Wines from Italy’s Volcanic Arc: Campania
BY ERIC GUIDO | JANUARY 04, 2022
The diversity of Italy’s wine regions is fascinating. You can’t compare north to south or east to west. You can’t write a vintage report for Tuscany and expect the same conditions for Umbria or Lazio. If you’re looking at grapes, you must compare both red and white due to the drastic differences in the growing seasons and harvest dates. The fact is that every region of Italy is incredibly unique, and if there’s one thing that sets Campania apart from all others, it’s the volcanic arc that forms its landscape and soils. Campania’s geography consists of 50% hills, 35% mountains and only 15% plains. Throughout the hills and up onto the lower slopes of both volcanos and mountains, we find the vineyards. These vines are growing at high elevations, from 400 to 600 meters and up, even when close to the sea, and the soils that we generalize as “volcanic” are a diverse mix of rocks, ash, sands, clays and minerals that have been deposited here over the course of many millennia. From Mount Roccamonfina on the northeastern coast of Caserta, to Mount Epomeo on the island of Ischia off the coast of Napoli, and the still-active Mount Vesuvius across the Gulf of Naples, which last erupted only in 1944, Campania is a land of volcanos. Now, add the various mountains that run down and along the Campanian Apennines, intersecting the region from top to bottom. Suddenly, the unique landscape of Campania becomes apparent. The grapes that grow in these landscapes are every bit as diverse.
The vineyards of Stefania Barbot overlooking Paternopoli.
A New Awakening
Before delving into the grapes, regions and styles, I want to make one very important point that was reinforced throughout the tastings that built this report: Campania is starting to open its eyes to a more modern outlook on farming and winemaking. Natural, sustainable, organic, biodynamic, biodiversity; these are all terms that I would seldom hear from a producer in Campania five years ago, but today they are spoken about regularly. That, along with the emergence of smaller, quality-minded producers, is beginning to change the landscape of the region. In many cases, these wineries have existed for over a decade, yet they are only now starting to be discovered and imported outside of Italy.
The ancient Aglianico vines of Guastaferro in Taurasi.
The Multifaceted Stylings of Aglianico
It’s amazing to consider that not so long ago, an article on Campania would be primarily focused on Taurasi, along with a few standout cult producers off the beaten path, and then delve into Fiano and beyond without even a mention of the absolutely amazing Aglianicos being produced throughout the region. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of Taurasi and believe it to be one of the greatest wines in all of Italy, but the problem is threefold. First, a large percentage of Taurasi still suffers from an overuse of new oak and/or a stamp of dirty winemaking. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for the quality-driven and aspiring winemakers in the region to see their wines associated with the oak monsters and brett-laden expressions available on the market. The second problem is Taurasi’s extremely tannic personality. While collectors often associate aging with superior quality, it can take Taurasi much longer than even these enthusiasts are willing to wait to soften its aggressive tannins and bring them into balance with its heightened acidity. This leads to the third problem, which is the variable styles created by producers in an attempt to either make their Taurasi more appealing earlier in its life, or produce a classic style that takes over a decade after release to become approachable. To put this into context, from an official aging and release standpoint, a Taurasi must mature for at least a year in barrel and a total of three years before release, while the Riserva category increases this to four years total, with at least 18 months spent in barrel. Now, consider that out of the 40 bottles of “current release” Taurasi reviewed in this report, only two of them were from the 2018 vintage, only six from the 2017 vintage, and nine from the 2016 vintage. The reason is that producers are choosing to keep the wines longer in an attempt to release a more expressive and literally “easier to swallow” Taurasi, while still creating a wine that communicates importance.
So how can you tell what you’ll get from one bottle to another, and how can we begin to talk about terroir? My best answer is to read the notes and producer profiles.
The Taurasi DOCG is located near the center of Campania, northeast of Avellino and southeast of Benevento, in the mountainous hills and volcanic soils of Irpinia. Its elevations range from around 400 to 500 meters above sea level. A little-known fact about Taurasi is that producers are permitted to use up to 15% of other red varieties in the blend, but very few do. However, the reality, at least at this time, is that a discussion of Taurasi is more often about the producers – the age of their vines, what they’re doing in the winery, how long the wine spends in wood and what kind of wood – than it is about terroir. However, that terroir does exist, and projects are underway to expose it. One such effort is ongoing at Feudi di San Gregorio, where micro-vinifications of different parts of the region are examined and tasted to possibly one day show the difference from one to the other in wines released to market. Other examples include the single-vineyard wines from Salvatore Molettieri and Quintodecimo. Unfortunately, producers following this train of thought are more the exception than the rule, but there does appear to be a brighter future ahead.
