Archive for the ‘Aglianico’ Category

Campania in New York

July 30, 2015

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Quite recently, a group of nine Campanian wine producers, some whose wines are already available in the US, some seeking importers, presented a selection of their wines at a tasting-seminar-luncheon event at Ristorante Gattopardo.

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tasting

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Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a great partisan of the wines of Campania: I think they offer an array of indigenous varieties of a distinctiveness and quality that is unmatchable by any other Italian region or by any wine-producing region anywhere. This tasting confirmed my opinion.

The nine producers and their wines were, in the order presented:

  • Cantine di Marzo Anni Venti Greco di Tufo Spumante DOCG NV
  • Cantine Rao Silva Aura Pallagrello Bianco Terre del Volturno IGP 2013
  • Tenuta Scuotto Oi Ni Campania Fiano DOCG 2011
  • Contea de Altavilla Greco di Tufo DOCG 2013
  • Tenute Bianchino Le Tre Rose di Gió Falanghina IGT 2014
  • Tenuta Cavalier Pepe La Loggia del Cavaliere Taurasi DOCG Riserva 2008
  • Terre di Valter Ventidue Marzo Irpinia Aglianico 2013
  • Macchie S. Maria Taurasi DOCG 2010
  • Donnachiara Taurasi DOCG 2011

Now, I have some quibbles with the order of the presentation: In the whites I would have tasted the Falanghina right after the spumante, then the Greco before the Fiano, and the Pallagrello after that; and in the reds I would have tasted the Aglianico first and the Taurasis in order of age, culminating in the 2008 riserva. But I’m a purist, and that is only a quibble. All the wines showed well, displaying in every case a fidelity to type that I find admirable. And since the primary purpose of the luncheon was to reveal to those unfamiliar with Campania the wide range of its wines, they served that purpose very well.

Individually, each wine also had particular, noteworthy qualities. The ones that registered most strongly with me were as follows:

anni-ventiThe di Marzo spumante. Vinified from 100% Greco di Tufo, this is an uncommon style for this variety, and it worked uncommonly well. The di Marzo vineyards, located right in the heart of Tufo, are the most historic in the appellation. In fact, the di Marzo family brought the Greco grape into this zone in the 16th century, when they shifted their home base from Benevento to the Avellino area. Long neglected, the vineyards are enjoying a rebirth under the direction of the di Somma family, descendants of the di Marzo, and this relatively innovative wine is an example of the new vitality they have brought to bear. Lovely and lively perlage serves as a splendid vehicle for characteristic Greco minerality and acidity, making this fully dry sparkler thoroughly Oi nienjoyable as either an aperitif or a dinner wine.

The Scuotto Oi Ni Fiano. Scuotto is a small, relatively new producer in Avellino province, whose vineyards sit at a lofty 550 meters above sea level – not unusual for this area, but necessitating a long growing season, which both Aglianico and Fiano like. This lovely Fiano spent almost a year in contact with its lees, which gave it a very pleasing roundness and richness.

ventidueThe Terre di Valter Aglianico. This too is a new, smallish property, a family enterprise. It has the good volcanic soils typical of Irpinia, which gift the wines with a fascinating earthiness and minerality. This Aglianico is made from younger vines and shows a delightful freshness and fruit, riding on a medium body with finely balanced tannins and acidity – thoroughly enjoyable.

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The Taurasis as a group, but especially the 2011 Donnachiara, were all wonderfully characteristic, showing in varying combinations the Aglianico grape’s richness of tannin and acid and dark, berry-ish fruit interlaced with tobacco and walnut and leather. All needed more aging, even – perhaps especially – Cavalier Pepe’s 2008 Riserva, which is a very big wine. The 2010 from Macchie S. Maria showed fine Aglianico character and is a very promising offering from another small grower, quite new to commercial production.

Taurasis

Donnachiara is probably better known for its excellent Campanian white wines, which stand at the top of their class, but this 2011 Taurasi seems to me to represent a big jump up in the elegance of its red wine. It has always been better than respectable, but it now seems to be becoming really polished.

Of these producers, Cavalier Pepe, di Marzo, and Donnachiara are already available in the US. The others are seeking importers, and I hope they succeed in finding them quickly. These are all highly pleasurable wines that deserve a place on the shelves and on our tables.

Campania Stories: Avellino

May 20, 2014

I should say at the outset that I love Aglianico. I’ve been told that, somewhere or other, Robert Parker has said that Aglianico may be Italy’s noblest red grape of all. If that is so, I totally, wholeheartedly agree, and I’m delighted he has at last seen the light: I can only hope that more wine journalists catch on.

