Campania: Made in Italy

Campania’s best producers, both small and large, are making some of Italy’s most interesting wines. And great bottles, although still a distinct minority of the region’s total production, are on the rise. A good case can be made that 5 or 6 of Italy’s best 30 white wines are in fact Campanian; and other wines made recently by small, promising estates show outstanding potential too. However, the overall level of winemaking remains spotty, and technology at many estates isn’t always up to modern standards.

Clearly, as most of these wines have never fetched particularly high prices, many winemaking families have been limited in their ability to invest in their vineyards and cellars. Another issue is that many of Campania’s newest and most exciting estates (most of which were founded only in the 1990s) are small and only own a few hectares of vines. Consequently, they make one truly excellent wine from their (few) estate-grown grapes, and other lesser wines from purchased grapes. This is another reason why in Campania you might have the same estate making, for example, an outstanding world-class Fiano wine from its own plots of vines and a Falanghina wine from bought fruit that is average at best.

On the other hand, truly bad wines from Campania are rare, and that is something I cannot say about other Italian regions such as Puglia or Abruzzo. Unfortunately, large co-ops have been content with turning out clean, solidly made but ultimately unexciting wines, and quality from the region’s better-known large producers has been up and down over the decades, contributing to Campania’s lack of international recognition. Happily, there are clear signs today that more producers are committed to making wines that generate the excitement that many of Campania’s great native grapes are undoubtedly capable of communicating.

Old-vine Aglianico in Taurasi

Campania’s Wine Grapes

As always in Italy, it all starts with the grapes. Campania is home to some of Italy’s highest-quality native white and red varieties. Fiano, for example, is Italy’s single best native white grape variety; and Greco and Coda di Volpe Bianca would easily make any real expert’s top 25 list of Italian white grapes. All are capable of yielding ageworthy whites (10+ years in good vintages). Fianos are floral and mineral, Grecos tend to be big and tannic, while Coda di Volpe Bianca embodies the best of both, although it can be remarkably chameleon-like depending on the soils and microclimates where it’s planted. Another native white grape, Falanghina, has been an outstanding success story, despite the fact that a plethora of nondescript wines are being made with it.

Along with Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, Aglianico is among Italy’s finest red grape varieties. Fortunately, an ever-increasing number of producers – mostly younger winemakers who have studied, traveled and, more importantly, tasted the great wines of the world – are now using the amazing raw materials of their region to make consistently good, and at times world-class, wines. Sadly, this also means that there is a growing number of small producers making excellent wines in very limited quantities. However, searching out the exceptional wines is worth the effort: readers would do well to realize that for every sound but boring Aglianico, Fiano or Greco, there are many other highly nuanced and concentrated examples made from those same grapes.

In fact, Campania is the region in Italy where international grape varieties are the least important. Unlike many well-known production areas such as Piedmont, Tuscany and Friuli, Campania remains a haven for native wine grapes. In fact, most university experts I have talked to over the years estimate that there are at least another 80 to 100 local varieties in Campania awaiting genetic identification. Happily, several varieties have been brought back to life recently, and are already being used to make very good wines. Examples include the white grape Roviello (the only monovarietal wine made thus far is labeled with the grape’s dialect name of Grecomusc’) and the red Tintore di Tramonti (at least four different producers are making monovarietal reds or rosatos with it, as well as blends). We have seen all this before: for example, Fiano risked extinction as recently as the 1950s, the highly fashionable Falanghina was only resurrected from oblivion in the 1980s, and practically no monovarietal versions of Coda di Volpe Bianca were being made as recently as 20 years ago. So I pay close attention to all these so-called ‘minor’ grapes, a term I never use, by the way. In fact, given the poor quality of almost all of Italy’s Chardonnays (especially when compared to the many great versions being made all over the world), I can easily make the case that there are few more ‘minor’ grapes in Italy than that famous white variety.

Aglianico is used to make any number of DOC and IGT wines in Campania, either alone or in blends. In the latter wines, it is most often paired with Piedirosso, another local red variety that acts as a softening agent, much like Canaiolo Nero does when matched with Sangiovese or Malvasia Nera with Negro Amaro. The best Aglianicos are not unlike great Nebbiolos, in their perfumed aromas of red rose, sour red cherry, leather and minerals and their class, tannic structure and ageworthiness. Piedirosso is widely planted in Campania but it tends to have difficulty reaching optimal ripeness, and so too many weedy, green monovarietal wines are still made. However, some truly great reds are being made with Piedirosso, which suggests that the problem lies with the producer and his or her viticultural prowess rather than with the variety itself.

Campania’s White Wines

Fiano di Avellino is the most famous white wine of Campania, but Greco di Tufo doesn’t lag far behind. However, many other versions of Fiano and Greco are made in DOC and IGT areas such as Sannio, Salopaca, Guardiolo, Campi Flegrei and Cilento. The finest wines from each of these denominations can at times rival their more famous cousins from Avellino and Tufo. And of course there are also noteworthy differences among all of these wines depending not just on the winemaking but on soils and microclimates. For example, Fiano grapes grown in the higher reaches of Lapio give wildly different results than those planted in the warmer area of Summonte. These differences are just beginning to be studied and understood.

