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Archive for the ‘Campania’ Category

Some years back, I risked prophecy in a Decanter article and asserted my conviction that in the not-too-far future, wine lovers would hold Campania, and particularly Irpinia, in the same esteem they now give Burgundy and the Côte d’Or. Well, I’m ready to reaffirm that prediction, because I’m seeing more and more reasons for it every year.

A case in point is the subject of this post: Feudi di San Gregorio’s project of producing very limited editions (about 2,000 bottles) of carefully selected single-vineyard Taurasis. This is part of a study Feudi has undertaken of terroirs and clones in the Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo zones. These three prized wine zones abut and in part overlap each other in Campania’s upland Avellino province, the ancient territory of Irpinia, which has been producing estimable wines since the heyday of the Roman Empire.
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I had the opportunity to taste the 2016 bottling of the two Taurasi vineyards Feudi has so far chosen for this study, Candriano and Rosamilia. Both vineyards are located in the commune of Castelfranchi, in the extreme southeast corner of the Taurasi zone. The tasting made clear that, despite their youth, these are already very fine wines, with the capacity for long aging and significant growth. They showed the kind of character and potential that wine lovers expect, and are used to finding, in young Burgundies of important Premier Cru appellations. Let me point out  that wines of this quality have been coming out of Irpinia for some years now. It’s long past time for the wine world to start paying more serious attention.

Before I preach my sermon (again), let me talk about the two wines that prompted it.

2016 Taurasi Rosamilia. The nose was strong and striking, deep and dark, redolent of very dark fruits. The palate seemed a touch lighter though still big. Though so young, the wine was very composed, already smooth and complex, with a whole medley of dark fruit and woodland flavors competing for attention. Food brought up a big, dark plummy component. This was a lovely Taurasi, already impressive and drinkable.

2016  Taurasi Candriano. This wine’s aroma was not as assertive as the Rosamilia’s – more gentle and insinuating than forceful. Its palate, however, struck me as richer, rounder, and more fruity: perhaps not as dark-toned, but every bit as pleasing. It stayed soft, even with food. Even though very well structured, it did not yet seem as coherent as Rosamilia. I think it needs – and clearly will reward – more time in bottle.

Both wines, by the way, showed surprisingly soft tannins, despite originating in a part of the Taurasi zone reputed for tough young wines that need plenty of time to come around.

Much as I admire these two wines, let me stress that for this zone, they are not atypical in their quality. Those high Apennine slopes produce many top-quality Taurasis, as well as noble Fianos and Grecos. Most bottlings in the zone are not, I grant you, single-vineyard, but I think we will be seeing more and more of that as the producers begin to realize and exploit the riches they have.
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Wine lovers should recognize this process: They saw it first in Burgundy in the years after World War II, and then in Piedmont, starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Campania is still playing a little catch-up in that regard, but the grapes are there, the soils are there, and the talent and enthusiasm are now most definitely there. Taurasi’s – and Campania’s — glory days may be only a little way ahead of us.

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A few convergences that look as if they ought to be significant are occurring here. This, my first post about one of the special 12 wines I’ve chosen from my hoard for this year’s consumption, focuses on a new wine from an ancient grape variety, Pallagrello nero, that had all but disappeared. It was produced by a new winery that has in fact just disappeared. Not quite a year ago, Giovanni Ascione – Nanni Copé is his alter ego — announced that he would no longer produce wine. So this bottle that I selected to start off my chosen 12 for 2021 is indeed a rarity, and will never be joined by any new vintages.
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The full name of the wine in question, Nanni Copé 2011 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, probably packs too much information in too concentrated a form for most non-Italian (and no doubt many Italian) consumers to grasp, so let me open it up.

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First, what is it?

This wine is composed of approximately 90 percent Pallagrello nero and 10 percent Aglianico and Casavecchia grapes. Both, like the better known Aglianico, are very old varieties indigenous to Campania and nowhere else, and both varieties had almost died out until rescued and re-propagated in quite recent years. The Pallagrello comes from vines that originated as cuttings from the few surviving very old – perhaps 150-year-old – plants that are today the parents of all the Pallagrello nero grown in Campania.
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(FYI: There is also a Pallagrello bianco, but – despite the names – they are totally unrelated varieties. There is not a lot of information around about Pallagrello, red or white. Short entries in Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes are the sum of what’s known about them. For some reason, Ian d’Agata’s supposedly comprehensive Native Wine Grapes of Italy doesn’t even mention Pallagrello.)

The Casavecchia variety in this wine comes from a tiny, less-than-half-hectare vineyard of hundred-year-old, pre-phylloxera vines. Campania preserves a surprising number of pre-phylloxera vines, of many different varieties, not all of them identified or identifiable.

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Second, where does it come from?

This IGT wine is from the Terre del Volturno, which is the denomination that covers approximately the southern half of the province of Caserta, which, in its turn, forms the northernmost province of Campania.
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The name Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco is that of a particular vineyard, The Sandy Fields Above the Woods. I visited it a few years ago, and I can tell you that it’s a small triangle of gently sloping land formed by a bend of the Volturno River, very rural and picturesque, and a perfect site for a vineyard. (Unfortunately, I have no photos. I don’t do cameras anymore: The technology passed me by when they stopped using film.)
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Third, how did it taste?