In my previous post, I focused on the Naples/Piedirosso portion of March’s Campania Stories event. After that, the event shifted its location to Avellino and its attention to Aglianico. The province of Avellino is the home of Taurasi, for a long time Campania’s only red DOCG, and still the prince of Aglianico-based wines – all of which were the subjects of numerous seminars and tasting sessions for the balance of Campania Stories. Much as I enjoyed Naples and Piedirosso, this half of the event hit me where I live.

campania stories

The linking of the name Aglianico with some dialect form of the word Hellenic has been pretty much debunked as a false etymology – which is a shame, since however inaccurate it may be philologically, it is spot-on in indicating the antiquity of the variety and the persistence of its history in Campania. For our purposes, the most important chapter of that history occurred shortly after WWII, when the Mastroberardino family resisted the introduction of international varieties and unequivocally cast its lot with Campania’s native grapes, the immediate upshot of which was the survival and present importance of Fiano, Greco, and – most to the point – Aglianico and its greatest achievement, Taurasi.

Over my two days in Avellino, I tasted close to 100 Taurasis and Aglianicos, not all of which are available in the US. Many producers are quite small, and I’d guess that a good half of them have been bottling their own wine for only 20 years or less. That doesn’t mean they are new to the grape, however: Almost all were growers before, selling their grapes to co-ops or to a few large firms. There are no big outside investors here, buying up vineyards and planting international varieties. In fact, more than a few of the newer wine producers have family histories of grape farming several centuries long – so even brand-new labels may represent a lot of experience with Aglianico.

Taurasi lineup

That showed in the tastings, where the level of winemaking seemed impressively high, even judging it from the perspective of wine zones like Barolo and Barbaresco, which are further along the developmental curve than Campania. I found many wines to admire and even a few to love – and I’m getting pickier and pickier as I grow old and cranky. Here are some of my top-scorers.

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Best of the Best
(in order of preference)

Tecce: 2011 Irpinia Campi Taurasini Satyricon and 2010 Taurasi Poliphemo

Contrade di Taurasi (aka Cantina Lonardi): 2009 Taurasi Coste and Taurasi Vigne d’Alto

Donnachiara: 2009 Taurasi

Villa Raiano: 2012 Campania Aglianico and 2010 Taurasi

Feudi di San Gregorio: 2009 Taurasi Piano di Montevergine Riserva

 

Very Good
(in alphabetical order)

Antico Castello: 2011 Irpinia Aglianico Magis and 2010 Taurasi

Boccella: 2008 Irpinia Campi Taurasini Rasott

Colli di Castelfranci: 2009 Irpinia Campi Taurasino Candriano and Taurasi Alta Valle

D’Antiche Terre: 2008 Taurasi

Di Marzo: 2012 Irpinia Aglianico Cantine Storiche, 2012 Irpinia Aglianico Linea Stemma, and 2010 Taurasi Albertus

Di Prisco: 2010 Taurasi

Feudi di San Gregorio: 2012 Irpinia Aglianico Rubrato

Historia Antiqua: 2011 Irpinia Aglianico Historia Antiqua and 2009 Taurasi Historia Antiqua

I Capitani: 2009 Irpinia Rosso Emé and 2007 Taurasi Bosco Faiano

Il Cancelliere: 2010 Taurasi Nero Né and 2007 Taurasi Nero Né

La Marca: Cantine di Tufo: 2008 Taurasi Issàra

La Molara: 2007 Taurasi Santa Vara

Montesole: 2007 Taurasi Vigna Vinieri

Sanpaolo: 2010 Taurasi and 2009 Taurasi Riserva

Urciuolo: 2010 Taurasi

Vesevo: 2008 Taurasi

Villa Matilde: 2008 Taurasi

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All of these are impressive wines, though the very youngest are not really what I want to drink right now. But that’s the point with Aglianico, and especially with Taurasi: Even in lesser years, these wines reward patience. They are always worth the wait of at least a few years from release. All the commonplace comparisons with Barolo aren’t hype: They’re based on Aglianico’s inherent ability to evolve in the cellar into an incomparable nectar. Check my old post on last year’s Mastroberardino six-decade vertical, if you need proof of that.

This year, the big news in Aglianico has been the granting of the DOCG to Benevento province’s Aglianico del Taburno, a promotion that many producers see as giving a boost to the prestige of Aglianco and its wines all through Campania. Such a lift would certainly be justified: Benevento has been producing lovely Aglianicos (and most at quite reasonable prices) for some time now. They have a different style from Avellino’s Aglianicos – softer, more giving, less austere in their youth, but with immediately recognizable Aglianico flavors.

