Campania Stories is the name of an increasingly important twice-a-year event held at a variety of sites in Campania. In the fall, it features the white wines of the region, with a focus on the newest releases and – usually – a retrospective of a five- or ten-year-old vintage. In the early spring, it showcases Taurasi and other red wines, with the same emphasis on the newest vintages and some significant anniversary vintages. For me, Campania Stories has acquired crucial importance as the most convenient and thorough way for me to track the rapidly accruing changes in what I believe to be not only the most dynamic wine area of Italy but also potentially the richest of the whole peninsula.
I attended Campania Stories’ mid-March red wine sessions, held this year in Naples and Avellino, and my only complaint is that the wine seminars and tastings took so much time and attention that I didn’t have a chance to worship at any of Naples’s shrines of pizza (though I did manage to wolf down some excellent pizza at Pozzuoli’s Dea Bandata – but that’s another story). At the portion of the sessions held in Naples, the main focus was on the Piedirosso variety, and they afforded me a great opportunity to learn just how important this formerly secondary variety is becoming.
Piedirosso is a grape as ancient as any grown in Campania, and that probably translates to about two and a half millennia of history. The name means “red foot,” and its more poetic dialect name, per ‘e palummo, means “dove’s foot,” for the same reason: its vivid red stems look like the feet of doves. Some growers – notably Salvatore Avellone of Villa Matilde – believe that Piedirosso is the grape that made the ancient Cecubum, a wine prized in the Roman Empire; accordingly, Villa Matilde produces a wine that the Avellones call Cecubo, a blend of Piedirosso and Aglianico.
Whatever role Piedirosso may have played in ancient times, in recent history the variety has been upstaged by Aglianico, to which it has for a long time played second string. It has traditionally been used largely in blends to soften the asperities of Aglianico, whose tannins can in youth be very harsh indeed. Piedirosso on the other hand has very soft tannins and a kind of easy, giving fruitiness that makes it an ideal complement to Aglianico. So, if, as many winos do, you think in terms of the Médoc, Piedirosso acts to Aglianico as Merlot does to Cabernet. And like Merlot, Piedirosso has been discovered to have numerous virtues of its own. In recent years, better field work and careful clonal selection have uncovered in Piedirosso an intriguing complexity and a healthy ability to age, so more and more growers are now producing monovarietal Piedirosso of genuine quality and interest.
Here are some of those that impressed me:
Agnanum Campo Flegrei Piedirosso Vigna delle Volpi 2007
Federiciane Campi Flegrei Piedirosso 2013
Grotta del Sole Campo Flegrei Piedirosso Montegauro Riserva 2009
Sorrentino Pompeiano Piedirosso Frupa 2011
Tommasone Ischia Per ‘e Palummo 2012
While the stand-out wine for me was the Grotta del Sole Montegauro – for the intensity and concentration of its varietal character – all these wines showed real Piedirosso softness and accessibility, and were revelatory of the great potential of the variety.
Interesting as it is, Piedirosso is not the only not-Aglianico-red vine drawing attention in Campania. The region holds a wealth of ancient red varieties, many of which are in danger of disappearing because of various manmade and natural disasters. Of these blights, phylloxera, devastating as it was, may not be the greatest. The impoverishment of the countryside caused first by Italian unification – which, for the then Kingdom of Naples, meant occupation and exploitation by a foreign power – led to massive emigration and to consequent depopulation. Then throw in two world wars and a major depression between them, and the end result is abandoned farms and vineyards and a severely threatened, if not outright broken, agricultural tradition, from which Campania is still in the process of recovering.
But recovering it is, and many ancient, threatened varieties are being rediscovered and propagated. Chief among these are Casavecchia and Pallagrello nero (also Pallagrello bianco, but that too is another story). Saved and propagated by Peppe Mancini and Manuela Piancastelli (Terre del Principe is their estate) and championed by, among others, Giovanni Ascione (his estate is Nanni Copè), these vines – most if not all on their own rootstocks – are yielding extraordinary wines that are already winning Tre Bicchieri in Italy. (I’ve posted about these before.) Other producers to know about include Alois, Il Verro, La Masserie, Selvanova, and Vigne Chigi.
Other varieties, like Tintore, are still further back on the rebirth curve but are nevertheless already making wines of more than passing interest – for instance, Monte di Grazia rosso, made from ungrafted Tintore vines that survived phylloxera and hence are well more than a hundred years old – as were the surviving scions of Palagrello and Casavecchia, from which all the new vines have been propagated.
Still other vines are even less known and have yet to make their way into growers’ and drinkers’ consciousness. Nicola Venditti, for instance, a traditional producer in Benevento province, cultivates 20 different varieties on his property, several of which, as he says, aren’t even in the books yet. Campania still has a lot of stories to tell, and will have for years to come.
Next post: Campania Stories: Avellino