This 2011 bottle was a Tre Bicchieri winner, one of a steady series of such that began with the second vintage (2009) from the tiny Nanni Copé winery and ran until its most recent releases. My bottle was a marvel: I had planned to uncork it several hours before dinner, to give it time to breathe and open, but when I pulled the cork, its aroma was already so rich and heady that I immediately closed it up again so as not to lose any of that loveliness.

When I finally poured it, a huge burst of dried fig and dried peach scents, followed by scents of sottobosco and funghi porcini, preceded the palate of, initially, peaches, which were quickly enveloped by dark berries and those basso profundo undergrowth flavors. The wine was very big in the mouth, and smooth, with particularly elegant tannins (Giovanni Ascione was always enthusiastic about the smoothness and nobility of Pallagrello’s tannins). All this concluded with a long, dried fig finish.

All in all, this was a ravishing wine, a joy to drink, and all the more so for the way it partnered with a sapid and richly savory stuffed breast of veal Diane had made to accompany it. The complex flavors of the prosciutto-and porcini-stuffed veal, with its white wine and broth sauce, evoked a corresponding complexity in the wine, whose smooth tannins welcomed the unctuousness of the veal breast. It was hard to say whether the food was showcasing the wine or vice versa.
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Fourth, who is the maker?

Giovanni Ascione is – was – among a handful of producers in Caserta cultivating Pallagrello. They are led by Peppe Mancini and Manuela Piancastelli, who were the original rescuers of Pallagrello – both the red variety and the white – and Casavecchia. Their estate, Terre del Principe, is today the largest producer of Pallagrello wines. Their ranks were joined in recent years by several others, including Castello Ducale and Alois. Giovanni Ascione began his Nanni Copé winery in 2007 and ceased production just about a year ago, in 2019, after a critically acclaimed and all-too-short run.
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I think I’ve tasted every vintage of Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco except the most recent, and they have all been splendid. I’ve admired them from my very first encounter with them. For the record, here is my account of that, at a ten-year-ago Campania Stories tasting:

Giovanni Ascione followed with Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, his traditional field blend of roughly 90% Pallagrello nero, almost 10% Aglianico, and a sprinkling of Casavecchia. He showed 2008, 2009, and 2010 – his first three vintages, of which the ’09 and the ’10 both got Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso and Cinque Grappoli from the Italian Sommeliers Association. This Pallagrello nero is the only wine he makes, from slightly more than three hand-tended (mostly by him) hectares. He has every single vine entered on an Excel spreadsheet, and he follows each one as if it were his only child. His production is tiny – 620 cases – and exquisite.

Here are my notes on the 2008: “Nose: chocolate, tobacco, black cherry jam. Dry chocolate/cherry on the palate; round, with soft tannins and bright acidity. A meaty finish, with leather undertones. Overall, intense and fine, with seemingly a long life in front of it. The aroma opens over time to leather and dried beef. A chewable wine, textured and rich.” I’ll spare you the rest of my notes on the ’09 and ’10: They’re in the same vein. My final comment says it all: “These are amazingly complex wines – intense, complicated, and quite wonderful.”

Just like Peppe Mancini, Giovanni Ascione is passionate about Pallagrello nero, believing wholeheartedly in its capacity to make great wine, a task he devoted himself to for a dozen years. As noted, his production was always small: My 2011 was one of only 6100 bottles and 120 magnums he made that year. The French wouldn’t have hesitated to label him a garagiste, and he brought the obsessiveness of that breed to bear on his vines and wines.

Given his intensity, I find it hard to fathom why he has stopped making wine. All he has said is that, in effect, he has accomplished what he wanted to and now he’s moving on. Possibly, of course, that is all that there is to it, but I can’t help but hear his impish sense of humor and self-irony, and I can’t help but wonder what other reasons remain unstated. Well, let them stay that way: Everyone, even a winemaker, is entitled to his privacy. I’m just sorry I wasn’t able to acquire a few more bottles of his marvelous elixir before the fountain dried up.

Every ending is the beginning of something else. I’m just wondering what Nanni Copé may be up to next.

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This is my first post of the new year, and it’s really not so much a post as a preview of posts to come. Late in 2020 (a year that will live in infamy), Diane asked a provocative question: “If you could only ever drink a dozen of all the wines we have in storage, which would you choose?” She followed with an even more provocative statement: “After all, we’re not kids any more; it could come to that.”

Needless to say, in the middle of a Covid pandemic and in the face of the approaching new year – hell, new decade, which it is extremely unlikely that I’ll see the end of – this set me to thinking about which of my wines I would absolutely want to be sure of tasting. It also got me brooding about how long it would take, with regular consumption, to drink my cellar dry, but that is an entirely separate problem for me and my liver to work out. The immediate question was which 12 would I choose – and, of course, why those?

Let me cut to the chase. Here are the dozen bottles I selected. They are in no particular order, because there was none to their choosing.

2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja
2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)
1981 Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone Classico DOC, Giuseppe Quintarelli
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach
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Eight Italian wines, four French, one of each nation white, the rest all red. I wonder what that says about me? Or does it say anything at all? I’ll leave that for you to answer as you will: Just keep in mind what your answer will say about you.

