Archive for the ‘Campania’ Category

The Pleasures of Summer: Falanghina

July 17, 2017

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.

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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.

2017 Tre Bicchieri Winners

February 16, 2017

On the day of our heaviest snowstorm so far this year, the annual New York presentation and tasting of Tre Bicchieri award-winning wines took place just about half a mile from where I live.

trebicchieri-2017

So I slogged through the flying snow and the street-corner slush to take advantage of what I hoped would be a sparse crowd and a lot of idle winemakers, thus allowing me to actually taste some wines. For the first hour, I was right, and I did have the opportunity to taste some remarkable wines – but then the storm let up and the hordes came in, and my chances for thoughtful tasting ended. I’m happy for all those hard-working winemakers that the Tre Bicchieri tasting is such a popular event, but as a hard-working journalist I do most seriously wish there was some better way to experience and evaluate these wines.

But you’ve heard that lament from me before, and are probably quite tired of it now. Besides, the key thing about this particular tasting is how many top-flight Italian wines it gathers in one room, and I don’t want to let the circumstances of the tasting obscure that. My palate and the collective palate of the Tre Bicchieri judges don’t always agree 100%, but those guys sure get an awful lot right, so a collection of almost 200 top-ranked wines amounts to an event to pay serious attention to, no matter how many people you have to elbow aside to do it.

Not that even under the best circumstances I could manage to taste all 200 in one afternoon, but I did my best to get to a reasonable assortment of old-favorite, regular prize winners and some of the new kids on the block. I was impressed by everything I tasted, without exception. I don’t get the chance to say that often, so let me repeat it: Every single wine I tasted that snowy afternoon deserved its Tre Bicchieri designation. Here are the ones I tried: first reds, then whites.

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red-wine

 

From Basilicata

Re Manfredi’s Aglianico del Vulture Manfredi 2013, a wonderful example of a grape I love

From Piedmont

Elvio Cogno’s Barolo Bricco Pernice 2011, another masterpiece from winemaker Valter Fissore

Bruno Giacosa’s Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011, one of Barbaresco’s finest crus, beautifully rendered

Elio Grasso’s Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté 2012, benchmark Barolo, as always from this estate

Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 90 Dì Riserva 2010, macerated 90 days on the skins, with consequent depth and intensity

Oddero’s Barolo Bussia Vigneto Mondoca Riserva 2010, a classic Barolo of a great vintage

Vietti’s Barolo Ravera 2012, a lovely, beautifully balanced wine with potentially great longevity (and I also liked Vietti’s very nice but not prize-winning Barbera d’Asti La Crena 2013)

From Sicily

Palari’s Faro Palari 2012, year after year the best red wine made in Sicily, in my opinion (and the 2012 Rosso del Soprano is right on its tail in quality: It got Due Bicchieri)

Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico Dorilli 2014, a lovely light-bodied wine, refreshing and vigorous

From Tuscany

Boscarelli’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Il Nocio 2012, as always an elegant, complex wine

Castellare di Castellina’s I Sodi di San Niccolò 2012, graceful and lovely Sangiovese from winemaker Alessandro Cellai

Castello di Volpaia’s Chianti Classico Riserva 2013, medium-bodied, perfectly balanced, with the elegance that always marks Volpaia

Il Marroneto’s Brunello Madonna delle Grazie 2011, as always from this remarkable cru and maker, a very great wine

Mastroianni’s Brunello Vigneto Schiena d’Asino 2010, maybe the best Tuscan wine at this gathering of greats

Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colledilà 2013, a luscious, juicy wine that drinks far too easily

Terenzi’s Morellino di Scansano Madrechiesa Riserva 2013, very young Sangiovese, with this maker’s trademark balance and elegance

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

Bertani’s Amarone 2008 and 2009, both still young and evolving, with great depth and the promise of decades of life

Masi’s Amarone Vaio Armaron Serègo Alighieri 2011, a stunning wine from a great site

Speri’s Amarone Vigneto Monte Sant’ Urbano 2012, another fine example of what seems to be a great year for Amarone

Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Amarone Campo dei Gigli 2012, an infant Hercules

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I doubt anyone is surprised by the fact that Italy is producing so many fine red wines, but for me the best news of the day was how superior so many white wines showed themselves to be. Every single one I tasted had distinct varietal flavors joined to genuine goût de terroir. This for me was the most fun of the afternoon, and I kept switching from big reds to whites of every kind to keep my palate fresh. (It worked for a couple of hours, then I gave out.)