My impression is that most of them won’t be as long-lived as Irpinia Aglianico or, especially, as Taurasi. But I might be wrong about that: Certainly both the ’09 Villa Matilde Falerno del Massico Rosso and ’07 Falerno del Massico Rosso Vigna Camarato that I tasted in Avellino seemed ready to live for many more years, so who knows what the potential is in any of Campania’s provinces? These are very much zones in development, and they have years – if not decades – of excitement and discovery before them.

bottles

The One and Only Super-Campanian Wine

March 31, 2014

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 vineyard

 

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.

Silvia ImparatoAs 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.”

core-2012She 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.

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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.

Campania Stories 2: Taurasi and Aglianico

April 19, 2013

Initially, the event that most drew me to Campania, back at the beginning of March, was the tasting of new releases of Taurasi and Taurasi riserva. This has for decades been one of my favorite wines, though it has suffered the fate of most southern Italian wines: It just doesn’t get the attention or respect it deserves. As I’ve said before, I rank the Aglianico grape from which it’s made right up with, and in some vintages above, Nebbiolo. While most of Italy is content to think of Taurasi – when it thinks of it at all – as the Barolo of the South, in Campania they are more likely – and more correctly, given the historical diffusion of viti- and viniculture in Italy – to think of Barolo as the Taurasi of the north.

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All that prologue is to explain the excitement with which I approached the blind tasting of 48 examples of Taurasi and Taurasi riserva of the 2006, ’07, ’08, and ’09 vintages, plus 16 more bottles of Aglianico of the 2008, ’09, ’10, and ’11 vintages. I hoped this broad swathe of Aglianico production from its heartland, Irpinia, would give me a good picture of exactly what was happening in this important zone. For sure, it did, and for sure it made me one happy camper. I found many wines to enjoy and not a few to relish.

That wasn’t the only Taurasi vertical I was fortunate enough to squeeze into my hyperactive week in Campania: I talked about one last month, and I’ll talk about another further along in this post. But first I want to focus on the new releases, which I tasted blind (I always opt to do that when I can: it cuts out all the prejudices of familiarity and label-consciousness and gives me as close as a single taster can get to an objective assessment of the wines).

Villa RaianoThe tasting was very intelligently and helpfully organized. We started with four vintages of Aglianicos from areas outside the Taurasi DOCG: Campi Taurasina, Irpinia, and Campania IGTs: 16 wines in all. The 2011s were very pleasant, the 2010s very tight right now, the 2009s a mixed bag, and the 2008s really fine. Among the wines I thought showed best were several names that will be familiar on the US market: Mastroberardino, Donna Chiara, Villa Raiano. But smaller producers less widely distributed also performed very well: Antico Castello, Antichi Coloni, Caggiano, Di Marzo, and especially Luigi Tecce, whose Campi Taurasini Satyricon was outstanding.

All these wines exhibited excellent Aglianico character – black cherry fruit and tobacco and marked minerality, along with lovely balance and, in the 2008s especially, some real elegance. These IGT wines tend to be quite reasonably priced, and you don’t have to be in a hurry to drink them: They will take some bottle age nicely – even the already-five-year-old 2008s. They are the quality equivalent of village Burgundies, at the price of Borgogne Rouge.

Urciuolo TaurasiThe tasting then moved on to the Taurasi DOCG wines: first the 2009s, then 2008 riservas, then 2007 and 2006 riservas. Within each vintage the presentation was divided into geographic sections: first wines blended from grapes originating in two or more subzones, then wines made in the northern quadrant of the Taurasi zone, then the western zone (which overlaps with the Fiano di Avellino zone), then the central valley (bearing no resemblance at all to the similarly named site in California), and finally the southern zone, indicated as alta valle – high valley. I confess that I couldn’t consistently discriminate between these subzones. There may well be specific characteristics that identify the wines of each, but I’d need more experience to be able to spot them.