Well after the fact, I realized that the principle of selection behind these 12 wines was simple, even obvious. There was an aspect of each one that I wanted to check on: the vintage, or the grape(s), or the maker, or some unusual viticultural element, or simply how well the wine was aging. Maybe a little personal projection and concern behind that last bit of curiosity, but nevertheless a subject of genuine interest. I’ve got a lot of ’01 Barolo and Barbaresco squirreled away, and it’s now almost 20 years since that vintage was harvested — though, truth to tell, I keep thinking of it as still a young, recent vintage, so all the more reason for a reality check.

Anyhow, there they are. It’s my intention to taste and write up one of them a month as a sort of continuing thread through whatever else 2021 may bring. I hope it will sustain your interest as much as it already piques mine.

And – lest I forget – Happy (I hope truly happy, prosperous, and healthy) New Year to you all!

 

 

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It always gives me a perverse pleasure, when I have just enjoyed an exquisite bottle of wine, to check some authoritative vintage chart and be told that my bottle was over the hill, should have been drunk years ago, and was only a mediocre vintage to begin with. Call me anti-authoritarian (I am), but it doubles my enjoyment to find out once again that the emperor has no clothes on.

My most recent instance of this was my last bottle of the 2003 vintage of Mastroberardino’s Taurasi Radici, and the naked potentate this time was Robert Parker, or at least his vintage chart, which rated all 2003 Taurasi a very humble 75 out of 100, a number so low it is rarely seen in any vintage chart for any wine: Mostly they fall in the range of 85 to 100. It was also designated “C: past its prime, should have been drunk already.” What do you know?  I had just rhapsodized over a wine I should have been embarrassed to have at my table.

Well, call me shameless as well as anti-authoritarian: I loved that wine. It was big, and rich, lush with dark-toned Aglianico fruit and laced with gorgeous Campanian earth and minerals, its complex, balanced flavors still maturing and clearly with years of development still in front of them – classic Mastroberardino Taurasi, which is to say classic Taurasi. I’m not sure that Mastroberardino is capable of making a bad Taurasi.

So how do you explain Parker’s far different take on 2003?  Well, to be fair, his rating is of the vintage as an entity in itself, not what any individual producer made of it, so it’s sort of an average, as any vintage rating must be. Also – IMHO, as is now the usage – Parker has never been very sound on Italian wines. In my in fact not-at-all-humble opinion, he has never really understood them, so that I’ve always found his evaluation of individual wines as well as whole vintages skewed. It’s a little bit like the Michelin Guide’s ratings of Italian restaurants: The more highly praised they are, the less characteristically Italian they are, and the more they resemble French restaurants, in both appearance and cooking styles.

That works for a lot of the buying public, which is quite content with that state of affairs, but it doesn’t work for me, nor should it work for any wino who wants different and authentic wines with their own character and style, not international wannabes tasting only of the same old same old. Real Taurasi is emphatically its own creature: It is made from Aglianico, one of Italy’s three noblest red varieties, and it is often the biggest and longest-lived of them all. I have tasted 70-year-old Taurasis – from Mastroberardino, of course – that were still going strong, with little loss of color or body or flavor.

Aglianico is simply a great grape, one of the noblest red grapes of them all. The Mastroberardino family has been its guardians through the many dark decades when Italian wines in general got little respect, and southern Italian wines in particular got none at all. Now that Italian wine is in the ascendant, there are many other producers, and a good number of them are making first-rate Taurasi. This is an unmitigated blessing for all of us who love this wine and the unique volcanic hills that nourish it and shape its character.

 

Aglianico grows in several zones in Campania and in nearby Basilicata, and it can make a very fine wine in those places. But its masterpiece is Taurasi, and that comes only from a small area in the province of Avellino, high in the windy hills inland and east of Naples. This isn’t tourist Italy: This is and has always been hard-working Italy, where the strength of the back and arms and the sharpness of the eye and mind can produce wonders. Not the least of those wonders is a glorious wine, like my ’03 Mastro, from a – so it would seem – mediocre vintage. I leave it to your imagination what can be done with a good one.

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If you don’t know Taurasi, I’d urge you to try a Mastro bottle to learn its classic dimensions. If you’re already familiar with Taurasi, explore some of the small producers who are now making the wine and its region one of the most exciting in Italy – for example, producers like Luigi Tecce, Urciuolo, Lonardi, Caggiano, Guastaferro, Di Meo, Molettieri, and last but very far indeed from least, Terredora, which is the property of a branch of the Mastroberardinos, who produce Taurasi marked by decades of familial expertise.

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In the enforced inactivity that Covid 19 has imposed – the virtual tastings that now seem to be all over the internet are not the same as tasting real wine – Diane and I have been cooking determinedly and raiding the cellar frequently. No new young wines, no trade tastings, no lunches or dinners with winemakers – just our own kitchen skills and our own wines on hand.

It lacks a bit in variety from the wine point of view: I don’t get to try new vintages nor any wines or producers that are new to me. But it’s not what I could really call the same-old same-old. Whether by luck or cunning, I’ve got some nice wines stashed away, which we’ve been enjoying to soften our isolation from friends and colleagues. Not all of them are antiques (would that I had more of those!), but even the youngish ones can evoke memories: Wines, we are finding, are very good for that.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

Just a dinner or so back, Diane and I opened our last bottle of Mastroberardino’s 2003 Taurasi, which led us into fond reminiscences of Antonio Mastroberardino, for many decades the head of the family firm and one our favorite wine people. We first met Antonio in the late ‘70s and had been friends ever since, until his death in 2014. I’ve come to think that Neapolitan men of a certain age begin to converge on a common face: My first thought, when I met Antonio, was that he looked like all my uncles.

