, 20% Piedirosso). These are single-vineyard wines, made only in the best vintages, and structured for long life. These are both intense and complex wines that grow in the glass as they breathe and seem to put on bulk in the bottle as they age. For all that, the 2001 Camarato tasted younger to me than the 2006 did, even though the ’01 had become huge and deep with its extra years of age – very impressive indeed.

I had more visits than this, and they were all in the same superior vein, so that I began to think I was taking part in some sort of grand triumphal procession. Di Meo, La Rivolta, Mustilli, Nifo Sarrapochiello – all offered excellent wines, in variety and in profusion. Let me just list my favorite from each, lest this post turn into a tome.

4 wines

Di Meo: This estate really showed the aging ability of Campania’s white wines, especially the Fiano di Avellino (we tasted back to 2000). My favorite was the cru Alessandria 2009, a superb wine redolent of pears and minerals, live and exciting.

La Rivolta: Aglianico Riserva 2008 Terra di Rivolta – a great wine from a great vintage: leather, black cherry, chocolate, tobacco, black pepper, with a dried fruit finish.

Mustilli: This house makes all the classic wines of the zone, and they all really want cellaring, so my favorites were the two oldest wines shown: a 1988 Aglianico that was absolutely lovely and poised, and a 1978 (!) Greco di Tufo that was still live and flavorful, though fully evolved into a totally different spectrum from the flavors of young Greco.

Nifo Sarrapochiello: A family enterprise, with father in the field and son in cellar. They produce the gamut of Benevento wines, including some very pleasing whites (Falanghina and Fiano), but their strong suit is the red Aglianico del Taburno, just in the process of becoming DOCG. I liked very much both the basic Aglianico 2009 – unwooded, smooth, accessible, with lovely blackberry/mulberry fruit – and the Aglianico Riserva 2008 D’Erasmo – very big and earthy, with that same blackberry/mulberry fruit and excellent structure.

This post is already going on too long, and I haven’t even gotten to the formal tasting yet. I’ll have to hold that for another post. Arriverderci!

2 Responses to “Campania Stories 3: Grapes Galore!”

  1. Ole Udsen Says:

    Dear Tom,

    Another lovely post. The “catalog” would be the official Italian catalog as issued by the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture, not Robinson’s tome. An accessible way to get into that is the book “Vitigni d’Italia” by Scienza, Calò et al. The official catalog is under constant revision as the scientific work to find, DNA test, describe and homologize (sic!) the many-many Italian varieties proceeds. Scienza himself thinks that they may not yet have described and homologized more than half of the varieties in Italy yet.

    Best regards

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      You are of course completely right, Ole. Robinson’s book was very much in my mind because I am still finding my way around the recently-acquired tome, but Signor Venditti’s primary reference would certainly have been “Vitigni d’Italia.”

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