One thing I did notice: in the ’09 vintage, I really enjoyed the Versante sud/alta valle wines: They had a juiciness and freshness that really set them apart. These are the examples I tasted:

  • Masseria Murrata Passione
  • Fratelli Urciuolo
  • Tecce Poliphemo
  • Amarano Principe Lagonessa
  • Villa Raiano
  • Colli di Castelfranci Alta Valle
  • Bambinuto

Overall, the 2009 vintage at this early stage of its development is quite pleasing, whatever subzone it’s from – more accessible and less austere than young Taurasi can often be, with nice fruit, good balance, and classic Taurasi elegance.

matilde taurasiThe 2008 vintage on the other hand showed the powerful side of Taurasi, both in regular bottlings and in riservas. Dark flavors dominated – deep black cherry, earth and mineral elements, tobacco, leather. Big, full-bodied wines with still-firm tannins, they will greatly reward cellaring for even a few years. In short, textbook Taurasi, which is no mean compliment. I liked many of the 48 I tasted, but since many of the small producers aren’t available on the US market, I won’t tantalize you with them here. Of the widely distributed producers, I particularly admired these:

  • Donna Chiara riserva
  • Feudi di San Gregorio Piano di Montevergine riserva
  • Terredora Pago dei Fusi 2008 and Fatica Contadina
  • Villa Matilde.

Among the older riservas, I would single out both Mastroberardino’s Radici 2007 and its Naturalis Historia 2007.

tecci poliphemoI’ve posted earlier about Mastroberardino’s magnificent, six-decade vertical of Taurasi, but I was also lucky enough while I was in the Irpinia zone to experience one other impressive vertical. Sabino Loffredo, owner of Pietracupa and a fine winemaker in his own right (his 2009 Taurasi stands among the best of that vintage, and his white wines – Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino – are top-notch) organized a vertical tasting of his friend Luigi Tecce’s Taurasi Poliphemo. This covered the vintages 2008, ’07, ’06, ’05, ’03, and 2001, all of which were absolutely classic Taurasis, with clearly delineated dark fruits (I kept tasting mulberries in addition to blackberry and sour cherry) and tobacco flavors, lovely soft tannins, and admirable earth-and-mineral notes.

Luigi Teccephoto © Tom Hyland

Luigi Tecci
photo © Tom Hyland

Tecce describes himself as a “less than minimalist” winemaker, insisting that he does nothing to the grapes. “Soils are everything,” he says, and his are high – at or above 500 meters – and a mix of volcanic and marine layers. He ferments his Taurasi in chestnut before moving it for some months to used barriques and then finally to botti to repose for some time before bottling. He harvests late – in ’07, in the snow; in ’06 he finished harvest on November 26th – and he doesn’t even use temperature-controlled fermentation: in short, winemaking the way it used to be in Italy before the impact of California technology, with all the advantages and disadvantages that implies. In Tecce’s case, his meticulous attention to his five hectares of vines makes it work magnificently. These very limited production wines are worth searching for. (For another enthusiastic review of this tasting, go here.)

But so are many – probably most – of the wines I tasted all week long. In all honesty, I didn’t taste a bad bottle the whole week I was there, so you should be willing to at least try any Taurasi of these recent vintages that you come across. The market is in some flux: Italy seems finally to becoming conscious of the vinous treasures it has in the south, especially in Campania, and my guess is that the US market will not be far behind in awareness. So with a little luck, we will start seeing more examples of Taurasi here, soon. Speriamo, eh?

Old Vines, New Knowledge

December 1, 2010

I recently attended a fascinating day-long seminar in Avellino, the heart of Taurasi country. The subject was old vines – everything about old vines: the ways they were cultivated; the character of the grapes they bear, as different from those of younger vines; the wines those grapes make; and how, in turn, those wines differ from the wines young vines produce.

A patriarch of Taurasi vines. Ph.lemonstudio.it

Part of a project called (aptly) I Patriarchi, and sponsored by the Campanian winery Feudi di San Gregorio in collaboration with two major Italian universities, the event included a visit to a pre-phylloxera vineyard, presentations by some of Italy’s foremost grape scientists – Professors Scienza and Failla of Milan and Moio of Naples – and a comparative tasting of Aglianicos from 60-year-old vineyards in three different zones, Taurasi, Taburno, and Vulture. To say I learned a lot is understatement, as it also is to say I had a great time: This was an experience that appealed to the old scholar in me as much as to the wino.

It’s hard to say which was the best part. We seminarians (I’ve always liked that secularized usage for its ability to shock the pious) started the day – bright and cool, with high clouds scudding across a Mediterranean-blue sky – in the somewhat rain-sodden fields, tromping around in boots that Feudi thoughtfully provided. (That, by the way, indicates in its small way how thorough was the preparation for and organization of this event: My compliments to everyone involved.)  That visit provided eye-opener number one: I was standing in the middle of pre-phylloxera vines in a zone where I hadn’t known any such existed.

