Campania: Change Is Imminent…Or Is It?


What will it take for Campania to receive the respect it deserves? For nearly two decades, I've followed these wines and watched as the region slowly continues to improve. In the early 2000s, it was just a handful of names that were worth talking about. Outside of that small subset, the reds were challenging to understand. They were dark and imposing, often rustic, balancing gruff Aglianico tannins with nervous acidity in a way that was far from pleasurable. Often producers would mask these beastly expressions with a cloak of new oak that would never integrate over time. 

The Guastaferro vineyards.

The marketing term "Barolo of the South" sounded fantastic, yet the wines simply couldn't win the hearts of wine lovers. The whites were seldom talked about outside of the region itself. Fiano, Greco and Falanghina had yet to receive a champion that could prove their worth to the international markets. In the end, consumers would buy on the word of the most respected critics. Still, most people simply couldn't understand the wines themselves or how they would ever mature into the legendary examples that did live up to the moniker Barolo of the South, such as the 1968 Mastroberardino Taurasi. Would we ever see another masterpiece like that again?

Things have changed drastically since then, but unfortunately, not enough to claim a proper spot on the world's stage. Quality has skyrocketed. Several important producers have set the bar high, determined to create a brighter future. Smaller operations and younger producers are working hard to carve out a piece of Campania terroir that's all their own. They are bringing old and abandoned vineyards back to life. These are often 100 to 200-year-old vineyards planted at higher elevations that the large industrial firms found too hard to work. Those dark oak monsters turn up less often in tastings. When they do, there's usually a better balance. Moreover, many producers now look to larger barrels.  

White varieties have also received tremendous praise over the past years, with Fiano displaying world-class potential and Greco not too far behind. However, there's still an ocean of forgettable wines dirtying the waters. Bruno de Conciliis of Tempa di Zoè explained, "Overpowered in alcohol and tannins… industrial wineries are highly focused on technically made, sweet whites", meaning dry wines with enough residual sugar to be more appealing to the public. It’s important to note that these same wines dominate the market.

It’s still easy to find plenty of unrefined reds and whites. There’s also a need for more organization between growers. I sense animosity as producers talk pridefully about their approach and how they differ from others, or a piece of hollow terroir that was foolishly excluded from a DOC or DOCG. Secular is the word that comes to mind. Campania needs more unity. It feels fractured. 

When was the last time an international marketing campaign promoted the wines of Irpinia? This region encompasses Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, arguably Campania's most important categories. This is a question that I don't know the answer to. Nor do any of the producers that I've asked. The Irpinia Consorzio has been underfunded and focused primarily on regulations for many years. However, there are some reassurances. In April of 2022, Teresa Bruno was elected President of the Consorzio. Petilia, Bruno's winery, ranks among one of the smaller growers in the region. This is the first time the owner of a much larger estate has not held the position. Moreover, the Feudistudi, a project funded by Feudi di San Gregorio, is working on a multi-volume encyclopedia of Irpinia that will cover its history, varieties, subzones and vintages, along with maps. Hopefully, work like this will be created one day on a much larger scale and encompass the entire region. Professor Piero Mastroberardino summed it up perfectly when I asked what Campania requires to succeed. “Because of the variety of microclimates and elevations between inland and coast, the main issue, particularly for export markets, is to give the region an identity, or to focus on the identities of the specific areas, in order to build clear positioning of the wines,” he shared. Such thoughts give me hope. From my experience, many producers lack a clear understanding of Campania’s wines in the world market and what the end consumer expects from them.

The Mastroberardino barrel aging cellar in Atripalda, Avellino.

What Is Tradition in Campania?