My favorite memory of Antonio, among the many, is of the time he and his wife Teresa picked up Diane and me in Vietri to drive together to Naples. Antonio was of a pronouncedly scholarly, almost professorial turn of mind, and, instead of focusing his attention on the hair-raising autostrada traffic, he turned to broader issues – much to the consternation of our two wives in the back seat.

At one point he was trying to explain to me in English a complex idea about Italy’s political scene, the state of wine producing, and the attitudes and circumstances of Campania’s small growers. He finally gave up English and – mostly looking at me and only occasionally glancing at the road – laid out his thoughts in flowing Italian. After his peroration, he asked if I had understood it all. “Si, si,” I said, “ho capito in senso metaforico.” Yes, I understood it in a metaphoric sense.

That fixed Antonio’s attention on me even more. I thought Diane was ready to clamber into the front of the car and grab the steering wheel. “In senso metaforico,” he said thoughtfully, as if relishing the phrase. He looked ever so briefly at the traffic around us – and repeated “senso metaforico” a few more times, almost chewing the words. Then he turned again to me and said, in his most serious, professorial voice, “I congratulate you on your culture.” Finally, to the incredible relief of the two ladies in the back, he turned his thoughts to driving, as if that had successfully closed the matter.

I knew that the whole concept of culture was centrally important to Antonio, so I realized this was a tremendous compliment. But I have always thought that the episode said more about him and the character of his mind than it does about mine. There were very few like him in the wine world and it feels very good to remember him not just as a winemaker but as the thoughtful, humane person he was.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

A very different set of memories was triggered on an evening when Diane and I were drinking a 2010 La Selvanella, a pitch-perfect Chianti Classico Riserva from Melini. Selvanella is sort of Melini’s home estate, a largish vineyard in the Classico zone, and Melini has been producing very traditional Chianti Classico there for many decades. Sipping this one alongside a modest home version of bistecca fiorentina, I found myself recounting to Diane an extraordinary visit there many years ago.

The Frederick Wildman firm, Melini’s importer, had organized a visit for a large group of wine journalists to several of the estates Wildman represented in northern and central Italy. This culminated in Tuscany, and climaxed at Selvanella. You could not imagine a more picture-perfect rustic Tuscan setting: brilliant sunshine on rows of neatly pruned vines, surrounded by the deep green of forest, and a spacious, shaded patio to shelter us from that very hot sunshine – and also to house a huge, wood-fired spit.

On that spit revolved skewer after skewer of cooking animals, ranging in size from thrushes through several other birds (the quail were particularly delicious, I recall) up to pheasants, then rabbits; and finally, on another even larger spit, cinghiale – a whole wild boar. There was not a single farm-bred creature in that whole intensely gamey and succulent lot: Every one of them had been shot by Nunzio Capurso, then the head of Melini, the winemaker at Selvanella, a generous host, and a passionate hunter. We tasted through several vintages of Selvanella at that feast, and now, enjoying this bottle of 2010, at home in not-quite-rustic Greenwich Village, with a fine but comparatively tiny steak, I vividly recalled the flavors and pleasures of that now far-distant, thoroughly Rabelaisian day. I can’t believe now how much I could – and did – eat then.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

At another recent home dinner, Diane and I shared a bottle of Barbi’s 2013 Brusco dei Barbi, a lovely 100% Sangiovese from one of the oldest, most highly reputed producers in Montalcino (I wrote about Barbi Brunello recently here). This bottle, at not quite seven years old, was still a touch tannic but nevertheless tasted deeply of dense, dark, fully ripe Sangiovese grosso. It promised years of development yet.

That tannin, which we both remarked on almost simultaneously, triggered our memory of the evening – again many years ago – when Francesca Colombini Cinelli, proprietor of the Barbi estate, treated us to a vertical tasting of about a dozen Bruscos, the oldest twenty years old. At the aroma of the fourteen-year-old Brusco, Diane and I both exclaimed, “white truffle!” A broadly smiling Signora Cinelli explained that the Barbi family too had been pleasantly surprised by that. They had originally formulated Brusco to be a young, early-drinking wine, as opposed to the many years of aging needed by their Brunello, and they had not really expected the Brusco to have great aging potential. But good fruit, good soils, and great care in the cellar will not be denied, any more than will good memories – and Diane and I only regret that we don’t have more and older Brusco dei Barbi salted away.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

“Sheltering in place” – or maybe it’s just age and garrulity – has triggered the flow of memories of decades of encounters with much-loved wines and even more fondly remembered people. These are probably a lot more fun for me to write about than for others to read, so I’ll try to moderate the flow – but I can’t guarantee that I won’t succumb again to the allure of wine and memory.

 

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Romano Brands is an interesting small importer that specializes in interesting small producers – which, of course, is very interesting to me because the wines of so many small regional vintners never make it out of their local markets and to these shores.

So when Michael Romano invited me to a tasting of four of his producers’ best wines, I quickly said yes – especially when I heard that the tasting and lunch would take place at The Leopard at Des Artistes, one of the very best Italian restaurants in New York. Good wine and good food will get me every time. I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed on either count.