white-wines

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From Alto Adige

Abbazia di Novacella’s Valle Isarco Sylvaner Praepositus 2015, a stunning, fresh, and vigorous wine from a grape of usually no great distinction, this year slightly better than the Abbazia’s normally superb Kerner Praepositus

Produttori San Michele Appiano’s Pinot Grigio St. Valentin 2014, high-altitude, rounder than usual PG – a real dinner wine

Produttori Valle Isarco’s Sylvaner Aristos 2015 – this seems to have been Sylvaner’s year; a lovely, lively wine

From Campania

Marisa Cuomo’s Costa d’Amalfi Furore Bianco 2015, a lovely, fragrant dinner wine coaxed from postage stamp-sized terraced vineyards along the steep Amalfi coast

Fontanavecchia’s Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2015, lovely, characteristic Falanghina, invigorating and lively

Pietracupa’s Greco di Tufo 2015, medium-bodied and deeply flavored, with strong mineral accents, a fine wine, almost as good, in my opinion, as the same maker’s Fiano di Avellino, which didn’t get Tre Bicchieri

From Friuli Venezia Giulia

Livio Felluga’s Bianco Illivio 2014, a masterful blend of Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the native Picolit, sapid and intriguing

Primosic’s Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012, one of the briefly fashionable orange wines, but better than simple fashion: intense, distinctive, rich, and with the right food incomparable

Russiz Superiore’s Collio Friulano 2015, a lovely medium-bodied, deeply flavored (hints of almond) example of Friuli’s native grape

Torre Rosazza’s Pinot Grigio 2015, what PG used to be, fresh, vigorous, almost rambunctious

From Lazio

Casale del Giglio’s Antium Bellone 2015, distinctive, flavorful wine from an almost disappeared variety that merits preservation (Charles Scicolone has written about this estate here)

From the Marches

Cocci Grifoni’s Offida Pecorino Guido Cocci Grifoni 2013, a lovely wine from a variety that had been in danger of disappearing

Velenosi’s Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014, another fine example of the same grape variety, medium-bodied and mouth-filling; very enjoyable

From Sardinia

Vigne Surrau’s Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Sciala 2015, textbook Vermentino, fresh and bracing

From Sicily

Cusumano’s Etna Bianca Alta Mora 2014, capturing beautifully the volcanic nuances of Etna’s slopes

Tasca d’Almerita’s Sicilia Carricante Buonora Tascante 2015, a very characteristic version of Etna’s great white grape

From the Veneto

Pieropan’s Soave Classico La Rocca 2014, always the finest cru from this consistently great producer

Graziano Prà’s Soave Classico Staforte 2014, one of many excellent cru Soaves from this producer, all fresh, enjoyable and very age-worthy

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There were many more wines to taste, but I had about reached my limit for tasting accurately and for elbowing, so I trudged my way back home through the remnants of the snow storm. I wish I had had the capacity for more, because I’m sure there were more discoveries to be made and reported on. Ars longa, vita brevis. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Non sum qualis eram, etc. You get the idea: I’d do more for you if I could, but . . .

 

 

Wining in Rome

November 3, 2016

Rome has many charms, but an abundance of great wine is not one of them. Once upon a time – my brother and I first visited Rome in 1964, so this is history, not fable – your wine options in most trattorias were rosso or bianco, both vino sfuso – that is, drawn from a barrel or demijohn, not from a bottle. The red was usually some form of Chianti and the white was almost always brown (from rapid oxidation, then a serious problem for Italan white wine) and usually some form of Frascati.

Much has changed for the better since then. The white wine now really is white, and almost invariably young and fresh and charming. And although now-much-improved Frascati is still ubiquitous, most trattorias – and certainly anything calling itself a ristorante – will also offer several other options from other parts of Italy. Red wine lists seem to have grown even more, now providing good choices of many varieties from all over Italy – including, at long last, a growing representation of indigenous Lazio (Rome’s region) bottlings.

 The selection at the Cul de Sac wine bar

The selection at the Cul de Sac wine bar

Nevertheless, really deep wine lists are still few and far between, and the lover of older wines has to search pretty hard to find a mature bottle of almost anything. So when Diane and I went recently to Rome for a week of pure vacation – I promised no winery visits, no tasting sessions – we contented ourselves mostly with the kinds of wines that provide plenty of pleasure without needing long cellaring. Rome offered many of those.

