Archive for the ‘Taurasi’ Category

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 on Display

October 31, 2014

At the beginning of October, the Wine Media Guild presented the most complete tasting of the whole range of Campanian wines ever organized in the US. At its lunch meeting at Felidia Ristorante, members tasted 27 wines, representing most of the provincial appellations and almost the whole spectrum of Campanian grape varieties now in serious production – a long-overdue display of the amazing variety and quality of a region that rivals Italy’s most famous and highly reputed wines both red and white.

campania map

The event would not have been possible without the cooperation of numerous producers and the strenuous efforts of Miriade & Partners SRL, an Italian firm that every year organizes the two Campania Stories tastings that I have several times reported on (here, here, and here). While only two of the producers (Manuela Piancastelli of Terre del Principe and Ferrante di Somma of Cantine Di Marzo) were able to attend the WMG luncheon in person, the assembled wines spoke eloquently for all of them. Here’s the complete list of what we tasted:

White Wines

La Rivolta. Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2013

La Sibilla. Falanghina dei Campi Flegrei Cruna Delago 2012

Donnachiara. Irpinia Coda di Volpe 2013

Sorrentino. Coda di Volpe Pompeiano Natì 2011

Di Marzo. Greco di Tufo Franciscus 2013

I Favati. Fiano di Avellino Etichetta Nera 2013

Tenuta Sarno 1860. Fiano di Avellino Sarno 1860 2013

Picariello Ciro. Fiano di Avellino 2012

Villa Raiano. Fiano di Avellino Ventidue 2009

Feudi di San Gregorio. Irpinia Bianco Campanaro 2012

Terre del Principe. Fontanavigna – Pallagrello Bianco 2013

Tenuta San Francesco. Costa d’Amalfi Bianco Per Eva 2008

Cantine Marisa Cuomo. Costa d’Amalfi Fiorduva Furore Bianco 2012

 

Greco di Tufo vineyards at di Marzo estate

Greco di Tufo vineyards at Di Marzo estate

 Red Wines

Cantine Astroni. Tenuta Camaldoli 2011

Mastroberardino. Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso 2013

Masseria Felicia. Falerno del Massico Etichetta Bronzo 2006

Villa Matilde. Falerno del Massico Rosso Camarato 2006

La Guardiense. Aglianico Sannio Janare 2012

Mastroberardino. Redimore Irpinia Aglianico 2012

Antico Castello. Taurasi 2010

Contrade di Taurasi. Taurasi 2009

Tenuta Cavalier Pepe. Taurasi Opera Mia 2008

Tecce Luigi. Taurasi Poliphemo 2008

Terre del Principe. Centomoggia – Casavecchia 2010

Nanni Copé. Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco 2012

Vestini Campagnano. Pallagrello Nero 2011

Montevetrano. Montevetrano Colle di Salerno IGT 2011

 

Some of Mastroberardino's Aglianico vineyards

Some of Mastroberardino’s Aglianico vineyards

While many of those names – producers or appellations – will be familiar to many of my readers, many more probably won’t. Take my word: that is a stunning array of top-flight wines, and all the attendees agreed that every single bottle showed well. The reactions I overheard during the tasting and the luncheon that followed – murmurs of pleasure and small exclamations of happy surprise – showed clearly that the quality of the wines was accurately perceived and deeply appreciated.

At the time, I was asked by several colleagues which wines were my favorites, and – frankly – in response I just dithered: I really couldn’t narrow it down to just a few. Nanni Cope’s Pallagrello nero? Terre del Principe’s Casavecchia? Tecce’s Taurasi? Contrade del Taurasi’s Taurasi? And that’s just the big reds. I may be an enthusiast, but I defy anyone to select just one of those wines as a favorite or best. Non è possible. I can tell you that I was very pleased several times that afternoon when colleagues whose knowledge and palates I greatly respect approached me glass in hand to say “This is a great wine!”  I truthfully agreed every time.

But the coin has another side, and lest any reader think that a tasting like this for a group of professionals like this was a work of supererogation (I’ve been waiting a long time for a chance to use that word), I’ll report that I overheard one taster remark “I didn’t know that Campania even had white wines.” Needless to say, that person was quickly and strenuously corrected – but the remark itself indicates how little-known Campanian wine still is here in the US. I only hope that Campanian producers can manage to cooperate again, as they did so splendidly here, to put on more such displays in New York and other key US markets. Campania makes wonderful wines of every kind, from simply enjoyable sippers to true vins de garde, and wine lovers here need to know all of them better.