The four producers present were, from north to south, Giusti, Corte Quaiara, Cerulli Spinozzi, and Cavalier Pepe, the first two representing different zones of the Veneto, the third Abruzzo, and the fourth Campania. That covers a lot of important wine areas, and the distinctions among them made for a lively and informative tasting.

The stand-up, pre-lunch portion of the tasting surveyed that geographic spread with some lovely, fresh, young, mostly white wines. The notes I take at stand-up tastings grow less and less legible, and sometimes less coherent, with every event and every year. In this case, that didn’t become too great a problem because my notes – usually just memos to myself rather than full-blown tasting notes or descriptions – all said practically the same thing: very fine; very typical; good varietal character; quite enjoyable.

That covered a Pecorino from Cerulli Spinozzi, a Falanghina from Cavalier Pepe, a Greco also from Pepe, Pepe’s Aglianico rosé (the latter particularly fine, fully dry with a lovely Aglianico finish), a Cerasuolo from Cerulli Spinozzi, a Chardonnay and a Prosecco from Giusti, and 2015 Erbaluce di Calusa from KIN, a producer not present at the tasting, who is so small that he makes only this one wine and so interesting that he keeps getting awards for it.

The wines served with the subsequent lunch got more varied and distinctive. That is no way intended to belittle the stand-up tasting wines: It just means that we moved up a category and into greater complexity.

Four wines, all produced by Giovanni Montresor at Corte Quaiara, were served to accompany a delicious bowl of cavatelli with seafood ragu:

  • A fascinating 2018 ramato (coppery) style Pinot Grigio Amfora. Aged in amphora, this wine more resembled Pinot gris than it did the average Pinot grigio, showing pronounced varietal character and real intensity.
  • A 2013 100% Garganega Campo al Salice, a very lovely, old-vine wine with deep Soave character and amazing freshness for a six-year-old white. Soave, despite the fact that most people drink it young, can be very long-lived and all the more interesting for its bottle-age. Its acidity keeps it alive and its minerality keeps it attractive.
  • 2013 Monte delle Saette, a blend of a grape that is itself a cross between Gewürztraminer and Trebbiano, called Goldtraminer because that is the color of its juice, and another Veneto white grape whose name in my note remains illegible. My bad, but the wine wasn’t: very aromatic and again quite fresh for its age.
  • A classic Italian Pinot noir 2016, sturdy and deeply fruity, with fine acidity that served it beautifully with the seafood cavatelli.

All told, a nice suite of wines.

Lamb chops Scottadito accompanied a single wine, Cerulli Spinozzi’s 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva Torre Migliore. This was a totally enjoyable wine, with great intensity of black cherry fruit, on both the nose and the palate, and great acid/tannin balance that made it an ideal accompaniment to the lamb. A single vineyard wine from old vines, at nine years old it still tasted very fresh and young, the kind of welcoming red wine you could happily drink all through a meal.

Two more reds joined the Montepulciano on the table for the final course, delicious veal braciole with prosciutto and caciocavallo: Giusti’s 2016 Ripasso della Valpolicella and 2014 Amarone. These were both lovely wines, both fully dry, and both with fruit so intense that it kept suggesting sweetness. The Valpolicella Ripasso was in the currently very popular – with both winemakers and consumers – style that makes the wine into a baby Amarone, which is exactly what this fine example was: smooth on the palate, big and lovely, with sufficient acidity to keep it supple. The Amarone smelled profoundly of dried fruit – especially cherry – and felt positively velvety in the mouth, with great balance: This will be a very long-lived wine.

Before this tasting, I had had very limited exposure to any of these producers, a fact I now seriously regret. Romano Brands has put together an excellent selection of top-notch small producers which otherwise wouldn’t ever make it onto the American market – not because they don’t have the quality, but because they don’t have the large production that the big, nationwide importers and distributors need. So much the worse for the big distributors, so much the better for us, who can badger or beg our local retailers to stock wines like this from producers like these. Globalization brings many advantages, but so too does thinking small and local.

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The Wine Media Guild opened this season’s series of tasting lunches with a fine survey of the varied output of the Campania region of south-central Italy, probably the most exciting region of Italy for winemaking today. I’ve long been a major fan of Campania because of the richness of its viticultural traditions and the amazing variety of its fine indigenous grapes.

Several years back, in Decanter, I predicted that wine lovers would someday speak of Campania with the same reverence they now reserve for Burgundy. That hasn’t happened yet, but the extremely high level of the Media Guild’s array of wines – 31 wines, of at least 8 indigenous red and white varieties, from several different Campanian regions – showed why to my mind that conversion is still inevitable.

Ilaria Petitto, the head of the Donnachiara winery, was the event’s guest of honor. Five of Donnachiara’s wines were represented: the whites Resilienza 2017 (Falanghina), Empatia 2018 (Fiano di Avellino), and Alethia 2017 (Greco di Tufo), and the reds Aglianico 2017 and Taurasi 2015. All were fine and in themselves a fair example of Campania’s variety and quality, but I was particularly impressed by the reds.

Donnachiara’s white wines have always been textbook examples of the great Irpinian varieties, but in the past, the estate’s red wines lagged them. A few years back, Signora Petitto engaged the famed enologist Riccardo Cotarella, and the reds have been getting better and better ever since. Donnachiara is a small estate by the standards of the region’s largest, like Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio, but it is rapidly joining them in prestige.