During discussions with multiple producers, the word tradition is thrown around freely, yet only some people know what that means in Campania. Producers returned to tradition in Barolo when farming practices focused on creating more concentrated fruit and wines, heavily influenced by new barrique, fell out of favor. The return to larger aging vessels and neutral oak was a return to tradition. That’s not necessarily the case in Campania. Here, success was often found using techniques that emulated Bordeaux, and to this day, the focus on picking the ripest fruit possible and smoothing it over with a sheen of oak is still a common practice. Granted, several small producers are now looking back much further in history, attempting to recreate wines in a style crafted generations ago or over a millennium, but this is a tiny subset.

It doesn't help that the importance of location still takes a back seat to the house style of most wines. Many of the top names in Campania are large-scale operations with many hundreds of hectares under vine. Simply looking at the case quantities of wines that make it into the export market is a perfect example, as these total in the thousands, not hundreds. For the most part, when talking about place, it's more regional rather than sub-zones. And so, we will refer to the distinct characteristics of a Cilento Algianico versus a Taburno Aglianico or a Taurasi. This is as vast as comparing a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa to one from Sonoma or maybe even Washington, without ever talking about the individual terroirs within each region. 

That said, a new importance of place is starting to form, slightly more focused on white varieties than red and backed by some very serious names in the region. Feudi di San Gregorio, a producer overseeing 300 hectares of vines, has split their vineyards into 700 parcels that average 0.6 of a hectare and has begun experimenting with single vineyard Aglianico. This research has been ongoing for years, and the wines are still not publicly released. Mastroberardino began mapping out crus as early as the seventies and eighties, starting with their Radici Fiano di Avellino and Novaserra Greco di Tufo. Benito Ferrara is another quality estate that is focused on crafting white wines from distinct subzones. The list goes on, with names such as Salvatore Molettieri, Quintodecimo and Terredora Di Paolo. Even with these big names promoting the importance of terroir, site is not a priority to most wineries in Campania. Antonio Capaldo of Feudi di San Gregorio explained that many producers only speak of terroir due to the importance placed upon it by international markets. It bears mentioning that many wineries in Campania sell the bulk of their wines within Italy, putting the desires of international markets on the back burner.

Having said this, I have never seen so many excellent, balanced, age-worthy wines coming out of the region. Nor have I seen such a steady rise in new and exciting projects. Aglianico, raised in Amphora, has proven to be fantastic, especially when done in a simple and fresh style for early consumption, not to mention the region’s success with Aglianico Rosato. Top-tier Fiano has found a new level of refinement, and a host of distinct native grapes continue to exalt the uniqueness of the region. The best Forastera, Biancolella, Coda di Volpe, Roviello Bianco and Pallagrello Bianco are all worth hunting for. Even this report, with its 250-plus reviews, is just the tip of the iceberg. 

The Luigi Maffini vineyards in the fall.

Climate Change in Campania

Surprisingly, most producers will explain that they haven't seen any drastic effects of climate change. Many will say that it has benefitted the region. Granted, the combination of severe downpours mixed with drought is something Campania shares with many other areas. Climate change and global warming have also allowed producers to achieve a physiological ripeness with Aglianico that wasn't always possible in the past. Recent vintages have yielded grapes with perfect maturity and softer tannins. This allows producers to look at higher elevations of 700 and 800 meters to plant new vineyards, where windier, less humid conditions prevail.

A variety that may benefit from warmer temperatures is Piedirosso, a tricky grape that requires a long growing season and would often have problems achieving ideal ripeness. It's not a coincidence that I see more and more 100% Piedirosso bottlings from producers in Campania. Nor that the quality level of the average Lacryma Christi (a wine that blends a minimum of 50% Piedirosso and 30% maximum of Aglianico) has been on the rise over recent vintages. I view Piedirosso as the underdog of the region, adding spiciness to blends but also exceeding on its own. Over decades, Aglianico has always been planted in choice locations, with Piedirosso where it wouldn't thrive. With a new focus, Piedirosso may emerge as a competitor of Aglianico. Its acidity and fleshy textures remind me of Barbera, with aromatics that blend dark red and purple-toned fruits with the floral perfumes of Lacrima. Look to La Sibilla in the coastal area of Campi Flegrei or Casa D'Ambra on the island of Ischia to experience this for yourself. Even the Galardi winery in Roccamonfina has realized the potential of the fruit they were harvesting, and they now bottle a varietal Piedirosso.