It turns out that pockets of sandy soil – alluvial deposits from ancient, now-vanished rivers – lie here and there among southern Italy’s otherwise volcanic terroir. The phylloxera louse, America’s great gift to the Old World and the scourge of its vines, can’t survive in sandy soils. Ergo, small caches of ancient vines still survive on their own roots. In this particular Aglianico vineyard, the vines, gnarled and twisted to a fare-thee-well, were minimally 60 years old. To my (not particularly expert) eye, what I thought of as the parent vine looked even older. I refer to it as the parent vine because of its size and its central position in a vineyard planted in the antique manner, with vines trained high – eight to ten feet – and clinging to trees and large poles.

A "parent vine." Ph.lemonstudio.it

I’ve known for a long time that training vines to trees was one of the most ancient methods of vineyard management, but I’d never thought much about it. If I ever did, it was to dismiss it as primitive and probably inefficient vineyard management, the product of peasant ignorance and laziness. There’s nothing quite like the condescension of a modern know-it-all, is there?  I couldn’t have been more wrong, and actually seeing an example of a properly cared for old-style vineyard made that clear at once.

Prof. Scienza. Ph:winenews.it

First of all, the vineyard was very carefully planned, with the vines located about ten feet apart either at the corners of checkerboard squares or on a diagonal plan, in quincunxes. My parent vine was gripping a meticulously pollarded tree at the center of one quincunx, its lower limbs cut away decades ago, its middle limbs trimmed or trained to the four directions to support the vines, and its canopy held well above the growing grapevine. It was, Professor Scienza explained, a sort of combination of a high cordon speronata training system and a pergola.

That system worked beautifully for the needs of the people who invented it. The grapes were held high, still easy to harvest but well out of the reach of boar or deer or roving goats. They hung below their foliage, shaded by it from the intense southern sun and open to the drying mountain breezes – the latter the best insurance against any kind of mold or mildew. Thus situated, they could ripen slowly and thoroughly through the long growing season Aglianico requires. And underneath those high vines, there was ample room to cultivate other crops, of kinds that would feed both the farmers and the soil, thereby preventing famine, erosion, and soil depletion at the same time. So much for peasant ignorance and laziness. Realizing just how complex this seemingly artless system was, I was simultaneously humbled, stimulated, and ready for more information. What else was  going on here that I didn’t know? or had all wrong?

Another post – probably not the next, but the one after that – will continue the saga of my enlightenment.

Heel to Arch: Wandering for Wine at the Bottom of the Boot

November 27, 2009

The far south of Italy is a treasury of native grape varieties, especially noble reds. Puglia offers Primitivo, now famous as a kissing cousin of Zinfandel, as well as the still relatively unknown Negroamaro. Basilicata presents the long-aging, structured Aglianico del Vulture, a very close relative of the grape that makes the deservedly much-honored Taurasi of Campania.

As guests of the American importer Frederick Wildman and the Italian company GIV (Gruppo Italiano Vini) earlier this month, five American journalists and sommeliers made a trip as much in time as in space, from the baroque urbanity of Lecce in Puglia to the rural beauty of the countryside outside Venosa in Basilicata. Both places are time-stopped: Lecce is a jewel of 17th-century architecture, and Basilicata possesses an archetypal rural landscape. It is still referred to by its residents as Lucania, its name since pre-Roman times. That’s what the Roman poet Horace, who was born there, called it, and if Lucania was good enough for Horace, it’s good enough for me. I suspect the rolling, vineyard-dotted landscape of its high, volcanic plateau still looks much as it did to his eyes, and I’m certain that the roads are no better – maybe worse – than they were under imperial Roman rule.

Basilicata: autumnal vineyards in the foreground; evergreen olives behind (Photos courtesy of Odila Galer-Noel)

But I’m getting ahead of myself: Puglia first.

An easy drive out of Lecce on the road to Taranto lies the sprawling Castello Monaci estate, approximately 375 acres of vineyards and ancient olive trees. It’s a real castle, and a big one. It started life as a monastery – hence “Castle of the Monks” – became a serious castle, and is now reincarnating itself as a glamorous agriturismo and event space. Its line of basic wines, however, is anything but upscale in price, even though all offer a very respectable level of quality. If you’re looking for value wines, wines that are as easy on your wallet as they are on your palate, Castello Monaci gives you a whole spectrum of choices, all priced at a very comfortable $13.