We tried many young Frascatis, of course, and all were genuinely charming, with the light floral/mineral nose and palate characteristic of the breed. One of the most interesting, which we tasted at the Trimani wine bar, was in fact not a Frascati but an IGT Lazio wine from Casale alborea-2Certosa. It was a 2014 (almost all the whites were 2014, a very few 2015) Alborea, a rich, lightly golden wine of greater than usual intensity. It was blended from Grecchetto and Malvasia Puntinata, the latter grape a Lazio specialty and usually an important component of Frascati. I don’t think this wine is imported to the US.  One of the advantages (and limitations, from a wine journalist’s point of view) of drinking in Rome is the opportunity to taste wines, both kinds and producers, that don’t always make it across the pond.

falanghina-1Other whites that we enjoyed included a lovely light, refreshing 2015 Pigato from Liguria (Pigato is the regional name for Vermentino), a characteristic Falanghina from Benevento by Vinicola del Sannio, and a 2015 Mastroberardino Fiano – the latter, of course, in a distinctly different weight and quality class from the lighter more apéritif style of the preceding wines.

BTW, we tasted a lot of these wines by the glass at two of our favorite places in Rome to get a light lunch: the wine bars Cul de Sac and Angolo Divino. Both offer a splendid array of cheeses and salume and light dishes, though at both you can order more substantially if you wish. Either way, you can taste glasses of as many wines as you have time and capacity for, from a well-chosen list, with many, many more wines available by the bottle, should you opt to make an afternoon of it.

taurasiEverywhere we dined in Rome, our choices for red wine seemed much richer than for whites. The red wine situation, it’s fair to say, is happily more complex than the white. We drank a number of familiar standbys, of course – a 2009 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi, for instance, though that turned out to be infanticide: That bottle had years of development before it.

montevetrano-2We also drank a 2007 Montevetrano, which was a lovely representative of this unusual (for Campania) blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Aglianico. It was evolving beautifully, but it too had years of maturation to go. The slightly disappointing restaurant at which we drank it provided a wonderful instance of just how thin wine knowledge is even in seemingly better places. When I asked for a bottle of Montevetrano, our waiter didn’t recognize the name, and didn’t know it was on his wine list. I pointed it out and explained it was a Campanian wine. He  looked and said “No; this says it’s from Salerno.” – He didn’t even know Salerno is in Campania. After that he disappeared for a while and, apparently after consultation with someone more knowledgeable, returned bearing the bottle and self-importantly informed me that this was one of Italy’s greatest wines – which, of course, was why I had ordered it in the first place.

Most of the reds we enjoyed were younger than those two, however. One stand-out was a 2013 Villa Simone Cesanese – a native Lazio grape – that was soft, fresh, and fruity, with some real depth and excellent varietal character. We liked that so much we ordered a second bottle and made that dinner last. 4-spineAnother very distinctive regional wine, this one from the Amalfi coast, was 2012 Quattro Spine Costa d’Amalfi Rosso from Tenuta San Francesco. Again, I don’t know if this wine is available in the US, but it’s definitely worth seeking out, whether at home or abroad. It was an intriguing blend of Aglianico, Tintore, and Piedirosso, very dark, rich and deep, powerful and elegant. I’d love the chance to taste an older bottle.

zanella-1The oldest bottles we had on this trip we enjoyed at Fortunato del Pantheon, and at Checchino dal 1887. At the former, our waiter walked me into the attached enoteca (a new development since we’d last dined there), where the sommelier unearthed a 2007 (not so old, but hey! we’re in Rome) bottle of Maurizio Zanella Rosso del Sebino. A blend of 50% Cabernet sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and 25% Cabernet franc, and almost inky dark, it was big, round, and soft, with very soft tannins, and tasted of mature black fruits. It proved an excellent companion to our dishes of tagliarini with white and black truffles.

picchioni-2By far the most interesting red wine of our trip was the sommelier’s suggestion at Checchino. This was no surprise, because it has one of the best wine lists in Rome, and when asked for a more mature wine, Francesco Mariani (one of the brothers who own Checchino) suggested a 1983 Colle Picchioni Rosso (as it turned out, the same wine he had served my friend and colleague Charles Scicolone just a week before ).

This is a Lazio wine, grown and vinified not many miles outside of Rome. It’s probably – firm data is hard to come by – a blend of the native Cesanese with Merlot and maybe Sangiovese, maybe Aglianico, maybe Cabernet; in 1983 things were still pretty loose in Lazio (Charles thinks it’s all international varieties; I’m not so sure). Francesco knows his stock: Whatever grapes are in it, this wine turned out to be perfect choice with our food, initially delicate but growing in strength as it opened. Pale garnet with an orange edge, it looked and smelled like a mature wine, the nose almost delicate. On the palate, very balanced, and even lively, with still fresh fruit suggesting dark berries that lingered into the elegant finish: a really lovely bottle of wine.

