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Campania: modern wines from ancient grapes

By Becky Sue Epstein, 04/03

Ancient vineyards are the key to the revitalized wines of the modern region of Campania in the south of Italy which is greatly to the winemakers' credit. Rather than persue an internaional market by planting Chardonnay, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, the winemakers of Campania have looked to their roots (literally) and replanted their own vineyards with locally vigorous vines. Most of these are grapes are unheard-of in the rest of the world. However, they are the wine grapes that grow best in this climate and soil.

In vino veritas, "there is truth in wine" is the often-quoted saying from the writings of Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer who was killed while observing the cataclysmic eruption of the volcano Vesuvius nearly 2000 years ago.

 

Grapes, ancient and modern

Pliny remained offshore in a boat, but as the 100-mile-an hour storm of ash, stones and lava buried the Greco-Roman town of Pompeii, just south of modern-day Naples, the poisonous gasses flowed out over the ocean. Pliny was overcome and died. On land, nearly all 15,000 citizens of the town were killed, and buried with them were their homes, possessions, businesses and vineyards.

After centuries of excavation, two-thirds of the city of Pompeii has now been uncovered and rebuilt. Archeologists have formed a picture of everyday life in this ancient city. Statues have been re-erected, grass playing fields are now green. In 1996, the Italian government invited Mastroberardino, a leading light in the region's wine industry, to replant the ancient Pompeiian vineyards.

On the 23rd of April 2003, the first Pompeii-grown red wine will be introduced to the public in a ceremony in Rome; a limited amount of the wine will be available initially, enabling a few to taste a modern version of ancient oenology.

Even the names of the Campanian grapes are rife with history and legend.

 

Aglianico ("ellenico" or Hellenic), is a red grape which was brought to the region by the Greeks and then cultivated by the Romans. Piedirosso, another red, is named after the gnarled red bases of the vines, which look like the red feet of a native dove. The red Coda di volpe grows in a long bunch reminiscent of the tail of a wolf. Sciascinosa was also known as "olivella" as these grapes are oval, or olive-shaped.

Falanghina is a white wine grape, the vines being trained on phalanges (stakes) by the Greeks. Fiano, another white, usually referred to as "Fiano di Avellina" is grown in the Avellina district of Campania; the name is derived from the Roman apiana which, legend has it, refers to the fact that bees favoured this grape. The most popular white is Greco di Tufo another reference to a grape brought here by the Greeks.

The Campania region has been well-known for its wines since the Greeks and Romans settled there, when it was known as Oenotria, "the land of wine." The most famous wine, Falernum, is currently made by Villa Matilde as Fallerno del Massico DOC. Campanian winemakers may be reviving many of the ancient grape varieties, but they are making their wines with modern vinification techniques.

Campania Today

Both red and white wines are actively being developed by large, and smaller, family-owned wineries. Many of these wines are lively, full of youthful fruit and reasonably priced to compete with other new Southern European and New World wines. Some of the new Campanian wines have already reached retailers in major cities of the UK and US, and you can look forward to many more appearing this coming year.

  The white grapes make for surprisingly good food wines. Major varieties Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellina are full and rich, and winemakers are also learning how to handle the aromatic Falanghina. These really suit native cuisine, which includes many types of fish, seafood and pasta, and sauces ranging from a very light tomato, to simple olive oil and garlic, to creamy sauces with the tang of citrus. They will also wash down a salad Caprese very nicely; the classic layering of ripe tomato slices, mozarella and basil leaves, doused with olive oil.

The red Aglianico, sometimes blended with Piedirosso, is made in a variety of styles, and though it may have begun as a sturdy country wine, it can be vinified with great balance and elegance. These reds can be served with light, as well as hearty dishes.

In this relatively poor region, the cuisine includes little meat, but along with plentiful seafood there are vegetables ranging from a variety of beans and peas, to the pungent, wild spring greens of the mountainous areas. Artisanal pastas are again being made by the Pasta di Gragnano factory in the long-established pasta town of Gragnano (a name derived from the grain mills along the nearby river). Its specially laid-out streets catch sea breezes specifically for pasta drying.

Naples is the home of pizza, and Campania also lays claim to the finest buffalo mozzarella products. Again, an artisanal producer is rebuilding this industry: Vanullo produces fresh cheeses, milk, yogurt and has a very popular ice-cream shop right on the farm. Vesuvio tomatoes, for starters and sauces, are grown on the slopes of the ancient volcano. And the limoni di Sorrento (lemons) are famous for their brilliance of color and taste, and added to many dishes as well as making the chilled after-dinner drink, limoncello.