White wines from the beautiful Amalfi Coast are also worth seeking out, as they are some of Italy’s best: look for Costa d’Amalfi and its three subzones Furore, Ravello and Tramonti. Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio wines (there is also a red version) have also never been better. Another recently rediscovered white grape, Caprettone, is also being increasingly used to make monovarietal wines. Long confused with Coda di Volpe Bianca, it gives highly mineral, austere, high acid wines with plenty of floral lift, if not overt fruitiness. On Ischia, the Campanian island with the most important tradition in winemaking, native varieties such as Biancolella and Forastera give lovely, delicately saline white wines. One producer has recently made a monovarietal wine from the long-forgotten San Lunardo variety.

Taurasi and Campania’s Aglianico-Based Reds

As I have written repeatedly, I believe Aglianico is one of the world’s greatest grape varieties, on a par with, for example, Riesling or Pinot Noir. The problem is that only a few wines made with Aglianico demonstrate its true potential. Even with all the viticultural and winemaking improvements of the last 20 years, quality remains spotty.

Many monovarietal Aglianico wines as well as Aglianico-based blends are made in Campanian DOCs or IGTs such as Sannio, Cilento, Solopaca, Paestum and Falerno del Massico, but the best example of the variety remains Taurasi, southern Italy’s first-ever DOCG wine (the zone encompasses roughly 750 hectares, only half of which are currently utilized). Taurasi takes its name from the ancient Oscan city of Taurasia; it’s also the name of the main town in the heart of the wine’s production zone. While the town is situated roughly 360 meters above sea level, its vineyards stretch as high as 700 meters. A number of other towns are found within the Taurasi production zone (17, actually); the ones most worth remembering are Castelfranci, Mirabella Eclano, Montemarano, Montemiletto, Pietrafusi and Venticano.

As with Fiano and Greco, there are clear-cut differences between Aglianicos made with grapes grown in different townships, just like there are between the Barolos of La Morra and those of Serralunga. Regrettably, however, differences due to terroir have been little studied, at least until now. I have been examining these differences for the last 15 years and am now coming to some conclusions. As a general rule, vineyards situated at the lowest altitudes of the production zone (roughly 350 meters above sea level, where, for example, the townships of Pietradefusi and Venticano are located), give much more forward, open-knit wines. One of the best estates of this area is Struzziero, located in Venticano; this town is also the source of the Aglianico grapes used by the talented Clelia Romano, owner of the famous Colli di Lapio estate. By contrast, Taurasi’s highest-altitude vineyards (in the townships of Castelvetere sul Calore, Paternopoli, Castelfranci and Montemarano) generally planted at more than 500 meters, benefit from a much cooler microclimate. Salvatore Molettieri’s famous Cinque Querce vineyard is located here; other fine estates that have bought vineyards in this area include Mastroberardino and Michele Perillo.

Poor winemaking is less of a problem in Campania today than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but one concern is the high alcohol levels of many Taurasis: 15% is common and some wines are even higher. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m into ripe grapes as much as the next person, but although 15% or 16% alcohol might be acceptable for Amarone, most people who consume wine regularly at dinner rarely look for this level of high-octane intensity. Many producers in Taurasi and the rest of Campania will need to rethink their viticultural and cellar practices in an effort to make more refined wines that are easier to drink at the table.

Recent Vintages

The 2014 vintage was difficult in Campania as it was elsewhere in Italy but conditions were less dire here than in the northern and central regions of Italy, where memories of 2002 and 1984 spring to mind. The weather was generally too cold and rainy for grapes to ripen fully, with May, June and July some of the rainiest months ever on record, disrupting flowering and triggering serious disease pressures. However, August and September were more favorable months in Campania (and in southern Italy in general) than in the rest of the country. This is important, because Campania is home to many late-ripening varieties, such as Aglianico, that benefited from the long growing season. Thus 2014 is generally a vintage of lighter-styled, perfumed red and white wines. The whites are more successful than most of the reds, and overall the vintage is not the disaster many people had anticipated.

The 2013 vintage was characterized by an early budbreak but also, as in 2014, by a flowering that was delayed and disrupted by cool, rainy weather, leading to berry shatter and millerandage. As a general rule, the white wines are fresh and vibrant and more successful than the reds. Springtime frosts affected the 2012 vintage, but the rest of the growing season featured relatively hot weather. Importantly, and unlike in 2011, the temperature increases were gradual, giving the vines a chance to adapt, while well-timed rains in August and September helped to prevent water stress. Still, some Campanian white wines lack perfume and vibrancy due to the heat in August. The reds are usually better, at least those whose tannins aren’t gritty and alcohol levels are not excessive.

Wines from 2011 frequently show the effects of the torrid last two weeks of August (2011 in Campania will be remembered as one of the region’s hottest years in memory), so grapes had to be harvested early to avoid making wines with cooked aromas and flavors. White wines from this vintage are best consumed quickly, while the better reds are showy, fleshy wines, but sometimes marred by high alcohol levels and somewhat underripe tannins. Last but not least, 2010 was an outstanding year that produced classic wines, with energetic, aromatic whites and refined, structured reds.

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-- Ian D’Agata