Diane has blogged about the meals we ate in Rome, so the palatally curious can see what kinds of food went with the wines I’ve been talking about by clicking here.

One final word: None of these wines was expensive, especially not by New York standards. The older wines cost far less than new vintages sell for at retail here, which gives you some sense of just how outrageous the price-gouging is in American restaurants. And in even the busiest, most touristed Roman restaurants, the sound levels were such that the two of us were able to speak in normal tones, which gives you some idea of what a deliberately manipulated environment most American restaurants are providing. As one of my old teachers used to say, verb. sap. sat. Save your money, and dine out in Europe.

Donnachiara: A Fiano Vertical

September 22, 2016

Donnachiara, the Campanian wine estate, celebrated its 10th anniversary recently by presenting a vertical tasting of its elegant Fiano di Avellino during a classic Neapolitan lunch at Il Gattopardo restaurant in New York. The food was great, and the wines were even better. I only wish that anyone who still subscribes to the myth that Italian white wines can’t age would have the same sort of opportunity to experience just how beautifully Fiano matures.

Ilaria Petitto, now the managing director of the family-owned firm (established by her mother and named for her grandmother), hosted the event and presented the wines, with additional commentary from wine journalist John Gilman.

Photo by Charles Scicolone

Photo by Charles Scicolone

The wines appeared in flights of two, each pair accompanying a different course of the meal:

  • 2015 and 2013 Fiano alongside some mini arancini and mozzarella in carrozza
  • 2011 Fiano and Fiano Esoterica alongside a savory dish of freshly made pasta in a seafood sauce
  • 2009 and 2007 Fiano paired with a lovely fillet of sea bream in a light broth of tomato with tiny clams and mussels

The matches were perfect in every case, and the wines remarkable for their consistently high level of quality and elegance, right from the firm’s beginnings.

To my mind, Donnachiara has done amazing things for so young a firm and promises much more for the future. Indeed, Ilaria made a surprise announcement at the lunch that Donnachiara has just retained the famed enologist Riccardo Cotarella as its winemaker. Several of the journalists at the lunch expressed the hope that Cotarella doesn’t change the estate’s white wines (Fiano, Greco, Falanghina) which we all felt are already great because they are so beautifully faithful to their varieties and terroirs.

donnachiara-vineyard

But we all agreed he could help substantially with the red Taurasi, which has not yet caught up to the level of the whites. Speriamo!
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Here are some details of the wines we tasted.

2015
Donnachiara’s vintage notes call this “a wine with great potential for aging,” and I agree. It’s already balanced and lovely, with a long mineral finish, promising fine development. It resulted from a very wet winter, a “scorching” July, and then gradually moderating temperatures that “allowed for optimum ripeness of the fruit.” Everyone with room in their cellar should put away a case of this for 10 years.

2013
Very similar to 2015, only more so in every respect – bigger, fuller, fatter, more aromatic. That partially results from two additional years of maturation, partially from a long, hot, dry growing season that produced concentrated, structured grapes. It lacks a bit of the freshness of 2015, but it adds tremendous presence.

2011
This was – and is – a favorite white wine vintage for Campanian growers. Donnachiara describes it as “a balanced vintage par excellence” and thinks the wine is at an “optimal current aging phase.” I have to disagree: This lovely, aromatic wine is maturing beautifully, but for my palate – and from many years’ experience with Fianos of all ages – I’d say it was still quite young, with years of development still before it. If I had to choose one wine from this line-up to put in my cellar (and hope to live long enough to taste at maturity), 2011 would be the one.

2011 Esoterico
All Donnachiara’s white wines except this one are fermented and aged only in stainless steel, so as not to impose any other flavors on what the grapes and the vineyards give. Esoterica was a one-shot experiment, with part of the wines fermented and aged for 12 months in French oak. For me, this is the only wine that didn’t work with the food and where I felt that the true character of Fiano was obscured. It would probably taste great with foie gras, but it just didn’t work with seafood pasta.

2009
This was a difficult harvest, Donnachiara says, with too much rain early on, but the wine “has good balance and pleasant minerality, with beautiful aromatic complexity.”  I found it very fine – lean and elegant, with complex almondy/mineral flavors and a very long finish: in all, quite a lovely wine, still with remarkable freshness.

