Campania remains unique among Italian wine-producing regions in having strongly resisted the lure of international grape varieties and placing its faith in indigenous grapes, of which it has an abundance. There is one great exception to that rule, however, and it is one of the great wines of Italy. It’s exceptional too in that – even though I generally deplore polluting Italian varieties with Cabernet or Merlot – this is a wine I really like.
I’m speaking, of course, of Silvia Imparato’s Montevetrano, a magisterial blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, and Campania’s prince of red grapes, Aglianico. It’s grown in the Cilento, not far from Salerno, an area of Campania a touch wilder and less developed than most, and one not particularly noted for fine wine.
Montevetrano burst on the scene almost 25 years ago: 1991 was the first vintage, just for friends. Right after that Riccardo Cotarella came on board, and Montevetrano promptly began grabbing attention and awards. Over the years, for instance, it has accumulated 14 Tre Bicchieri awards – a record that would be enviable for wines from far more prestigious areas than the Cilento.
As Signora Imparato explained to me in a recent visit, when she inherited her family property, she had a lot of experience of wine but not of making wine. She knew she wanted to make a fine wine and not just an easy quaffer. Her motives were not simply her own satisfaction, but to provide work for the people of her native area and also, just maybe, to set an example that could contribute to the revitalization of the locality. But she needed advice, so she talked to her friend Renzo Cotarella, who was then just starting his career with Antinori as the enologist at Castello della Sala in Umbria, where he was working with Piero Antinori on the development of the since-famous Cervari. He, not entirely surprisingly, introduced her to his brother Riccardo, and the two of them began working together on the development of the Montevetrano vineyards. As Silvia puts it, “This was before he was Riccardo Cotarella.”
It was, however, when he was already deeply committed to Merlot, so the original plantings at Montevetrano leaned heavily on Bordelais grapes: Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot for the bulk of the blend, a little Aglianco – 10-12% – to finish it. This was something of a compromise, since Silvia, despite the pleasure she took in Bordeaux wines, had great faith in Aglianico. “I’m not sure that Riccardo then really knew Aglianico,” she says. “Now of course it’s different: Now he has great enthusiasm for Aglianico.”
To her increasing satisfaction, that enthusiasm has been translating into a greater and greater percentage of Aglianico in the Montevetrano blend. Aglianico now makes up 40% of Montevetrano, a percentage that will probably keep growing. “With the change in the climate,” Silvia explains, “Merlot is no longer giving me the perfumes I loved, so I am using less and less of it and increasing the Aglianico, which thrives in this climate.”
She has been working with Riccardo Cotarella for 20 years now, and to celebrate that anniversary they are introducing a new wine, a 100% Aglianico called Core. I had the chance to taste 2012 Core then and there, and also later at a blind tasting in Naples. My notes agree that both times, Core was a standout: very young, obviously, but with a gorgeous Aglianico nose of earth scents and dried black fruit, and a complex, intriguing palate of soft black fruit, tar, and tobacco. The finish was long and gently leathery.
Core is a very fine wine that will be pleasant drinking young but has the kind of acid/tannin structure that needs lots of time – in my opinion, 20 years is a reasonable horizon – and will be very great: a triumph for Silvia Imparato, Riccardo Cotarella, and cellarmaster Domenico (Mimi) La Rocca, who has been with Montevetrano from its very first vintage. (Interestingly, not all Core’s Aglianico is estate-grown: Because all her new vines are not yet ready, she bought grapes from Benevento, which has just recently received the DOCG – only Campania’s second red DOCG – for its Aglianico.)
Here some brief notes on the other wines I tasted during that visit:
Montevetrano 2011 – Beautiful aroma, with Aglianico notes riding over the Cab and Merlot scents. Soft and round in the mouth, with good underlying tannins. At first a bit closed, but opens nicely in the glass. Fine balance. Will be excellent.
Montevetrano 2010 – Leather, tar, dried fruit, and earth in the nose. Blackberryish fruit and leather in the mouth, with a long, fruit-leather finish. Very fine: Though it seems to be maturing rapidly, it has ample structure for long life.
Montevetrano 2009 – Stronger Cabernet presence in the nose. Lovely palate, very elegant, very composed, with a lot of tightly controlled nervous energy. Tastes as least as young as the 2011, with very great potential.
Montevetrano 2008 – Aroma just beginning to mature and deepen. Palate too starting to darken and deepen, with earthy, leathery, mushroomy notes beginning to show. Should be wonderful in 5 to 10 years.
The truly amazing thing to me is that there don’t seem to be any bad vintages at Montevetrano. I don’t know how they do that, but I definitely admire it.
One final note: I apologize to Silvia for the title of this post, since I think she hates that “Super Something” designation. I’m not crazy about it either, but it furnished the most concise way to headline an important point about the wine.