  • Simera (Salento IGT) is a nice blend of Chardonnay and the native Verdeca – good fruit, a little heavy on Chardonnay-tropical-fruit flavors (this is a warm, sunny land) but soft and pleasing and a fine companion to fish and spicy antipasti. All the Castello Monaci wines in fact showed as very food-friendly, so you can take that as a given.
  • Kreos (Salento IGT) blends mostly Negroamaro with a bit of Malvasia nera to make a surprisingly successful dry and elegant rosé. I hadn’t expected such delicacy from grapes that are normally power hitters.
  • Maru (Salento IGT) highlights Negroamaro (100%) in its dark guise – black cherry and tobacco in the aroma and the mouth, with good structure. The 2008 tasted very young – drinkable, but sure to improve with a little age.
  • Liante (Salice Salentino DOC) mixes 80% Negroamaro with 20% Malvasia nera to make a slightly fuller and rounder wine than the Maru, one that will take to stronger foods with equanimity.
  • Pilùna (Salento IGT) is all Primitivo, with a very Zinfandel-like brambly nose, juicy blackberry/mulberry fruit, and a slight, enjoyable prickle in the mouth – straightforward, good, and fun.

Over in Basilicata – not very far as the crow flies but a few hours as the road curves – the Re Manfredi estate is presided over by the affable and accomplished Nunzio Capurso, who was for years managing director of Melini, GIV’s Chianti giant, as well as directly responsible for its top Tuscan wine, the splendid Chianti Classico Riserva Selvanella. Now, in addition to winemaking at Re Manfredi, he is still president of the Chianti Consorzio and vice president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio – so this is a significant, experienced Northern winemaker who is now indulging his deep passion for Aglianico, a wine he refers to as “the Barolo of the south.”

I couldn’t agree with him more. Aglianico – the vine dispersed northward by Roman legions – may well be the ancestor of both Nebbiolo and Syrah, though the evidence is far from complete. I’ve loved Aglianico for years, both in its Campanian versions (Taurasi, Falerno rosso) and as Aglianico del Vulture. In both guises, I believe it’s one of the greatest of the noble red grapes, capable of wines of the amazing depth, complexity, and longevity – so for me it was a delight to find a northern winemaker whose work I deeply respect so excited by Aglianico.

Nunzio Capurso at the ready

We were visiting on November 13, and the harvest had finished only a few days before – “Here we have always the latest harvest in Italy, because of our very cool nights,” Capurso said. That very long growing season, with its great day-to-night temperature shifts, is what lets the Aglianico grape reach its richest, most aromatic maturity. Capurso had prepared half a dozen wines to demonstrate that.

  • Aglianico del Vulture DOC 2005, from 20- to 30-year-old vines. A stemmy and earthy nose; on the palate, good dark fruit with abundant soft tannins, and a long, tobacco finish. Very good but very young: You can drink it now, but it will be even better in three or four years. “In a minimum of ten years, this wine will be at its best,” Capurso says.
  • Aglianico del Vulture DOC Serpara 2001. Serpara originates from a small, high vineyard of older vines, always hand-harvested and vinified and aged separately. Although still evolving, the 2001 is already quite complex, its dry plum fruit marked with significant minerality – very, very fine. This will easily be a 20-year wine.
  • Serpara 2003: showing more fruit in the nose and the palate, also more tannin and less acid. More forward and readier than 2001.
  • Serpara 2004: excellent dark fruit and tobacco flavors – a lovely, complex vintage. This one can evolve and improve for another decade and easily last a decade beyond that.
  • Serpara 2005: tobacco/mineral/blackberry nose; good soft fruit, a trifle closed; nice acid/tannin balance. Still fine, though not as complex as ’04, and easier to drink now.
  • Serpara 2006: In the aroma, tobacco first, then black fruit. On the palate, dark, berry-ish fruit, soft and round; well balanced and gentle but still big – another wine to cellar.

Cellaring is the key to Aglianico. It’s a grape that really reflects harvest differences and that needs time to bring all its components into balance – not a wine for the casual quaffer, but one for the serious wine drinker who prizes excellence and has the patience to wait for it. For their quality, these wines are also bargains – $39 for the basic Aglianico, $42 for the single-vineyard Serpara.

These are what I think of as true collectable wines – not for investment (much as I revere Aglianico, I doubt it will ever attract the big-money boys: thank whatever gods may be!) but for the kind of appreciation that only your palate can collect. Put some bottles of ’01 or ’04 or ’06 Serpara away and forget you have them for ten years: then open one with dinner and congratulate yourself on how shrewd you are and what a great investment you made.