 

 

Campania Stories: Avellino

May 20, 2014

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

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

campania stories

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

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

Taurasi lineup

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

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Best of the Best
(in order of preference)

Tecce: 2011 Irpinia Campi Taurasini Satyricon and 2010 Taurasi Poliphemo

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

Donnachiara: 2009 Taurasi

Villa Raiano: 2012 Campania Aglianico and 2010 Taurasi

Feudi di San Gregorio: 2009 Taurasi Piano di Montevergine Riserva

 

Very Good
(in alphabetical order)

Antico Castello: 2011 Irpinia Aglianico Magis and 2010 Taurasi

Boccella: 2008 Irpinia Campi Taurasini Rasott

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

D’Antiche Terre: 2008 Taurasi

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

Di Prisco: 2010 Taurasi

Feudi di San Gregorio: 2012 Irpinia Aglianico Rubrato

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

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

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

La Marca: Cantine di Tufo: 2008 Taurasi Issàra

La Molara: 2007 Taurasi Santa Vara

Montesole: 2007 Taurasi Vigna Vinieri

Sanpaolo: 2010 Taurasi and 2009 Taurasi Riserva

Urciuolo: 2010 Taurasi

Vesevo: 2008 Taurasi

Villa Matilde: 2008 Taurasi

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

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

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

bottles

Marisa Cuomo: Wine from the Cliffs

May 1, 2014

Years ago, when Diane and I had sharper eyesight, faster reflexes, and a higher quotient of adventurousness (or downright foolishness), we rented a car in Naples and spent a week or so driving the environs of Naples, Salerno, and – god save us! – the Amalfi peninsula, to learn the country and to visit wineries. In defense of our sanity, I will say that the wines and the food were magical, the countryside beautiful, Sorrento and the scenery of the drive incomparable, and the traffic much less in those days than now. We survived the adventure, and even enjoyed it, then. I would not now do it in any vehicle less vulnerable than a very large tank.

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What led to this attack of memory and recollection of former fearlessness was twofold: my recent attendance at Campania Stories: I Vini Rossi, an annual press event held this year in Naples and Avellino, and a bottle of wine I paired with a fine gumbo that Diane has just written about in her blog. At Campania Stories, I tasted several impressive bottles from the Costa d’Amalfi winery Marisa Cuomo. The gumbo partner was a bottle of Marisa Cuomo’s Ravello bianco. Ravello is one of the small towns perched on the steep slopes of the mountain spur that is the Amalfi peninsula. The winery itself is headquartered in another such small town, Furore, and during that memorable trip way back when, Diane and I visited Marisa Cuomo (a real person) and her winemaker husband Andrea Ferraioli.

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I’ve no doubt lost some memories of that trip – the surreal traffic of the city of Naples has happily faded to a blur of horns and brake screeches – but I have indelible images in my brain of the postage-stamp-sized, carefully terraced plots of vineyard that produced Marisa Cuomo’s grapes. Dotted up and down the hillsides, they all afforded wonderful views of the intensely blue Mediterranean (I still don’t understand Homer’s “wine-dark sea”), as well as undoubted hours of back-breaking labor. All the vineyard work had to be done by hand, and as far as I know it still is.

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I taste no difference in the wine or the winemaking. Marisa Cuomo’s were then and are now extremely well-made, honest, and traditional wines, vinified with great care from the indigenous grapes of seaside Campania: Biancolella and Falanghina chiefly among the whites, Aglianico and Piedirosso most prominently among the reds. The estate’s constantly prize-winning, late-harvested Fiorduva is made entirely from three lesser-known but locally important white grapes, Fenile, Ginestra, and Ripoli. Marisa Cuomo uses barriques on many of its wines, but you never taste the wood: That’s one of the things I mean by good, careful winemaking. The wine that Diane and I drank with our sausage and oyster gumbo was Marisa Cuomo’s 2010 Ravello bianco ($22 at 67 Wines). Here’s what I said about it for Diane’s blog:

???????????????????????????????This is a great white wine, reminiscent in its feel in the mouth of a fine white Burgundy. But it bears no other resemblance to that or any Chardonnay-based wine. Made with indigenous southern Italian varieties, it has a distinctive flavor, a balanced blend of apple, pear, chalk, and limestone. Its bright acidity enables it to stand up to almost any dish: It certainly loved our gumbo, and if it can work well with that I wouldn’t hesitate to try it with anything else.