2007
A hot, dry summer yielded “a large, powerful wine, with great structure and good acidity – one of the best vintages for the aging of Fiano.” I found this Fiano just plain big – huge nose, big fruit on the palate, opulent and still quite fresh, and with a commensurate long, forceful finish. I can’t guess how much longer this wine will mature, because it is such a different vintage, but right now it is absolutely voluptuous drinking.

fianoI hope I will be around to celebrate Donnachiara’s 20th anniversary. The potential of this winery – and in fact the potential of the whole Irpinia area, the heartland of Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Taurasi – is only now beginning to be realized. Before it started making its own wines, Donnachiara sold its grapes to Mastroberardino, and I have drunk 20- and 30 year-old Fianos from Mastro that were simply gorgeous. For Campania, Fiano could be only the tip of the iceberg: As Ilaria almost casually remarked, one of the reasons Campania doesn’t do international grapes is because it has over a hundred native white varieties. If even a few of them approach the stature of Fiano and Greco, wine lovers will have found a treasure trove.

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.

More on Campania’s Golden Triangle

May 12, 2015

This is the promised continuation of my post about three great Campanian wines. I apologize for writing so lengthily about them. It’s the curse and blessing of the enthusiast: Confront me with wines of this caliber, and I do go on. So on I will go. This time it’s on to the two remaining points of what I’ve dubbed the Golden Triangle: Tufo and Taurasi.

golden triangle map

Taurasi, top right; Tufo, high middle left

The town of Tufo lies about 20 kilometers north of Avellino, more or less on the road to Benevento. There, this spring, I visited the Benito Ferrara estate. This is very hilly country, and the soils are intensely volcanic, rich with all sorts of mineral traces. In fact, the old Di Marzo sulfur mine – for decades the area’s major employer – faces the main road of the town. Benito Ferrara’s eight hectares of vines are situated high among those hills, between 450 and 600 meters.

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All the steep vineyards face south – ideal location and ideal exposition for producing great Greco di Tufo. In fact, the winery makes all three of Irpinia’s DOCG wines, and at a very high level, but its Greco di Tufo, and especially the cru Vigna Cicogna, is its flagship wine. Vigna Cicogna pretty regularly wins Tre Bicchieri and Cinque Grappoli, which tells you all you need to know about its standing in Italy.

Here I was offered a horizontal tasting of the estate’s range, which is quite extensive despite its relatively small size.

2013 Greco di Tufo
Intensely mineral, slightly sulfurous nose. On the palate, great white fruit, recalling, without quite being, pears, with tons of mineral behind. Mineral/dried white flowers finish. Excellent: classic Greco di Tufo. If you don’t know Greco, this is the wine to teach you.

2013 Greco di Tufo Vigna Cicogna
Like the preceding wine, only more so. Nose and palate even more intense, already showing complexity – hazelnuts, herbs, thyme, and sage are among the many elements to be found. The wine has a slightly olive-y, faintly oily feel in the mouth that I consistently find in the best Greco di Tufo. This is simply a lovely wine, as true to type as it can possibly be.

2013 Fiano di Avellino
Lovely aroma of hazelnuts, white flowers, and mineral, with the same components showing up on the palate. Very different from the Greco: not as mineral, lighter in body and a bit more elegant/restrained, but still a lovely example of its kind.

All three of these whites opened and changed in the glass as they sat and I tasted and re-tasted them. That for me is also one of the hallmarks of a great wine:  It is alive and mutable, not inert. All three are vinified entirely in stainless steel, with no wood contact at all, so what one tastes in them is unmediated grapes and soil – the variety and the terroir, which, as far as I am concerned, is exactly as wine ought to be.

Benito Ferrara’s red wines – an Irpinia Aglianico Vigna Quattro Confini and a Taurasi of the same name – are also quite good, but for my Taurasi focus here I’ve chosen the remarkable Guastaferro estate, so I’ll head along there.

Located right in the commune of Taurasi are about seven and a half hectares of prime Aglianico vineyards that young Raffaele Guastaferro has had the good fortune to take over from his father. Two and a half of these consist of pre-phylloxera vines of between 175 and 200 years of age. Yes, you read that correctly: 175 to 200 years old, on their own roots.

Guastaferro vineyard 1

The remaining vineyards have been planted with cuttings from those old vines – so Guastaferro has all pre-phylloxera stock even though not all pre-phylloxera era. That, quite obviously, is a patrimony of enormous potential and very great responsibility. Raffaele has risen to the challenge handsomely. I was lucky enough to taste with him a selection of his Taurasi and Taurasi Riserva – the latter vinified exclusively from those two and a half hectares of ancient vines – starting with 2004, when he took over winemaking from his father.