Viticulture and Vinification

In certain parts of Campania, the vines are not grafted as they are in the rest of the world. The volcanic composition of the soil in these areas makes it impossible for the deadly phylloxera louse to live here. As committed as Campanians are to their traditional grape varieties, these winemakers are also forging ahead with modern vinification methods. As the re-discovered grapes have only been seriously re-cultivated for export for the past few decades, all the winemakers admit to putting aside at least a portion of their grapes for experimental techniques. Most of these involve determining the suitability of oak-ageing. Depending partly on the type and size of cask used, this can contribute more or less oaky flavour to the finished wines. Though sometimes this is positive, in Campanian wines I more often found the use of oak was a negative.

Both the white and red wine grapes grown here seem to come into their own with more neutral ageing methods: larger or older oak containers, stainless steel tanks, or simply in bottle. A few of the finest, longest-ageing reds do benefit from the contribution of oak.

Two New DOCGs This Year

Under the Italian system, there are many DOC regions (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) controlled appellations for the best wines. However the highest appellation, DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is reserved for a very few excellent wines in specific territorial designations. Campania's Taurasi has been the only DOCG in the south of Italy, and the Campanians are justifiably proud of this.

They could be even prouder now. In February, 2003, Campania was granted two more DOCG designations: Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellina. However, this development appears to be a mixed blessing for the small, family-owned wineries in the area. At Villa Matilde, for instance, their concern is that it will cost so much more to maintain a DOCG status that they will price themselves out of the market for local consumers. And, as a smaller producer, they may not be able to make up for this in volume or compete in the international market. The next few years will be interesting.

Names to Note

Enzo Ercolino owns of one of the most well-known of the new wineries, Feudi di San Gregorio. Its architecture and packaging are as contemporary as its wines. During the past few years, Feudi di San Gregorio's well-made and highly-drinkable Greco di Tufo has received the widest acceptance of any white wine from Campania. Bruno de Conciliis' fine red wines have also been early entries into the international market. His wines are deservedly as pricy as fine reds from other regions of Italy.

There are several smaller, family-owned wineries that bear watching. Some make estate-grown wines, while others buy grapes from f growers with small parcels of vineyards carved out of the mountains.

 

Look for these names: Caggiano, DiMeo, Maffini, Marisa Cuomo, Mustilli, Villa Matilde and Vestini.

There is one more figurehead to learn, a man who encompasses both the tradition and future of this region. Antionio Mastroberardino is the elder statesman of Campania wine. Mastroberardino has made the revival of the Pompeiian vineyards possible. The legendary Antonio began working in his family's winery as a student in 1945, after his father died. As significant in Campania as Robert Mondavi is in Napa, Mr. Mastroberardino is a courteous and elegant man in his late 70s who appears ten years younger. He speaks with refinement and diplomacy, and understands completely the mechanics of making wonderful wines that please the modern palate. Meanwhile, he remains totally committed to the revival of his region's traditional grape varieties.

Tradition, history and legend are important to Mr. Mastroberardino. The winery and cellar look like they are made of thick, centuries-old stone walls though they had to be completely rebuilt after the devastating Campania earthquake of 1980. He has had ceiling murals in the winery painted to depict mythical figures enjoying wine and celebration. Mastroberardino's Naturalis Historia, is a wine named after the classic work by Pliny the Elder. Made from 85% Aglianico blended with 15% Piedirosso, this is a wonderful example of ancient grape varieties vinified into a truly modern wine with depth, fruit, complexity and length.

I would most definitely recommend you to try some Campania wine; you will experience the modern expression of terroir in these grapes of ancient lineage.
in vino veritas.

CONTACT INFO:

Caggiano - info@cantinecaggiano.it
DeConiciliis - De Conciliis e Figli, Prignano Cilento (Salerno) 0974831090
DiMeo - info@dimeo.it
Feudi di San Gregorio - feudi@feudi.it
Maffini - Luigi Maffini tel +0974.966.345
Marisa Cuomo Furore - info@granfurore.it
Mastroberardino - vincenzo.dantonio@mastro.it
Mustilli - info@mustilli.com
Villa Matilde - s.avallone@fattoriavillamatilde.com
Campania PR in New York: Melanie Young melanieyoung@myoungcom.com


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