By the way, the wine looked very dark yellow in the glass, initially giving the impression it might already be too old, but that was far from the truth – it was fresh and vital, with years of life (and evolution?) yet before it. In short, a lucky match that I would happily repeat.

To all that, I would now add: I had thought that the deep yellow color was probably due to time in wood, which winemaker Andrea Ferraioli sometimes uses even on whites, but that turns out not to be the case. There was no wood at all on this wine, which got long, low-temperature fermentation and storage in stainless steel. The blend here is 60% Falanghina and 40% Biancolella, and the combination of two by-themselves-pleasant grapes has created something much more estimable than either on its own.

In the seminar and tasting sessions at Campania Stories, I tasted Marisa Cuomo’s 2008 and 2009 Furore rosso riserva, both very impressive wines. The blend here is half Aglianico and half Piedirosso, piedirossothe latter known locally as Per ‘e palummo, dove’s foot, because the thin red stems of the bunches look like the feet of doves. Fully ripe grapes are harvested by hand, destemmed, and macerated almost a month before fermentation finishes. The wine spends a year in barriques before bottling – and normally I would find that much oak intrusive, but here I tasted only the merest trace of it in the younger wine and none at all in the 2008. In both wines, the aromas were marked by wild, black-fruit scents – what Italians call frutti del bosco – and earthy, mineral notes. The latter were even more marked on the palate, where the envelope of dark fruit was more transparent. Both wines were medium-bodied, with excellent acid/tannin balance and evident structure, likely to be long-lived – at least 10 to 15 years, maybe 20 – with lots of development still before them.

Wineries like Marisa Cuomo are why I get so excited about Campania. This is potentially the richest region in Italy for top-quality wines, both white and red, and it is filled with ancient varieties as yet scarcely known outside the areas where they are cultivated. Happily, there is a whole new generation of young, enterprising winemakers now beginning to make their mark. The number of Tre Bicchieri awards that Campania wins grows every year, and that is a significant straw in the wind. Save your Neapolitan scudi, boys: the south of Italy may rise again.

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Etna Erupts – Wine!

September 5, 2013

Over Labor Day weekend, Diane contrived a Sicilian summer dinner out of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels – lots of fish to please the cranky detective’s exigent palate and a good meat dish followed by cheeses to satisfy us red wine lovers. Since I really enjoy matching ethnic dishes with the wines they grew up with, this presented me with an interesting challenge.

Sicily makes a lot of wine, but – truth must be told – a lot of it is very ordinary, and a lot of it is all the same, no matter where it’s grown on the Three-Cornered Isle. If one thing I didn’t want was “ordinary,” certainly another undesirable was “the same,” so I began searching for good quality Sicilian wines to match with Diane’s and Inspector Montalbano’s dishes. This turned out to be both simple and difficult: simple because I focused quickly on Etna and its environs, where some of the most interesting wines in Sicily are being made; and difficult because their distribution in this country is very spotty. I persevered, however, and came up with some lovely bottles. To wit: Benanti’s Biancodicaselle 2010 and Rossodiverzella 2010, Biondi’s Outis bianco 2009.

map

But let me begin at the beginning. I chose Etna because it amounts to quintessential Sicily, even geologically. The northeastern third of Sicily that constitutes the Etna region is, in a manner of speaking, the sole indigenous piece of Sicily: The western two-thirds are geologically and climatically very different. In fact, that western portion of what is now Sicily is a chunk of north Africa that eons ago broke off, drifted north, and bumped into Etna, where it has stayed ever since. A good choice, both for geography and for wine.

So, having said all that, I now have to admit that none of it applies to the first wine we tried that evening – my bad. For aperitivi, we drank Prosecco – not very Sicilian, but authorized (literally) by Camilleri’s treatment of the second course’s clams, which steamed them open in Prosecco, thereby opening the door for me to serve that delightfully light and pleasing sparkler to brace our palates for the meal to come. We tried two different ones: Nino Franco’s nv Rustico and Miotto’s nv Federa Extra Dry.

two proseccostotally charming – perfect starts to a hot-weather dinner.

Both were light in body and alcohol and totally charming – perfect starts to a hot-weather dinner.

