Campania: Forgotten Realms

BY ERIC GUIDO | MAY 07, 2020

As a child, I took solace in reading and immersing myself in fantasy novels. Reading about ancient cities and cultures, giant fortresses, marble statues, and great walls, sometimes formed by mountains or built by man. These books would often be filled with beautifully illustrated maps depicting haunted forests, troll lairs, enchanted lakes, and ancient castles. Over time, this led to a fascination with the reality of ancient cultures, as I delved into the histories of the Greeks and Romans, studying their heroes and mythologies. It wasn’t long before I found my way to stories about volcanos enveloping entire cities and cultures overnight. The histories of these ancient lands became as interesting to me as any fantasy novel, and they are my fondest memories of childhood and adolescent life.

So, you can imagine that when the wine bug bit me and Italy became my passion, my exploration of Campania was immediately one of the most thrilling chapters of my journey to understanding Italian wine. Here I was, once again reading about these same ancient cultures, but this time with a new dynamic to thrill me, that being the myriad of grape varieties and viticulture ways of these civilizations. The best part was that the majority of producers in the region were just as excited about exploring, honoring, and in some cases, attempting to recreate the wines and ways of this ancient world. It also didn’t hurt that modern-day Campania already had a lot to offer. 

It was with this in mind that I decided that my first piece on Campania at Vinous would be less focused on the newest vintages, which may not even be arriving at retail stores for some time, but instead focus on the wines that are in the market right now. You see, that’s another feature of Campania: the vintage releases are different for every producer. So, while one might be releasing their Taurasi from 2016, another is just sending out their 2014, or even older. This provides consumers with the ability to pick wines based on vintage, producer or sub-region.

It is unfortunate that many readers haven’t had the opportunity to properly explore those sub-regions. It also doesn’t help that Taurasi, one of Campania’s most popular DOCGs, has seen turbulent ups and downs, even in the cantinas of some of the region’s most highly regarded producers. The “Barolo of The South”, as it’s been marketed, has been plagued by lazy winemaking practices, dirty cellar conditions, and producers that have masked Aglianico's varietal characteristics under a dark sheen of new wood. The good news is that conditions have drastically improved, and wine lovers who have been paying attention have a source of well-priced, world-class wines with remarkable aging potential.

To dive a little deeper, and staying focused for now on the reds, it’s also important to note that Aglianico doesn’t begin and end with Taurasi. A savvy lover of wines from Campania will find other expressions to equal its power and prestige with just a little exploration. On the coast near Mount Massico, with its purely volcanic soils, we can find potent yet less tannic expressions of Aglianico, as well as focus on another of Campania’s great varietals, Piedirosso. In Taburno, with its high elevations and a mix of volcanic and calcareous soils and high content of limestone, we witness the same tannic power of Taurasi, but in a bigger and brawnier expression. Then there’s Salerno and Cilento to the south, a hotspot for Aglianico which seems to capture all of its best qualities, yet fruitier and fleshier, which doesn’t mean fruit-forward. Lastly, the wild, steep elevations of the Ischia island, where cable cars are used to move harvested grapes from mountainside vineyards. Here the combination of old vines, volcanic soils and the influence of the Tyrrhenian Sea, create wines with dark, textural depths, yet also tension and poise. In other words, if Taurasi is your only “Barolo of The South”, then you’re missing out. When we add the recently revived varieties of Casavecchia and Pallagrello Nero to the mix - and trust me, you want to be paying attention to these obscure wines - then what you have is a paradise for red wine lovers, just waiting to be discovered.

What About Fiano, Greco and Falanghina?

As for the white varietals of Campania, they run the gamut from vibrant, spicy, and intense to plush, weighty, and full of depth. You can find new vintages that thrive on crisp acids and freshness, yet still bring remarkable character to the table. Meanwhile there are the later-release wines, which are sometimes wood-influenced, yet often with so much balance and complexity that it pays to give them more time to evolve prior to release. That’s right, many of Campania’s white varieties will not only excel at the dinner table tonight, but also with cellaring for many years. It is difficult to accept that a fruit-forward, young Fiano will also mature into something more complex, yet when that fruit is coupled with a balance of acidity and structure, the wines can often improve with time. Granted, these aren’t like the austere whites of some regions, which beg for more time to unwind. Instead, they are upfront, in your face, full of life and ready to please.

Falanghina, found mostly nearer to the coast, is often zesty and saline, as if infused with sea air but balanced through textural depth and primary fruit. They are fun, tactile wines of precision which speak of the Mediterranean climate they excel in. Looking to Fiano and its prime location, the hilly woodlands of Avellino, with elevations of 1,800 feet and higher, we find a more continental climate and wines that provide a rich and pleasurable experience from start to finish. Fiano dazzles with its ripe fruit on the nose, then soothes the palate with richness, and finally excites the senses through vibrant acids. It may be one of Italy’s greatest white varietals; it’s just that most people don’t know it yet. As for Greco and the volcanic Tufo (or Tufa) soils it excels in, it’s a wine that belongs on everyone’s list of summer sippers. I kid you not when I say that there are some days that I literally crave a Greco di Tufo for their blend of wild energy, citrus-infused minerality and substantial fruit.