As for Aglianico, global warming has helped the variety to maintain its complexity while becoming more approachable at a younger age. Consumers can witness this through the fresher categories of Aglianico, which today show more concentration and balance upon release. This is precisely what many producers want to achieve, assuming the temptation of long macerations and heavy reliance on oak doesn't get in the way. As Chiara Moio of Quintodecimo explained, “Our wine has to be harmonic, balanced and ready for commercialization. It has to be a wine that’s able to grow old while staying young.” This further explains why Piedirosso has gained in popularity, showing the world its seductively spicey, energetic personality and intense red fruits up front while still exhibiting the balance to age, an experience that fans of Campania’s wines have been craving.

The region continues to expand its interest in sustainable, organic and biodynamic practices, yet more through smaller projects and younger winemakers just starting out. For larger operations, such projects are a huge undertaking that would span hundreds of hectares spread throughout multiple regions. If anything, what everyone can agree on is a fear of drought, exhibited in the 2022 vintage with a summer defined by 62 days without rain. This is the possible future that producers worry about, and with it, I hear a good amount of chatter about the need for irrigation and drought-resistant clones. 

Different Degrees of Warm and Dry

Following the difficult 2018 vintage, 2019, 2020 and 2021, while all generally hot and dry, prove to have merit. Producers have no excuse not to have a portfolio full of good to very good wines from these last three vintages. Considering the above discussion of climate change, it's interesting that nearly all producers are pleased with the results in these three years.

The 2019 reds are pretty impressive, considering the conditions. This season was defined by cooler temperatures and rain in the spring, which built up water supplies that helped maintain balance through the hot and dry summer. While the white varieties benefited from a short reprieve as conditions leveled out in the early fall, the later ripening reds had an even bigger advantage and were harvested later than usual. It will be a fun vintage to follow for the reds, yet most white varieties should be enjoyed on the younger side. Meanwhile, the 2020s display softer and more elegant profiles. The vintage started warmer than usual with a moderate amount of precipitation. Temperatures dropped in late May through June, which delayed flowering and fruit set. The summer months were hot and dry, specifically through August, followed by a dramatic temperature drop and rain in the early fall. As a result, harvest was delayed. The whites have beautiful aromatics and minerality yet lack a certain thrust on the palate, while the reds are soft-textured and open-knit, with a touch of opulence and well-integrated tannins. 

At this time, nearly all the wines I’ve tasted from 2021 are whites, except a few fresh-styled reds. The 2021 vintage was warmer and drier than the two previous years, yet with a unique balance. Winter was cold and rainy, followed by a moderate yet humid spring. This was imperative to the success of the vintage in that it built up water reserves in the soils for the months ahead. Peaks of scorching heat and dry conditions arrived in mid-June, then again in the second part of July and at the beginning of August. Sporadic thunderstorms throughout the summer aided in replenishing the vines. In September, heavy rains arrived, along with cooler temperatures, yet the damage had been done in many cases, with reports of lower yields and an early harvest. Like the past few vintages in the region, with similar climatic trends, I expected that the whites would have suffered more than the reds, having less time to recover from the summer months. That said, the 2021 Biancos possess a harmonious balance of warm vintage fruit, minerality and acidity, making them wildly appealing today, yet with the balance for medium-term cellaring. 

For a detailed description of the region’s terroir and a deep dive into its varieties, I suggest looking at my previous article, Wines from Italy's Volcanic Arc: Campania.

All of the wines for this report were tasted in our offices in New York City through April and May of 2023.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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Wines from Italy’s Volcanic Arc: Campania, Eric Guido, January 2022

Campania: Forgotten Realms, Eric Guido, May 2020