???????????????????????????????With the first course of fresh anchovies, we drank the 2010 Biancodicaselle. Since Etna’s reputation has skyrocketed in Italian wine circles, many new producers have been entering the scene. Benanti is an Etna old-timer that has been making top-flight wine there for decades from some long-established, high-altitude vineyards. They – it’s a family firm – have been proudly cultivating very indigenous grapes – the white Carricante, which grows nowhere else in Sicily or in Italy, and the reds Nerello mascalese and Nerello cappuccio, which are specialties of Etna and its surrounds. On the volcano’s mineral-rich soils, these grapes yield extraordinary wines, unlike any others. Benanti’s Pietramarina, a cru 100% Carricante from some of its oldest, highest vineyards, stands among the small handful of Italy’s finest white wines (unfortunately, I couldn’t lay my hands on any in time for this dinner: damn!). The parallel red wine, Serra della Contessa, ranks right up there with Palari in the topmost tier of Sicilian – or Italian – red wines.

For this dinner, because of that spotty distribution I mentioned above, I had to settle for a level below those two. Initially a disappointment, this turned out to be for my palate a blessing in disguise, in that the simpler wine matched better with the simplicity, directness, and freshness of the acidulated but uncooked anchovies. It still had the lovely, dry grapefruitiness of excellent Carricante grapes, and still those provocative Etna mineral tones that made it partner perfectly with the fleshy, oil-and-lemon-laced little fishes without either the dish or the drink dominating. For me, that’s the essence of a good pairing.

???????????????????????????????We tried a different white with the baked clams, Biondi’s Outis. The intriguing name is Greek and means no one or no man. It’s what Odysseus told the Cyclops his name was, so that later, when the Cyclops bellowed in pain after Odysseus blinded him, and his fellow Cyclopes called out, “Who is hurting you?” he answered “No one,” and they all told him to just shut up, if that was the case. What that has to do with the wine I’m not exactly sure, beyond the fact that one version of the legend has the Cyclops living on or near Etna, but it makes a good story and an intriguing wine name.

Whatever: this wine is made by Salvo Foti, who is chief enologist for Benanti and probably the most highly regarded wine maker in eastern Sicily. It differs from Benanti’s in incorporating a little (total 10%) Cataratto, Minella, Malvasia, and Muscatella dell’Etna into its Carricante. It also differs in style – a touch more rustic, perhaps, and definitely bigger, deeper, rounder in the mouth, showing both a little bit more Carricante and a little bit more Etna. The best way to put it is simply that it had more intensity, which was just fine for its place in the dinner. It was perfect with those succulent little morsels of clam, and even the deep-dyed red wine drinkers took an extra glass – for science, to be sure.

Benanti rossoWith the earthy flavors of a very Sicilian beef roll, we drank the 2010 Rossodiverzella. This was a wine I can only describe as mellow, in the most honorific sense. Round, soft, dark-fruited, tasting of that unmistakable Etna minerality, it was at the same time direct and undemanding. All it asked was that you enjoy it, which was an easy request to grant. The Nerello grapes that make up its blend are capable of lengthy cellaring, but for this particular dish an older wine might have been overkill. I like to keep the players in each course on a par with each other, so for me this match was just fine.

Taurasi 1With the cheese course, I broke pattern completely. The cheeses were from northern Italy, and the wine was from The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – that is to say, Naples – Mastroberardino’s Taurasi Riserva 1985. I had to get an older wine in there somewhere, and this proved to be the exact right spot for this elegant, deep, complex red – an absolute pleasure to drink. I do wish I had more of it, but that was my last, oldest bottle of Taurasi. Sigh. I do believe that even the seafood-loving Inspector Montalbano would have relished it, and forgiven my introduction of a “foreign” wine.

Campania Stories 2: Taurasi and Aglianico

April 19, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luigi Teccephoto © Tom Hyland

Luigi Tecci
photo © Tom Hyland

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

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

Mastroberardino: The History of Taurasi

March 19, 2013

Antonio Mastroberardino is one of my oldest friends in the wine business. Our first meeting, now shrouded in the mists of many memories, took place sometime in the ‘70s. He was already then a first-rate winemaker and a warm human being, with an unexpectedly scholarly turn of mind. Over the decades, the two of us have watched each other weathering.