Because of the diversity of their grape varieties and vinicultural zones, I can’t generalize about the other 26 wines, except to say that all were fine – which is in itself pretty remarkable.

  • The stand-out among the Falanghina and Falanghina-based wines was Marisa Cuomo’s Furore Bianco 2018 (Costa d’Amalfi), a great wine of complexity, depth, and suavity.
  • Among the Fiano di Avellino wines, I particularly liked Tenuta Sarno 1860’s two bottles (2016 and 2017), both of which displayed an admirable varietal character.
  • Among the Greco di Tufo, Benito Ferraro’s Terra d’Uva 2018 just shone – but then Ferraro’s Grecos always do: This is a top-flight Greco producer.
  • Among the reds, I loved Villa Raiano’s Aglianico Costa Baiano 2015 and the Contrade di Taurasi (aka Cantine Lonardo) Taurasi 2013: Both were really fine, elegant and fresh, complex and totally enjoyable.

Teresa Bruno, co-owner of the Petilia winery with her brother Roberto, who is the winemaker, had gotten caught in New York traffic, arrived late during lunch, and dashed from table to table tirelessly pouring samples from two very welcome bottles: Petilia’s 2017 Ape, a Fiano di Avellino fermented on the skins, and 2015 Quattro Venti, a Greco di Tufo. The Fiano was lovely, with its almondy perfumes and nut and wildflower flavors enhanced by the long skin contact, and the Greco was what I think of as classic Petilia – big and fruity and balanced, just great Greco.

Except to Italian wine nuts like me, none of these wines has the name recognition of the famous Bordeaux or Burgundy estates. It’s useful to remind ourselves that the Romans of the Empire regarded Campanian wines as the best of the best. The Romans weren’t stupid: They recognized and exploited the variety of Campania’s soils and exposures to produce their versions of Chateau Lafite and Richebourg.

Obviously, we have no way of knowing whether the grapes being grown in Campania today are the same varieties the Romans cultivated, but we do know that all of them are natives – international varieties have made almost no headway in Campania – and many of them are very old indeed. And more and more indigenes are being rescued all the time. Not two decades back, Falanghina was endangered. Even more recently, Pallagrella bianco and Pallagrello rosso and Casavecchia have been brought back from the brink of extinction and are now producing award-winning wines.

A few years ago I met a winemaker who told me that on his roughly 30 hectares near Naples he grows 30 or more grape varieties, half of which, he said – and I believe him – “are not in the catalog.”  This is why, for me, Campania is endlessly fascinating: It’s going to be presenting us with new old wines for years to come. To paraphrase an old Roman line: Ex Campania, semper aliquid novum.

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By March, in New York, the wine season shifts into high gear. National and regional promotional groups presenting wines from all over the world stage elaborate tastings; importers of a few wines and importers of many hundreds of wines display their entire portfolios; visiting winemakers offer their own wines at stand-up or sit-down tastings or lunches or dinners; and a conscientious wine journalist risks cirrhosis, or at very least indigestion, nearly every day. I know, I know: “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.” I can hear your sarcasm clearly.

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And I freely admit it’s not all penitential. One of the annual events I’m always happy to attend is the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting. It’s always crowded, and at its worst, getting a taste of the most popular or famous wines can be a little bit like trying to break through a rugby scrum, but it’s always worth the effort.

The 2019 edition of Gambero Rosso’s annual guide Italian Wines runs to over 1,000 pages and includes more than 2,300 wineries and 25,000 wines. Nearly 400 producers were awarded its highest rating of Tre Bicchieri (three glasses), and almost 200 of them sent wines to the New York presentation. Need I say I didn’t even try to taste them all? There were 190 tables set up, with one producer and one to three wines per table: I leave you to guess what fraction of them I managed to taste.

Those I did taste I found uniformly excellent: The Tre Bicchieri award still designates the topmost rung of Italian winemaking. (That emphatically doesn’t mean that a wine without Tre Bicchieri can’t be magnificent, but it does mean that a wine with Tre Bicchieri usually will be very fine.) Of the wines I sampled, here are those that impressed me most.

  • For one, I Favati’s 2017 Fiano di Avellino Pietramara, a poised and elegant example of one of Italy’s finest white wines.
  • This was matched by Villa Raiano’s 2016 Fiano di Avellino Ventidue, a very polished and deep version of the grape.
  • Pietracupa’s 2017 Greco di Tufo similarly showed the quality of Campania’s white varieties.
  • Then there was Pieropan’s 2016 Soave Classico Calvarino, a deeply mineral and complex wine from a master of the breed.
  • And, from the Marches, La Monacesca’s 2016 Verdicchio di Matelica Mirum Riserva, an exceptionally full-bodied and deeply flavored wine that drinks well from its youth but is noted for its longevity.

Still among white wines, the 2016 version of Livio Felluga’s perennial award-winner Rosazzo Terre Alte just shone. Blended as always of Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, and Tocai Friulano, this wine achieves a balance and fullness – and ageability – that rank it among Italy’s – and the world’s – great white wines. And – lest I forget – I did taste one sparkling wine from a producer I had not known before, Villa Sandi: Its Cartizze Brut Vigna La Rivetta showed wonderful light fruit in a fully dry and savory package, as elegant as a Prosecco can get.