2004 Taurasi Primum
This wine spent one year in barriques and six months in botti (huge barrels holding 10,000 liters or more) before being bottled. It is a lovely wine, of pure Aglianico character – dark, cherry-like fruit, firm tannins, supple acidity, with great depth, and maturing beautifully – but you can still taste the barriques in it. “My father is in love with barriques,” he says, “but I have gotten rid of them. I now use only botti. That’s what my generation does.”  I will pray on my knees, fasting, for a month, that he may be right.

2008 Taurasi Primum
This wine spent a year in large botti before bottling. At seven years old, it is still remarkably fresh, even slightly grapey in the nose and on the palate as well, but with wonderful Aglianico fruit and character. Its tannins are just starting to soften, and it evidently has years, if not decades, in front of it

2006 Taurasi Primum Riserva
Vinified entirely from the oldest vines, which naturally restrict yield, and aged in botti for one or two years, this wine had an amazing nose, huge and intensely fruity and mineral. On the palate, the tannins are only beginning to soften, but the enormous fruit and bright acidity are quite evident. Clearly, a wine still young, but structured to last very long indeed. For my taste, this was a truly great Taurasi, which is to say that it can stand with finest red wines from anywhere. But then I tasted . . .

2007 Taurasi Primum Riserva
Raffaele says this is his best wine so far: three years in botti, two years in bottle. Again, an amazing nose, live and rich, almost lush with dark fruits and minerality. The same elements in the mouth. Big and smooth on the palate, even though the tannins are still very firm. Here are my summary notes: “Huge structure, great fruit, great length – will go on forever. Even better than the ’06. This is a great vineyard.”

Small producers like the three I’ve just written about – there are many more I could have chosen – illustrate the exciting progress of Campanian winemaking. Small growers throughout the zone have started making their own wine and have begun a swift and steep learning process as they master the ability to express the nature of their vines and soil. They have wonderful specimens of both to work with, so for wine lovers, the prospect ahead is for years of excitement and discovery. Oh frabjous day!  Calloo!  Callay!

Campania’s Golden Triangle

April 20, 2015

I’ve been celebrating the wines of Campania quite a bit lately, and I’m not yet tiring of doing so. Every time I think I’ve said all I have to say on the subject, a new wine or a new slant appears, and off I go. That’s what stirred up this post. A conversation with a puzzled wine lover, confused by the many wine and place names of Campania, prodded me to conceptualize a simpler way to understand some key wine geography. Ergo: Campania’s Golden Triangle, the points of which are Avellino (to the south), Taurasi (to the northeast), and Tufo (to the northwest) – each of which towns is the epicenter for one of Campania’s three greatest wines, Fiano di Avellino, Taurasi, and Greco di Tufo.

 golden triangle map

Taurasi, top right; Tufo, high middle left; Avellino, lower left

.Let me start, at the risk of boring everyone who knows this already, with some basic geopolitical information. Campania is the region – that’s Italy’s largest geopolitical designation, the equivalent of the regions of Piedmont or the Veneto or Tuscany, for instance – and Naples is its capital. Campania fronts on the Mediterranean, which is the only part of it most tourists know, and backs on the Apennine mountains, with borders on Lazio in the north, Basilicata and Calabria in the south, and Molise and Puglia in the east. A very short way back from its seacoast, Campania rises – often quite high – into beautiful and in some places still quite wild hills, where winters feature snow and cold that belie the travel-poster fictions of palm trees and sunshine.

Here, some 30 kilometers east of Naples, starts the province – that’s the second largest geopolitical designation – of Avellino, at whose heart lies an ancient zone known as Irpinia. In pre-classical times, this area was the home of the tribe or nation the Romans called Sabines, against whom they warred for years and whose territory they eventually absorbed. Winemaking traditions here date from at least that time, if not earlier, and nowadays Irpinia counts as one of Campania’s premier wine-producing zones – if not the premier zone.

What I’m calling Campania’s Golden Triangle sits in the heart of Irpinia, and it contains some of the most distinctive terroirs in all Italy. These are volcanic soils, old and decayed, and they are laced with alluvial deposits and sea sands, in some places stratified, in others mixed together, so that terroirs can vary tremendously within a short distance. The altitude of the land makes for colder winters than Naples and the coast ever see, but the same hills that create that altitude also make many different exposures for vineyards, which here are cultivated quite high. In some parts of the Taurasi zone, vines grow above 600 meters, and – since Aglianico requires a long growing season – harvests in the snow are not unheard of. Those same altitudes and soils, with their attendant day/night temperature differentials, give the white grapes Greco and Fiano their wonderful aromatics.

