The Pleasures of Summer: Falanghina

Out grocery shopping one scorching hot day last week, Diane and I overheard a guy explaining to his obviously out-of-town friend, “Every year we have two nice days here in New York. We call them spring and fall.” It’s true: We endured an endless, dismal winter, had one lovely day, and all of a sudden it was blazing summer.

Just as suddenly, I found myself craving well-chilled white wine, and lots of it. No news there – except that I just realized that I have never really talked about my favorite white wine for all-purpose summer drinking, Falanghina. Definitely time to do it!

Falanghina has become quite popular in Italy and has had some success here in New York, but I don’t know that it has penetrated very deeply into the collective wine consciousness beyond that, so I’ll start at the beginning.

Falanghina is the name of the grape and of the wine made from it. It’s native to Campania, and once was the white wine of Naples, until it fell victim to the two catastrophes of phylloxera and World War II. Most people don’t realize how belatedly – compared to France – phylloxera entered Italy: It wasn’t until the late 1920s and early 1930s that it reached Campania. Shortly after that, many of the men who would have replanted the vineyards were called into the army. Many didn’t come back, and those who did found devastated and overgrown fields and no money available to revitalize them.

Many farms and vineyards were abandoned, and those that continued were faced with steady pressure to grow a lot of grapes, quality be damned, and to replant with international varieties rather than indigenous ones. We still don’t know how many ancient varieties disappeared forever during those years, but fortunately many survived. One of those hearty natives was Falanghina.

It fell to one far-sighted grower to revive Falanghina. Leonardo Mustilli has to be numbered among the handful of devoted winemakers who, like the Mastroberardino family, stood against the flood tide of international grape varieties to champion Campania’s native wines. Starting in the late sixties/early seventies, he made Falanghina his project, working with a few other growers and the support of several Neapolitan government departments to locate and propagate the vines and to promote the wine they made. Thanks to his efforts and the grape’s own vivacity, Falanghina once again became the ubiquitous quaff of Campanian restaurants and homes.

The reason is not far to seek. Almost everyone who tastes Falanghina enjoys it: It combines light, white-fruit flavors (some say stone fruits) with a touch of citrus and mineral, the latter often intriguingly forward because of Campania’s mineral-laced soils. It drinks delightfully, whether lightly or heavily chilled, and it’s enjoyable young but can take a few years of bottle age with no loss of character. On top of all that, Falanghina is inexpensive: Prices range between a bottom of $10 or $11 and an absolute top of $30, with the vast majority of bottles – including some of the best – clustered at the bottom of that range, between $10 and $20. So with all that, what’s not to like?

There are now many producers of quality wines in Campania, and the great majority of them produce at least some Falanghina. I can’t claim to have tasted them all, but I have tried many, and I’ve been struck by how many of them turned out to be perfect textbook Falanghina. I don’t know whether the grape is just very compliant or whether the growers just like working with it, but from the consumer’s point of view, that’s a win-win situation. Here are some of my favorite producers, starting with

Mustilli, the progenitor of modern Falanghina, then

Villa Matilde, whose founder, Francesco Paolo Avallone, was also a pioneer of Falanghina in the Monte Massico zone, and then

Mastroberardino, patriarchs of traditional-varietal winemaking in Campania, and

Terredora di Paolo, the other branch of the Mastroberardino family, and just as deeply embedded in the whole history of Campanian wine.

After these – alphabetically, not qualitatively – many other producers have turned their attention to Falanghina, often with wonderful results:

Astroni
Di Meo
Donnachiara
Feudi di San Gregorio
Fontanavecchia
Grotta del Sole
La Guardiense
La Rivolta
La Sibilla
Masseria Felicia
Ocone
Sorrentino
Venditti
Villa Raiano

These producers are scattered over several of Campania’s wine zones, and their labels may not all say “Falanghina.” For instance, Villa Matilde’s and several other producers’ labels may say “Falerno del Massico Bianco” – but it will still be Falanghina, and very satisfying drinking.

.

A Geekish Digression

There is one complication in the saga of Falanghina’s success, and I think it’s a minor one. Falanghina has turned out to be not one variety but two distinct ones. That’s ampelographically distinct, not palatally: Both species have always been called by the same name and grown in neighboring provinces of Campania, where no one realized they were different grapes, and where they have been drunk more or less interchangeably for years.

Some people claim to be able to perceive a difference between the recently differentiated Falanghina beneventana and the far more widespread Falanghina flegrea – the beneventana is supposed to be a little fatter and fruitier than the more acidic flegrea – but I’m not one of them. Too many variations of soils and cultivation and winemaker’s choices make consistent identification of the two grapes on the palate next to impossible. So here we have a classic distinction without a difference – but probably some day meat for a good argument among geeks and wine snobs.

11 Responses to “The Pleasures of Summer: Falanghina”

  1. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: There are a few producers that do use Pepella in their Campanian whites; most are from the Amalfi Coast. Here is a note on one of them, Tenuta San Francesco, whose “Per Eva” is one of the most delicious blends i’ve tasted from this area:

    http://www.vinitenutasanfrancesco.com/per%20eva_eng.html

    Also, here is some information about a wine from Reale in Tramonti, who produces a white called Aliseo, that contains Biancazita:

    http://omwines.com/reale/

  2. Robbin Gheesling Says:

    d’Agata’s book has Ginestra as Biancazita. It could be winemaking styles, but I absolutely prefer Campi Flegrei over Beneventano. I seem to perceive the fatness, waxiness that I don’t like of Beneventano.

  3. Bob Griffin Says:

    Excellent post; I have been Astroni, Di Meo, La Sibilla, Mustilli, Venditti and Villa Raino (also I have visited Reale on four occasions). You are spot on about the difference between Falanghina wine taking on different characteristics depending on where it is cultivated. I do not have a sophisticated palate, but when visiting Mustilli (Benevento) they made it clear that their Falanghina is different than La Sibilla Falanghina (Campi Flegrei).

    My understanding is that Biancazita is the Amalfi Coast expression of Falaghina. This is similar to the Amalfi Coast red grape Per E’ Palummo which is the local expression of the Campanian Piedirosso grape. The obscure Pepella grape is analogous to the obscure red grape Tintore which is cultivated only in a few frazioni in Tramonti and surrounding area. Reale and Monte di Grazia are two organic wineries in Tramonti that make wine with the Tintore grape.

  4. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Ciao Tom very interesting and informative article. I am not as old as Ed but I never understood the difference between the “two Falanghina” before. I cannot tell the difference on the palate.

  5. Jonathan Levine Says:

    I have always enjoyed the feudi and Mastroberardino. Learned a lot from this post.

  6. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Well done, Tom. I learned a lot about the
    Variety.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thanks, Ed: I’m always pleased if I can manage to provide some information for an old pro like you.

  7. dgourmac Says:

    Good post, thanks. Agree with your assessment.
    We recently visited Reale winery in Tramonti, and my wife and I loved their organic wines. Delighted to have their Aliseo here in MA. It’s a Falanghina Blend. Varietal : Biancolella 50%, Biancazita (Falanghina) 40%, Pepella 10%

    Also had a Biancolella from Ischia, the first time I had encountered that varietal. Are these all Falanghina?

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      No, no. Biancalella is a totally other native Campanian variety. Pepella is new to me, as is the name Biancazita as a synonym for Falanghina. Are you sure about that?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s