So it was an emotional moment for me, just two weeks ago, when he – now almost 85 – entered the room at the end of a six-decade vertical tasting of Mastroberardino Taurasi. Five of the wines – vintages 1952, 1961, 1970, 1985, and 1996 (the other was 2006) were of his making, and his appearance at the moment that all of us in attendance were registering astonishment and admiration at their phenomenally high quality and freshness was a perfect cap to the occasion and, in a way, to his and my long acquaintance. It had the feeling of something special, something grand and celebratory, a little like a Pavarotti farewell concert.

Six-decade vertical

In addition to its emotional impact on me, that tasting also crystallized for me some fundamental truths that I had been gradually realizing over many years of drinking Taurasi. To wit:

  • Campania’s Aglianico stands among the world’s noblest red wine grapes – in my opinion the equal of, and perhaps the superior to, Piedmont’s Nebbiolo.
  • Taurasi is, at this moment in Aglianico’s long history, its supreme manifestation.
  • The Mastroberardino family embodies Taurasi’s modern history, as central to Aglianico’s existence and its excellence as Biondi Santi is to Brunello.

These are truths that need to be proclaimed to every wine lover everywhere.

What had initially brought me to Campania were two events, the presentation of new releases of red wines from the provinces of Benevento, Caserta, Napoli, and Salerno, and the presentation of new releases of Taurasi. Along with the many visits to wineries that were dotted through the week (you’ll hear more about them in future posts), I was among a small group of international journalists invited to attend this important vertical tasting at Mastroberardino’s winery in Atripalda.

Mastroberardino cellar

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Piero Mastroberardino, Antonio’s son and now the head of the firm, presented the wines. After a few remarks about the history of the family and their involvement with Taurasi – his great-grandfather started exporting Taurasi in 1878, for instance – he let us taste the wines without comment. His confidence in the wines was such that he clearly felt no need to guide anyone’s response. And he was absolutely right. At first, no one spoke as we sipped the wines in sequence – we started with the ’52 – and looked at one another “silent, with a wild surmise” (apologies to John Keats). After that came what can only be described as excited babbling as we all tried to verbalize what we were experiencing.

It was like no other tasting that I’ve ever been at for the extraordinary level of excellence of each wine, for their stunning typicity, and for Mastroberardino’s consistency of style over the past 60 years. Each wine looked, smelled, and tasted archetypically Taurasi. Each showed a balance, an elegance, a silkiness that clearly marked the house style. And at the same time, each was clearly distinctive in itself and distinct from its siblings, reflecting the character of the different vintages. I know this is a lot of superlatives, but what I’m trying to describe was felt by every person in the room. Here’s the saddest thing I can say to my readers: To fully grasp the greatness of these wines, you had to be there.

Here are the particulars. Quoted remarks and details of each harvest’s weather are drawn from information Piero distributed at the tasting.

Taurasi 1952

1952Great color: brilliant garnet heart edged in orange. Ethereal nose of blackberry, cherry, tea, and tar, complex and delicate. The same on the palate. The wine still tastes fresh, and carries all its complexity into its finish. The wine gave more and more as it opened – spice, tea, incense – with no sign of fading. The harvest in those days started in mid-November and ran to mid-December. (Piero showed some photos of grape-laden vines with snow on them.) In 1952, rainfall had been scanty during most of the year, but the middle of August was very wet, slowing the maturation of the grapes and causing a late harvest with good acid levels and soft tannins in the grapes.

It’s worth noting that the Mastroberardinos rated 1952 a four-star, not a five-star, vintage.

Taurasi Riserva 1961

1961This vintage they rated five-star. Very wet spring followed by very dry summer and autumn brought on an early harvest, marked by sharply reduced quantities and small berries “with higher sugar content and lower acidity than the average. There were some fermentation difficulties,” but overall “the harvest was characterized by the exceptional quality of the grapes.” This wine had a huge aroma, with similar elements to the 1952, but bigger and fresher, and on the palate it followed suit. This was a perfectly precise, perfectly ready wine – just gorgeous – and it got better and better as it opened.

I and several other tasters were surprised that the wine the Mastroberardinos chose to represent the decade of the ‘60s wasn’t the 1968 Taurasi Riserva, which a goodly number of Italian wine aficionados consider a leading candidate for Italian Wine of the Century. If their point was to show that they had more than one string to their bow, they certainly succeeded.