By this point I had to move on to red wines, which were just as rewarding but more difficult to taste at an event like this (because the scrum is always thicker at the big-red-wine tables). Here I managed to sample an eclectic batch before my shoulder pads wore out. From Piedmont:

  • Ca Viola’s 2013 Barolo Sottocastello di Novello was a trifle woody for my taste but intensely aromatic and attractive.
  • Vietti’s 2014 Barolo Roche di Castiglione is a big wine that returns to the classic style of this great house.
  • Equally big and balanced was Elvio Cogno’s 2013 Barolo Ravera Bricco Pernice, a wine I would love to be able to taste in 20 years.
  • The final Nebbiolo-based wine I tried was Nino Negri’s 2015 Valtellina Sfursat Cinque Stelle, a wine of tremendous complexity both in the nose and on the palate.

After Piedmont, my next largest cluster of reds came from Tuscany: probably no surprise there.

  • Mastrojanni’s 2013 Brunello di Montalcino Vigna Loreto
  • Castellare di Castellino’s 2014 I Sodi di San Niccolo
  • Castello di Volpaia’s 2016 Chianti Classico
  • Cecchi’s 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia

All are long-time favorites of mine that express beautifully the many nuances of the Sangiovese variety, and none disappointed.

After that, I managed to taste a small selection of other reds, mostly from Campania. The big exception to that geographic limit was Masi’s magnificent 2013 Amarone Costasera Riserva (another wine I’d love to taste in 20 years). Then I sampled Donnachiara’s 2016 Aglianico, a spicy, underbrushy wine that testifies to the steadily improving quality of red wines at this already successful white wine house; and Nanni Copé’s outstanding, unique 2016 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, a wine of great elegance and depth crafted from the rescued-from-the-brink-of-extinction Pallagrello nero and Casavecchia varieties.

I would have been happy to taste more – my palate was still working and my tongue still alive – but by this point the scrum had grown too thick and combative (why will people plant themselves right in front of the spit bucket?) for my aging bones, so I retrieved my coat and hat and gloves and headed out into the cold with enough anti-freeze in my system to see me safely home.

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“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

This is a post I should have written years ago. Greco di Tufo is a wine I love, drink often, and always enjoy deeply on the palate and in the mind. It reverberates with me, and no Greco di Tufo does so more than Benito Ferrara’s, especially his cru, Vigna Cicogna – the Stork Vineyard. It would be nice is there actually was one, nesting or feeding nearby, but the name is memorable enough even without the leggy bird itself.

I had a bottle of Ferrara’s 2016 Cicogna just a few weeks ago, to accompany an improvised dish of fresh cod and potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce. It was serendipitous in every respect, and the Greco just sang, even after the main dish was done and we had started cracking a few toasted hazelnuts and walnuts to finish the wine with: the Greco improvised a few notes to harmonize with them too.

I’ve admired Greco di Tufo for years, from back when Mastroberardino’s was almost the only example of the variety and appellation to be found on the American market. Mastro still makes one of the best examples of the breed, but many fine small growers in the Tufo zone have begun bottling their own wines, and Ferrara is one of the finest of the lot.

Just for clarity: Greco is the grape variety, Tufo the town in the center of the DOCG zone in Campania, in the province of Avellino. So all Greco di Tufo originates in a small, high and hilly area, where the soils are largely volcanic and richly laced with minerals, especially sulfur. Benito Ferrara’s vineyards, in fact, lie very close to the old Di Marzo sulfur mine, which for decades was the major employer in the area

It makes an odd picture: beautifully tended vineyards, hillsides thickly forested – still – with chestnut trees and hazelnuts, and a distinct whiff of sulfur in the clear air. The scent is often present in the wines of the zone also, sweetened and made welcoming by the other scents of fruit and forest that the grapes convey.

Greco can be a tough variety to work with. It ripens late – October – and that can be dicey for any grape, but especially for one that grows as high in the hills as Greco does. And it is quite thick-skinned, so a lot of coloring agents leach out in fermentation, making the new wine occasionally brownish, often dark gold, as if old and oxidized. This is a bit ironic, since Greco di Tufo, while thoroughly delightful to drink young, no matter what its color, is one of those remarkable white wines that ages quite well and continues to drink enjoyably for years – no matter what its color.

Benito Ferrara is a fourth-generation family estate, currently operated by Gabriella Ferrara and her husband Sergio Ambrosino. It’s not huge: 8 hectares of Greco di Tufo, 1 of Fiano di Avelino, and 3.5 of Taurasi. The Cicogna vineyard, at 1.5 hectares, forms a sizable fraction of it, and it is high, nearly 600 meters up.

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Several years ago, when I visited, Gabriella and Sergio let me taste, in addition to their prized Cicogna, wines from three other sites that went into their basic Greco di Tufo. I understate when I say I was impressed: I thought each of the three was delicious enough and distinctive enough to be bottled separately as a cru in its own right. This is first-rate terroir, and the Ferraras are making the most of it.

Incidentally, in the important reference book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, author Ian d’Agata calls Vigna Cicogna one of Italy’s ten best white wines, and I can’t say I disagree: This is just one fine wine, plain and simple.

 

Postscript: A DNA study has claimed that the Greco grape is the same variety as Asprinio. Jancis Robinson’s influential Wine Grapes accepts this claim, rather uncritically I think, since it is based on a very small sampling of both grapes. Allowing for all possible differences caused by soils, cultivation, and vinification, my palate can’t discern any similarity between the wines of the two, so I conclude that this study is flawed and more work needs to be done. I’m happy that Ian d’Agata is of the same opinion, for much the same reasons.