When you take this all into consideration, it becomes apparent that Campania has far more to offer than most consumers realize, providing a worthy exploration for the wine lover, the collector, the speculator and even that grown-up kid who wants to explore forgotten realms.

A Bit About Recent Vintages

Lastly, since we’re talking about both red and white varieties, I thought it prudent to focus a little on the most recent vintages hitting the market.

The 2019 vintage will be exciting to follow. The year started with a mild and dry winter and early spring. By May, unseasonably cold weather descended on the region, as well as abundant amounts of rain, raising water reserves, but also causing delayed flowering and the threat of vine disease. Temperatures rose above average throughout July and August, allowing the vegetative process to catch up, as vines used built-up water reserves to remain healthy. However, the saving grace of 2019 was the months of September and October, where sunny, warm days were contrasted by cool evening temperatures. On average, harvests were delayed by eight to ten days, starting in the first days of October for white grapes, yet the fruit achieved perfect phenolic ripeness and balance. Expect the white varieties to show forward fruit, yet with sapidity and depth on the palate. As for the later ripening red varieties, expectations are high due to the balanced autumn weather which allowed for an extended harvest of perfectly healthy fruit. These conditions should produce reds of complexity, elegance and the balance to mature for decades. In fact, Luigi Moio of Quintodecimo explained that he believes 2019 to be “the best of the last five vintages” for both red and white varieties. But only time will tell.

The abundant 2018 vintage is ready to please. The winter was mild, with a large amount of rain that continued throughout the spring. However, June brought warm and sunny days, which regulated flowering and fruit set, yet also increased yields on the vines. While July was warm and especially dry, August was marked by much-needed rains that regulated temperatures. Vineyard management was challenging, and selection of proper bunches was key because of vigorous development and maturation of fruit without any stress to reduce yields. Conditions leveled out through the fall, with harvest beginning in the final weeks of September for the white varieties and lasting until late November for Aglianico at higher elevations. From my tastings, the white varieties, those being Greco, Falanghina and Fiano, all show an upfront appeal, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Only a few examples of Aglianico have made it into the market at this time, but from what I did taste, I found them to be fresh, lifted and pretty.

In general, 2017 was warm and extremely dry, yet the year started out quite the opposite with an intensely cold winter and a number of large snowfalls. However, spring brought much warmer temperatures and very little rain. While this cut down on the risk of disease, the drought conditions also reduced yields. The region then suffered through one of the hottest summers in over a decade, which stressed the vines and slowed maturation. The vintage could have been a disaster, if not for water reserves that had built up from winter snowfalls. Ultimately, harvest took place on time for both red and white varieties. While both Fiano and Falanghina please on their textural presence and upfront fruit, there’s a lack of depth to be found. The reds are larger-scaled wines, but in many cases, I find the balance likely suited to medium-term cellaring. It will be interesting to see how the bigger wines perform when they begin to enter the market.

On the flipside, 2016 is shaping up to be a very pretty and balanced vintage. May through June brought abundant rainfall, resulting in disease within the vineyards, which lowered yields, coupled with a late spring frost during the flowering process. Weather regulated in July, leading into a warm, sunny, and breezy August and September. This, combined with an ideal swing of warm days and cool nights, allowed vines to mature properly. However, overall, yields were down drastically. The results are a set of elegant, cool-toned reds with balanced structures and some very alluring Fianos that are geared for the cellar. While there aren’t any blockbusters to be found, it will be an extremely exciting vintage to follow. In fact, when speaking with Piero Mastroberardino, he described 2016 as a vintage that was “difficult for the viticulturist, but an excellent expression of terroir.”

Then there’s the powerful and warm 2015 vintage. This was another drought year, yet water reserves were high from rains throughout the cold winter months. Spring continued with lower-than-average temperatures, leading to a late bud break yet a healthy flowering. However, the season was complicated by unrelenting heat in June and July, as vines were forced to depend on stored-up water reserves to avoid stress. Nevertheless, maturity was still slowed. August into September brought some much needed and timely rainfall, which helped restore the ripening process. Although the season leveled out through harvest time, the results were still large-scaled, powerful reds. That said, I did find quite a bit to like from these wines, and while I believe the 2016s will likely outclass them over time, the 2015s have a lot to offer through medium-term cellaring. 

The wet and cool 2014 vintage was one of the happy surprises from my tastings. Although vines suffered from disease and uneven flowering because of abundant rain and cooler-than-average temperatures throughout the spring, August through September brought much better conditions. The region also enjoyed dryer weather and healthy variations between day and nighttime temperatures throughout the fall. As a result, harvests took place as many as ten days later than usual. I found the 2014s to be cool-toned and very pretty wines, some of which can already be enjoyed for their gorgeous aromatics and brisk acids, yet there’s also a structure beneath it all that will allow for medium-term cellaring. Don’t disregard the 2014s, as a number of producers also alluded to it being a sleeper vintage, meaning that they have early accessibility, yet should also mature over in the cellar for a number of years. 

All wines for this article were tasted between February and April in New York City.

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