Taurasi Riserva DOC 1970

1970Another four-star rated vintage, and the first one under the newly installed DOC regulations. Cold winter, hot spring, with growth slowed by rains in June. “Summer was hot. Autumn, mainly dry and sunny, allowed good grape ripening. Vinification started on October 20 and ended with excellent results in mid-November.” Overall: “a great vintage.”

Aside from the merest whiff of acetone at the beginning, everything about this wine was in perfect order, from the precision of the varietal flavors to the delightful juiciness of the fruit. The berry flavors – blackberry, mulberry, sour cherry – just kept getting brighter and richer as the wine opened. If my memories of drinking this wine in the ‘80s are accurate, it was initially a pretty formidable wine, with very firm tannins. If so, they have softened beautifully, and the wine now is a complete delight.

Taurasi DOC 1985

1985Five-star rating for the vintage. “This was a great harvest, one to remember. Average rainfall. A very favorable seasonal pattern, alternating hot and rainy May, hot and dry June and July, hot and rainy August, warm and dry September with a strong temperature differential of about 15 degrees Celsius between day and night.” Early harvest, “about 15 days before the average.”

1985 was a great year for wine through most of Italy, and I have vivid memories of many of these wines, because as new releases they were hard work to taste: big, concentrated wines, with firm – in some cases aggressive – tannins and masses of fruit lurking underneath. The bottle in question was still tight in its aroma, still very firm on the palate, and clearly very, very young. It showed wonderful sweet, berry fruit, dark and intense, and it opened very slowly in the glass, still not ready to give itself freely. What showed now was already big and generous, but for my palate it needs years yet to show fully all that it has. How many 28-year-old wines can you still regard as adolescents?

Radici Taurasi riserva DOCG 1996

1996Four-star rating. If the ’85 was an adolescent, this wine was an infant – gorgeous, but an infant. A somewhat irregular growing season – rain in August, during veraison, and very low temperatures in September – slowed down maturation and gifted the wines with what the Mastroberardinos describe as “a perfect aromatic profile.” Harvest lasted until mid-November, “with some snowfall.”

The aroma was unquestionably intriguing, marked with earthy, mineral elements and rich dried fruit scents – very youthful. The palate was all sweet berryish fruit, lush and generous and at this point undifferentiated. The dried fruit returned in the long, intriguing finish. This was a thoroughly lovely wine, but so evidently young that you almost feel like a pederast for enjoying it so much. It will be hard to cellar this wine, hard to keep your hands off it long enough to let it mature properly.

Radici Taurasi riserva DOCG 2006

2006Four stars. According to the Mastroberardinos, “the fresh climate and well-distributed rainfall allowed a great vintage.” Because the grapes matured slowly, harvest was late, ending in mid-November. “The wines are characterized by an elegant aromatic expression and a good longevity outlook.”

I found the aromas earthy and rich and slightly tannic. In the mouth, the wine showed a blend of sweet berries, tar, and tobacco, with an initially long finish that extended itself even more as the wine breathed. Balance and structure are ample for long life, but I don’t think this beauty will even begin showing its best for 10 years yet.

*   *   *   *   *

The consistency of style and quality that these wines showed across 60 years of vintages is simply amazing. That is an incredible accomplishment, made possible by the fact that, as Piero told me, the family has more than 100 years of Taurasi in their cellars, and they use selected bottles regularly in their in-house tastings precisely to ensure that continuity of style. It is a style that in mature wines achieves the level of elegance and harmony that had wowed us all.

Antonio, Tom, and Piero

Antonio, Tom, and Piero
photo by Tom Hyland

It struck me, sitting there with my six gradually emptying glasses in front of me, that the many other impressive wines I had been tasting all week were lovely instrumental solos, but that each of these Mastroberardino wines was a whole symphony in itself – not a great metaphor, nor a very clear one, but the best I can do to convey to you the richness they conveyed to me.

Old Vines, New Knowledge

December 1, 2010

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

A patriarch of Taurasi vines. Ph.lemonstudio.it

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

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

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

A "parent vine." Ph.lemonstudio.it

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

Prof. Scienza. Ph:winenews.it

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

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

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

New York all’italiana

May 14, 2010

No lengthy disquisition this time, just notes on two recent New York happenings, the Wine Media Guild Taurasi luncheon and Ed McCarthy’s unveiling of his five favorite Italian white wines to the Gang of Six.