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Campania Stories 2018 climaxed with a blind tasting of 111 red wines. By the standards of the Nebbiolo Prima or the Chianti Classico and Brunello anteprima, at either of which professionals taste 100 or more wines a day over multiple days, that’s not a lot of wines – but judged against what Campania’s production was in the past, that is a tremendous leap forward. That same progress is evident in the quality of the wines as in the proliferation of appellations and producers: Every year, the most authoritative Italian experts – Daniele Cernilli, Gambero Rosso, the Italian Sommeliers Association – give Campania more and more of their top awards, and list more and more Campanian wines in their annual guides.

Not all of those wines are available here in the US, of course, but many are – enough to create some confusion for American consumers. The region’s many appellations result not from Italian whimsicality or parochialism, but from Campanian geography. Campania is broken up by hills and mountains, divided by valleys and rivers, with soils volcanic and alluvial and sedimentary, and climates modified by altitude and/or proximity to the sea. These necessitate differing appellations to reflect the many varied growing circumstances, which in turn affect the kind of wine produced – even when the grape varieties are the same.
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A misty morning in the hills near Avellino

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That is one of the underlying simplicities of Campanian red wine: Campania has largely resisted the importation of foreign grapes, and almost all Campanian reds are made with a small handful of indigenous grape varieties. At the top of the heap stands Aglianico, in its pinnacle expression Taurasi and in many other regionally named wines. Right behind is Piedirosso – the Per’e Palummo beloved of traditional growers – sort of a Merlot to Aglianico’s Cabernet, which blends wonderfully with Aglianico and also makes a very nice wine on its own. And distantly behind Piedirosso (in volume, not in quality) follow Casavecchia, Pallagrello nero, Tintore, and a handful of other ancient red varieties just now being rediscovered and re-cultivated.

Thus, understanding Campanian reds isn’t all that complex, once you’ve familiarized your palate with what Aglianico and Piedirosso can do. (If you haven’t, you’re depriving yourself of some great pleasures: Aglianico in particular is a truly noble red variety, easily on the same plane as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo or, for that matter, Pinot noir.)

For me, as a wine lover and an I-hope-useful journalist, this plenitude of fine wines and their appellations makes a major problem. For instance: at the blind tasting, 71 of the wines presented were either 100% Aglianico or largely Aglianico-based. None of them was a wine I couldn’t drink with pleasure. Fifty-six of them scored 3.75 to 4.5 on the 5-point scale I use for my own ratings, and I’m a stingy scorer. Fifty-six! I can’t in conscience just turn this post into a gigantic list: I came too close to that for my own comfort (or yours, I am sure) in my post on the white wines of Campania Stories. But I also can’t omit the names of these wonderful wines and their hard-working producers – so here’s a link that will connect those of you curious or masochistic enough to want to know them to the complete list of Tom’s Very Pleasurable Fifty-six.

What impressed me consistently about the Taurasis especially, but all the less famous Aglianico wines as well, was the wonderful Aglianico fruit – wild cherry, black raspberry, forest underbrush, walnuts and earth – in the aromas and flavors. In the Taurasis, it tends to be a bit more austere and structured, in the other wines a little softer and more giving, but in all it is sustained by a structure that promises long life and development. Not that they have to be kept forever – many were already pleasant drinking and almost all will be thoroughly enjoyable very soon – but for anyone seeking mature flavors and style in a red wine, these Campanian beauties can provide it, if you’re patient enough. Galardi’s Terra di Lavoro, Villa Matilde’s Falerno Rosso, La Rivolta, Mustille, Fontanavecchia, Benito Ferrara, Donnachiara, Di Meo, Luigi Tecce’s Campi Taurasini Satyricon – all these “non-Taurasis” are splendid wines, with a good chunk of Taurasi’s virtues.

As for the Taurasis themselves: There was an impressive, almost universal level of excellence from producers large and small. Clearly the level of winemaking in Campania has taken a major step upward. Familiar larger producers like Feudi di San Gregorio and Villa Raiano showed lovely wines, as did medium-sized houses like Donnachiara and Di Meo and small producers such as Luigi Tecce – and so too did a raft of producers previously unknown to me, some of them quite small, such as Vigne Guadagno or Regina Collis. In the 2012 and 2013 vintages especially, throwing darts at a list of Taurasi makers would probably get you a fine wine nine times out of ten.

Finally, I can’t close this post without praising the wines vinified – in most cases, 100% – from Casavecchia or Pallagrello Nero. Two ancient and indigenous Campanian varieties now undergoing serious revivals, both make an intense, dark wine, brooding and elegant, and seemingly capable of graceful aging. Top-flight producers include, for Casavecchia, Aia delle Monache, Alois, Sclavia, and Viticoltori del Casavecchia; and for Pallagrello nero, Alois, Cantina di Lisandro, Nanni Copè, Sclavia, Tempio di Diana, and Vestini Campagnano.

As my enthusiasm should show, I found the whole Naples event pleasurable and exciting. I would urge any young enophile to start paying serious attention to Campanian wine, while it is still modestly priced and not yet well known. This is an opportunity to fill your cellar with beautifully structured, long-lasting wines that you will enjoy for many years.

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