Marisa Cuomo: Wine from the Cliffs

Years ago, when Diane and I had sharper eyesight, faster reflexes, and a higher quotient of adventurousness (or downright foolishness), we rented a car in Naples and spent a week or so driving the environs of Naples, Salerno, and – god save us! – the Amalfi peninsula, to learn the country and to visit wineries. In defense of our sanity, I will say that the wines and the food were magical, the countryside beautiful, Sorrento and the scenery of the drive incomparable, and the traffic much less in those days than now. We survived the adventure, and even enjoyed it, then. I would not now do it in any vehicle less vulnerable than a very large tank.

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What led to this attack of memory and recollection of former fearlessness was twofold: my recent attendance at Campania Stories: I Vini Rossi, an annual press event held this year in Naples and Avellino, and a bottle of wine I paired with a fine gumbo that Diane has just written about in her blog. At Campania Stories, I tasted several impressive bottles from the Costa d’Amalfi winery Marisa Cuomo. The gumbo partner was a bottle of Marisa Cuomo’s Ravello bianco. Ravello is one of the small towns perched on the steep slopes of the mountain spur that is the Amalfi peninsula. The winery itself is headquartered in another such small town, Furore, and during that memorable trip way back when, Diane and I visited Marisa Cuomo (a real person) and her winemaker husband Andrea Ferraioli.

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I’ve no doubt lost some memories of that trip – the surreal traffic of the city of Naples has happily faded to a blur of horns and brake screeches – but I have indelible images in my brain of the postage-stamp-sized, carefully terraced plots of vineyard that produced Marisa Cuomo’s grapes. Dotted up and down the hillsides, they all afforded wonderful views of the intensely blue Mediterranean (I still don’t understand Homer’s “wine-dark sea”), as well as undoubted hours of back-breaking labor. All the vineyard work had to be done by hand, and as far as I know it still is.

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I taste no difference in the wine or the winemaking. Marisa Cuomo’s were then and are now extremely well-made, honest, and traditional wines, vinified with great care from the indigenous grapes of seaside Campania: Biancolella and Falanghina chiefly among the whites, Aglianico and Piedirosso most prominently among the reds. The estate’s constantly prize-winning, late-harvested Fiorduva is made entirely from three lesser-known but locally important white grapes, Fenile, Ginestra, and Ripoli. Marisa Cuomo uses barriques on many of its wines, but you never taste the wood: That’s one of the things I mean by good, careful winemaking. The wine that Diane and I drank with our sausage and oyster gumbo was Marisa Cuomo’s 2010 Ravello bianco ($22 at 67 Wines). Here’s what I said about it for Diane’s blog:

???????????????????????????????This is a great white wine, reminiscent in its feel in the mouth of a fine white Burgundy. But it bears no other resemblance to that or any Chardonnay-based wine. Made with indigenous southern Italian varieties, it has a distinctive flavor, a balanced blend of apple, pear, chalk, and limestone. Its bright acidity enables it to stand up to almost any dish: It certainly loved our gumbo, and if it can work well with that I wouldn’t hesitate to try it with anything else.

By the way, the wine looked very dark yellow in the glass, initially giving the impression it might already be too old, but that was far from the truth – it was fresh and vital, with years of life (and evolution?) yet before it. In short, a lucky match that I would happily repeat.

To all that, I would now add: I had thought that the deep yellow color was probably due to time in wood, which winemaker Andrea Ferraioli sometimes uses even on whites, but that turns out not to be the case. There was no wood at all on this wine, which got long, low-temperature fermentation and storage in stainless steel. The blend here is 60% Falanghina and 40% Biancolella, and the combination of two by-themselves-pleasant grapes has created something much more estimable than either on its own.

In the seminar and tasting sessions at Campania Stories, I tasted Marisa Cuomo’s 2008 and 2009 Furore rosso riserva, both very impressive wines. The blend here is half Aglianico and half Piedirosso, piedirossothe latter known locally as Per ‘e palummo, dove’s foot, because the thin red stems of the bunches look like the feet of doves. Fully ripe grapes are harvested by hand, destemmed, and macerated almost a month before fermentation finishes. The wine spends a year in barriques before bottling – and normally I would find that much oak intrusive, but here I tasted only the merest trace of it in the younger wine and none at all in the 2008. In both wines, the aromas were marked by wild, black-fruit scents – what Italians call frutti del bosco – and earthy, mineral notes. The latter were even more marked on the palate, where the envelope of dark fruit was more transparent. Both wines were medium-bodied, with excellent acid/tannin balance and evident structure, likely to be long-lived – at least 10 to 15 years, maybe 20 – with lots of development still before them.

Wineries like Marisa Cuomo are why I get so excited about Campania. This is potentially the richest region in Italy for top-quality wines, both white and red, and it is filled with ancient varieties as yet scarcely known outside the areas where they are cultivated. Happily, there is a whole new generation of young, enterprising winemakers now beginning to make their mark. The number of Tre Bicchieri awards that Campania wins grows every year, and that is a significant straw in the wind. Save your Neapolitan scudi, boys: the south of Italy may rise again.

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6 Responses to “Marisa Cuomo: Wine from the Cliffs”

  1. Aileen Robbins Says:

    Loved your recounting of your original reckless adventure on the Amalfi peninsula, and how extraordinary that the wines have maintained the same character! I have also been puzzled for years about “wine-dark sea.” Only way I could make sense of it was if there had been a battle, and the sea contained the blood of slain warriors? Or perhaps a storm? Or perhaps a mistranslation?

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Not a mistranslation: it’s one of those Homeric fixed epithets, repeated many time in the course (especially) of The Odyssey. Chissa? The Ancients were different from us — or maybe their wine was?

      • aileen142 Says:

        I know, an epithet like “grey-eyed Athena”, which actually makes more sense than “wine-dark sea.” I thought the translation was accurate (I studied Greek myself for 4 years), so either the sea was a different color (algae?) or the wine was…

      • Tom Maresca Says:

        Let’s hope it was the sea…

  2. John Wion Says:

    I bought a couple of bottles of red (2010 only) and white – thanks, Tom.

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