Campania Stories 4: Old Volcanos and the Eternal Sea

Just to finish off this by-now-way-overlong saga of my week (yes, all this happened in just one week) in Campania, here is the account of the blind tasting of new releases from the provinces of Benevento, Caserta, Napoli, and Salerno.

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What makes Campania special as wine country is a whole package of ecological and environmental blessings – a mild-to-warm climate (the same one that keeps tourists flocking to its beaches), the benign influence of the Mediterranean, ranges of hills and mountains that provide a multitude of microclimates and altitudes and exposures for vineyards, and a myriad of soils that mix-and-match decayed volcanic deposits with more recent volcanic ash and tufa, marine sediments from when large parts of the region lay at the bottom of the sea, moraines from ancient glaciers and deposits from modern landslides and river floodings. It’s typical of this still geologically active land (think Vesuvius, think the great earthquake of 1980) that many of its blessings were once curses. The great wines that grace our celebrations probably originate from soils created in some past disaster.

So it was only appropriate that the blind tasting portion of the Campanian new release tastings began with the wines of Napoli, grown on the slopes of Vesuvius or in the sulfurous, hot-spring soils of the Phlegrean Fields and in fields near Pompeii itself.

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Mostly 2011 vintage, and mostly vinified from Piedirosso, these are – again, mostly – wines of rustic charm: earthy, and marked by simple fruit flavors – dark berries – and soft tannins. These are easy-drinking, enjoyable wines for everyday dinners and lunches. They come from a host of producers: e. g., Astroni, Contrada Salandra, Grotta del Sole, La Sibilla, Sorrentino.

Three wines in this group stood out for me for their greater degree of complexity and a touch of elegance: Grotta del Sole’s 2011 Campi Flegrei Piedirosso and its 2009 Campi Flegrei Piedirosso Montegauro Riserva, and Sorrentino’s 2011 Pompeiano Piedirosso Frupa. Distinctive in a totally different way was Grotta del Sole’s 2012 Penisola Sorrentina Gragnano, a light, warm red, sprightly and lightly spritzy, with all the charm that one could ask of a deliberately simple, eminently quaffable wine. Just tasting it made me hungry for pizza margarita.

The large but viticulturally underexploited province of Salerno was represented by only four wineries: De Conciliis, Le Vigne di Rialto, Marisa Cuomo, and San Francesco Tenuta.

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One of those, however, stands in the van of Campanian winemaking. Indeed, I judged Marisa Cuomo’s Costa d’Amalfi Furore Rosso Riserva 2008 to be one of the top wines not just of this group but of a week liberally sprinkled with great bottles. A 50/50 blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso, it was rich with tobacco, earth, and mulberry scents and flavors, complex and elegant on the palate, and finishing with soft berry fruit, hazelnut, and tobacco – a very, very fine wine.

The province of Caserta, on the other hand, has been the scene of intense wine activity for a few decades now. No fewer than a dozen wineries participated, presenting 19 wines vinified from grapes as diverse as Casavecchia and Pallagrello, Aglianico, Piedirosso, and Primitivo.

Caserta

Aside from the Casavecchia and Pallagrello specialists I discussed in an earlier post, the stand-out winery here was Villa Matilde.

Founded by the Avallone family of Naples, this estate was the pioneer in rediscovering the fields and hillsides that gave the ancient Romans their most prized wine, Falernum. This area was their equivalent of Napa Valley and the Côte d’Or combined. Present-day Falerno comes in both red and white versions (as, apparently, the ancient wine did also), and Villa Matilde makes both excellently. At this tasting, I was particularly impressed by its Falerno del Massico Rosso 2008 and Falerno del Massico Rosso Vigna Camarato 2006. The former was a big, soft-bodied wine, with marked flavors of blackberry, dried beef, tobacco, and mint, and a fine, dry-fruit finish – a lovely wine for an important dinner. The Vigna Camarato, a single-vineyard wine made in the best vintages (of which 2006 in Campania is emphatically one), displayed the same flavor spectrum, but felt even bigger in the mouth and more elegant, with seemingly years of development yet before it – a wine to cellar and treasure, for sure.

Finally, Benevento province, like Caserta, has long been viticulturally active. It was represented at the tasting by 9 wineries showing 16 wines.

???????????????????????????????Some of these I’ve already spoken of – La Rivolta, Mustilli, Nifo Sarrapochiello, Venditti – and their wines impressed as much in the blind tasting as they did at my estate visits. I particularly liked La Rivolta’s entries – Sannio Taburno Piedirosso 2011, Aglianico del Taburno 2009, and Aglianico del Taburno Terra di Rivolta Riserva 2008. All were marked by lovely minerality over or under their fresh fruit, and all showed a nice touch of elegance.

Most of Benevento’s red wine production is dominated by Aglianico (in the process of being promoted to DOCG) and Piedirosso, which are the most traditional red grapes of Campania. So it was no surprise – though it remains a rare treat – to taste a wine vinified from a single, pre-phylloxera vineyard: Cantina del Taburno’s Aglianico del Taburno Bue Apis 2008. The vines that made this wine are over a hundred years old and still on their own roots. It seemed still very young – scents of meat, tobacco and dried cherry; soft, sweet fruit, a little closed, with mineral and nut undertones; fine acidity, and already showing hints of complexity – but gave every sign that it will develop beautifully over time. 2008 is almost as fine a vintage for Campania as 2006: both are making cellar-worthy wines.

One last reflection on this whole week in Campania: There are far more surviving pre-phylloxera vineyards in this region, of more varieties, than I had ever had even an inkling of before this visit. That in itself ensures that Campania is going to be a source of excitement for wine lovers for many years to come.

2 Responses to “Campania Stories 4: Old Volcanos and the Eternal Sea”

  1. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: An excellent wrapup of this event, which I was happy to be part of as well. I agree with you completely about the Marisa Cuomo Furore Rosso Riserva. This producer is most famous for their remarkable Fior’duva white, but this red was also quite memorable.

    Regarding your last sentence, about Campania being a source of excitement for wine lovers for many years to come, again, I wholeheartedly agree. But will the mainstream wine publications notice?

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Probably not, Tom, at least not before it’s old news. But that’s why people like you and me and a handful of others keep writing, so that these great, devoted winemakers won’t have their life’s work ignored. We could do far worse things with our lives.

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