Irpinia holds the greatest concentration of top-flight wineries to be found in Campania. They range in size from almost boutique to very large indeed: Some make only one wine, and some make the whole gamut of regional wines. To begin with (in many senses), Irpinia is home to the Mastroberardino firm. The Mastroberardinos are widely and justly regarded not only as the pioneer of quality winemaking in the region – the family was already exporting around the world in the 19th century – but, even more important, as the savior of serious Campanian viticulture. In Italy’s deep economic and psychological depression after World War II, when many winemakers throughout the country had decided that the only way to survive was to plant French varieties, Mastroberardino made the crucial and highly influential decision to trust Campania’s indigenous varieties – a choice for which anyone who relishes difference and distinctiveness in wines reveres the whole family. They fought for the recognition of Irpinia’s now famous three, first as DOC and later as DOCG wines, and they still make some of the best bottles of them all.

They have been joined since those days by many more producers who now make the Golden Triangle the most lively locale in the Campania wine universe. Notable among the more large firms are Terredora, owned by a split-off branch of the Mastroberardinos, and Feudi di San Gregorio, an ambitious and steadily improving – from a very good base level – maker of all of the Campanian specialties. But the greatest growth and, for the wine aficionado, the greatest opportunity for discovery come from smaller producers, who have multiplied in the past 20 years.

I want to call special attention here to three that I happened upon only recently, though all three are already well known and highly regarded in Irpinia. Each stands as a fair representative of the exciting wines to be found in their appellations: Rocca del Principe for Fiano di Avellino, Benito Ferrara for Greco di Tufo, and Guastaferro for Taurasi. R del P Fiano

Rocca del Principe, owned and worked by Aurelia Fabrizio and her husband Ercole Zarella, comprises about five hectares divided among three separate hillside vineyards in the township of Lapio, about 15 kilometers northeast of Avellino. All are over 500 meters high, some parts almost 600. The land was worked by two generations of their family and the grapes were sold off before Aurelia and Ercole in 2004 began vinifying on their own. They are clearly quick learners: Their Fiano di Avellino has already been awarded Tre Bicchieri four times. I tasted with them barrel samples of the separate vineyards, which are only blended at the final assemblage of the wine. Each was strikingly distinctive, with its own gout de terroir – so much so that I thought any of them could have been bottled as a first-rate cru. Clearly, Rocca del Principe’s vineyards yield fine basic material. The eight-year vertical to which I was next treated emphatically verified that.

2013: Lovely, intense Fiano nose: volcanic soil, apples, and almonds. The same elements on the palate, with an ever-so-slightly buttery finish. Excellent.

2012: A warmer vintage, consequently richer and riper on the nose, with hints of peach. Again, the palate shows exactly the same elements, with a long, lovely peach-and-mineral finish.

2011: A big, pungent, lees-y nose. On the palate, round and soft, yet still acidic, with excellent fruit, and a long, sapid finish. This wine is maturing beautifully.

2010: All superlatives here: a step more mature than the ’11, the nose and palate pervaded by dried peaches. Very fine.

2009:  Aroma similar to 2011, plus dried peaches and orange skins. The palate follows suit. A superb wine, intense and elegant, round and acid, and very long-finishing. The stylistic consistency from year to year, despite harvest differences, is totally impressive.

2008:  On the nose and the palate, the dried peach elements are now going mushroomy – another stage of the wine’s maturation. The mineral elements are beginning to deepen, and the finish has a taste of forest underbrush. Intriguing and lovely.

2007:  This wine tastes less advanced, still peachy on the nose and fruity and acid on the palate. This was a hot vintage, with lots of fruit and glycerin. Could live years yet.

2006:  Deep, earthy, dried peach and orange peel aroma. In the mouth, round, slightly smoky, slightly sweet, a little less complex than the preceding wines – perhaps beginning to be a bit tired. This post is already running longer than I had planned, so I’ll break it here and in a future post talk about my similarly exciting tastings of Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo and Guastaferro Taurasi.

“Campania Stories” and My Campania Story

March 28, 2015
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend Campania Stories, a week-long event held this year in Naples and Avellino. These days of intensive tastings and seminars allowed me organize and think through all the data I’ve accumulated over the past 20 years about the great changes going on in Campania. The upshot of it all is my large article that Quarterly Review of Wines has just posted online. Please go have a look. I’d love to hear your reactions.