Happening #1

The WMG event was the regular May meeting, upstairs at Felidia Ristorante, with the usual rugby scrum to taste all the wines and take notes before lunch (actually better, now that there’s room for an additional tasting table). The guest speaker and principal organizer of the event was Maurizio De Rosa, a Naples-born one-time NY restaurateur now back in Italy and working for Feudi di San Gregorio.

Maurizio De Rosa

Feudi has quickly grown to be the largest (and best capitalized?) winery in Campania, and Maurizio is one of the most knowledgeable people around on the wines of his native region. His focus was Taurasi, Campania’s red DOCG wine, and he managed to round up for the occasion 19 examples of Taurasi from 19 different producers – no mean feat, since several are very small and in quite limited supply. They were Boccella, Caggiano, Cantina Crogliano, Cantina dei Monaci, D’Antiche Terre, Di Meo, Di Prisco, Feudi di San Gregorio, La Molara, Lonardo, Mastroberardino, Molettieri, Perillo, Romano Clelia, Terradora di Paolo, Urciolo, Villa Matilde, Villa Raiano, and Vinosia.

All were interesting, though many marred their fine Aglianico fruit (Taurasi is usually 100% Aglianico, though a small percentage of Piedirosso is permitted) with too much new oak – the bane of every expanding wine region all around the world.

For me, the outstanding wines were the more familiar ones: Mastroberardino, Terradora (the other half of the Mastroberardino clan, after a horrendous family break-up in the mid-90s), Feudi, Di Meo. The Villa Matilde, which I’m normally very fond of, showed a bit tight and unready, perhaps going into eclipse (it was vintage 2004). The 2004 from D’Antiche Terre was also fine, but its price is about twice that of the other wines shown: perhaps a Gaja del Sud in the making here.

Just as interesting as the wines were Maurizio’s remarks. According to current research, Aglianico doesn’t derive from the word for Hellenic, i.e., Greek, as has long been thought, and the grape wasn’t introduced to Campania by the early Greek colonists of the region. It seems in fact to be an Italian native, probably established in the Naples area by the Etruscans, who had pushed that far south centuries before the Greeks arrived. That may make Aglianico the longest-cultivated variety on record.

Maurizio also explained that the Aglianico growing area, traditionally centered on the town of Taurasi in the province of Avellino (which name may, in passing through the mouths of the successive French and Spanish masters of the Kingdom of Naples, have metamorphosed into Aglianico) is really divisible into at least four distinctive zones, which differ by soil type, elevation, and the character of the Aglianico they produce. All this information and more will be contained in the book about Taurasi that he is working on. By the way, should you meet Maurizio, never refer to Taurasi as “the Barolo of the south.” Barolo, he insists, is the Taurasi of the north.

Happening #2

The Gang of Six is, first of all, a collection of pizza freaks, whose devotion to real Neapolitan pizza has led them to gather as frequently as they can at Keste or Pizza Fresca for massive intake of carbohydrates and as much fine wine as the members can manage to bring with them. This time, exceptionally, we convened at Donnatella Arpaia’s Mia Dona – no pizza! – so Ed McCarthy could challenge us with a blind tasting of his selection of Italy’s five best white wines.

Those who know Ed’s and his wife Mary Ewing Mulligan’s books know that Ed has a massive store of information about wine. Those who know Ed also know that he has a pretty good fund of opinions based on it, so this was a fun lunch – despite the absence of pizza! – and an interesting tasting, as well as a substantial challenge.

Ed lurking behind a wall of his favorites

These are Ed’s nominees for Italy’s best white wines:

  • Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerner – a hybrid of Riesling and a lesser variety that does reasonably well in Germany and spectacularly in one of Italy’s northernmost vineyards, in Alto Adige.
  • Benanti’s Pietramarina – Carricante from the Etna region of Sicily. (Not Catarratto, as I first said; see Ed’s comment below.)
  • Jermann’s Vintage Tunina – a blend of several white varieties, including indigenous Tocai (now Friulano) and Picolit, from Friuli. 
  • Tiefenbrunner’s Feldmarschall – Müller Thurgau from high-altitude vineyards in Alto Adige.
  • Valentini’s Trebbiano – a highly selected vinification from meticulously tended vineyards in Abruzzo.

Though they are quite diverse, both geographically and stylistically, all – and this tells you a lot about Ed’s taste – are whites that are all the better for a few years of aging.

I can think of a few wines I’d like to add to his list, but I’m interested in what others may think of Ed’s selections and omissions. Please comment, if you feel so moved.


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