Escape from Winter with Bartolo Mascarello and Ciro Picariello

February 16, 2015

On a recent evening, Diane and I enjoyed a very bright moment in the middle of this dreary winter. To accompany some braised short ribs, and to give us a treat and alleviate a bit of the depression that this seemingly endless grey, chill weather induces, I opened a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello’s 1998 Barolo.

barolo labelI expected an enjoyable bottle of a traditionally made Barolo: What we got was a marvel. By a great serendipity of timing, the bottle was absolutely at its peak, poised beautifully at the precise balance point of freshness and maturity. It was suave, it was elegant, it was complex, it was linear and structured, fleshy and fruity and voluptuous all at once. In trying to articulate what we found so wonderful about it, we both fell back on the image of our favorite Modigliani nude – linear and round at the same time, abstract and carnal, immediately accessible to the mind and the senses. Barolo just doesn’t get any better than this.

As most Barolo lovers know, Bartolo Mascarello was for decades an icon of traditional Piemontese winemaking, a model of integrity and consistency in his craft and in his life. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with him a few short years before he died, and his recollections were fascinating. He spoke quite modestly, even reluctantly, about his experiences in the Resistance, but he waxed eloquent and enthusiastic about his first experience, after Liberation, of American cigarettes: “Oh that aroma! That taste! I still remember it. So rich. We had been smoking straw, and those American cigarettes were intoxicating.”  Given his subsequent career in wine, it’s not surprising that aromas and flavors should stay fixed in his memory.

As he had resisted Fascists, he resisted fads in wine and fools in politics. He hated barriques, and he hated Berlusconi. One of his wines was once banned for sale in Italy because its label – he designed his own – proudly proclaimed “No Barrique  No Berlusconi.” Another said “We should make not barriques but barricades.”

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He even refused to make cru wines. Even though he owned vineyards in prime areas (two in La Morra – Rocche and Ruè – and a piece of Cannubi in Barolo), he continued the traditional practice of blending their unique characters to achieve the balance and harmony he and many other Barolistas consider the hallmark of fine Barolo.

In his last years, his daughter Maria Teresa had largely taken over the actual winemaking, and the recent vintages of Mascarello wine I’ve tasted indicate that she is following firmly in her father’s footsteps, both in style and in quality. Even though climate change in Piedmont has made all Barolos much more drinker-friendly much earlier than they used to be, these remain wines to cellar. Sure, you can drink them young – but given the amazing grace with which they mature, you’d be a fool to do so.

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???????????????????????????????On another such serendipitous evening as our Mascarello experience (yes, I’ve been dining well this winter), I opened a bottle of Picariello’s 2012 Fiano di Avellino to drink with some simple but excellent broiled chicken legs from a great poultry farm on Long Island. Ciro Picariello is first and foremost a classic Campanian grape grower, honest, hardworking, unpretentious, passionate about his wines and justifiably proud of their quality. He farms about 7 hectares – roughly 18 acres – high in the hills of Irpinia, and he oversees his lovely Fiano from blossom to barrel. Though, in fact, he doesn’t use barrels: His Fiano ferments and ages entirely in stainless steel. He and his wife started their winery in 1997, but he didn’t bottle anything under his own name until 2004 – and he attracted attention right from the start. Now he is a frequent winner of Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso and Cinque Grappoli from the Italian Sommeliers Association.

2012 was a lovely white wine vintage in Campania, and Picariello has made the most of it. His wine is medium-bodied – almost full-bodied for a white – and round and soft in the mouth, with abundant but totally unobtrusive acidity to keep it vivacious. This wine struck us immediately by its purity and intensity: White flower and hazelnut scents, and apple/pear toned fruit, with hazelnut undertones and the generous minerality of its volcanic soils. It was an intriguing, complex wine from the very first taste, and one that constantly grew and changed in the glass. For all its immediate pleasure, it also hinted an ability to age and mature in very interesting ways. I’ve not tasted any bottles of Picariello’s more than five years old, but they all seemed still very fresh, with years before them. For anyone with a taste for fine, mature white wines, I’d suggest that Picariello’s Fiano is a name to add to your cellar list.

It’s being a long, hard winter, but happily there are ways to escape it that don’t involve long plane trips.

VINO 2015

January 19, 2015
To anyone hoping to attend my seminar on Campanian wine at Vino 2015 in New York, I must tell you I won’t be there. I have withdrawn completely from the event. The subject is important to me, and I wanted to offer a well-planned, clear, and useful presentation of a large, complicated, and significant mass of information. As of two weeks before the event began, I had received no information about, nor been consulted about, the scope of the seminar, what supporting materials (if any) will be provided, what wines will be available for tasting (that is, not individual producers’ wines: which kinds of the many Campanian wines). I think this lack of organization is unprofessional. It is disrespectful to me (and any other serious wine journalist), to the Campanian producers who will be disserved by its consequences, and to the individuals who will attend.