In the cellars of Antonio Caggiano.
Looking beyond Taurasi, there’s an entire world of Aglianico-based reds to explore, starting with Taurasi’s closest neighbor, Irpinia Campi Taurasini. This is a subregion within the much larger Irpinia DOC that engulfs much of Taurasi and Avellino, and frankly, it was one of the most enjoyable categories to taste through for this report. The growing areas are located in a number of towns that closely surround the Taurasi growing zone and, just like Taurasi, the primary grape is Aglianico. However, while Taurasi is meant to be a powerful and austere expression, Campi Taurasini is designed to be more early-appealing while still able to mature over the medium term. What this category creates is a third tier of Aglianico in a producer’s profile, one between their entry-level (Campania Aglianico or Irpinia Aglianico) wine and their Taurasi. That said, in many cases, these wines can even outpace the Taurasi of a mid-level producer but at a much more affordable price. In the style of flash and earlier accessibility, it isn’t rare to find some new oak in a Taurasini, yet due to the much shorter aging period (usually around a year), it’s often nicely integrated. These are great wines to enjoy while your favorite producer’s Taurasi is going through its long slumber to maturity.
Moving west from Taurasi, we find the Aglianico del Taburno DOCG, which is located in the region of Benevento around Mount Taburno. Here, elevations are between 300 and 400 meters, with a mix of volcanic and calcareous soils that have a high content of limestone. Regulations for blending are similar to Taurasi, but the aging for both Rosso and Riserva is a year less. While the Aglianico of Taburno possesses the same tannic clout as Taurasi, it is also a bigger and burlier expression. Following the path west places us in the Falerno del Massico DOC, in the region of Caserta on the foothills of Mount Massico, with its extremely hilly terrain and volcanic soils rich in tuff. This region is also strongly influenced by its close proximity to the Tyrrhenian Sea, whose shores it literally borders. Grape varieties are especially Mediterranean in character, with an abundance of fruit but also the acidity to balance. The wines themselves are often heady and wild yet irresistible. The Bianco focuses on the Falanghina grape, and the Rosso blends Aglianico and Piedirosso. Speaking of which, besides being an excellent blending partner, varietal expressions of Piedirosso are starting to turn up more often, providing purple-tinged florals, a mix of vivid red and black fruits, and earlier accessibility. Also located in Caserta, nearer to the extinct Mount Roccamonfina, is the Galardi winery, whose vineyards overlook the sea and provide an amazing insight into the terrain of coastal Campania. Vines here grow at 430 meters above sea level yet look out upon the Gulf of Gaeta. It’s these contrasts of extremes that define the wines of the region and make them so unique.
For the most fruit-centric – though that’s not to say fruity – expressions of Aglianico, we look to the extreme southern tip of the region, in the coastal hills of Cilento. This is one of the agricultural basins of Campania, with olive-growing as the primary focus. Here, the terrain changes quickly and drastically, as shores give way to foothills and, quickly, the Apennine Mountains. While the DOC permits the blending of Aglianico, as little as 60%, with other varieties, we’re seeing more and more producers pushing that percentage much higher. The result is an Aglianico-based or varietal wine that mixes the power of Taurasi with a more Mediterranean style of fruit and softer tannic grip, creating quite an attractive mix. That said, blending regulations permit Piedirosso, Primitivo, and even Barbera to be added in, which can then create some highly enjoyable wines that offer easier drinking.
If thinking about Campania red wines brings only Taurasi to mind, then it’s time to start exploring. Within the notes included here, you’ll find big and structured reds, classic and cool-toned reds, full-throttle and energetic reds – and all at a price that is often unbelievably affordable.
The Greco di Tufo Terrantica vineyard of I Favati with Montevergine in the background.
Campania’s Hidden Gems: Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo and Falanghina
Some might say that many of Campania’s best wines come from its white varieties, but they’d be only half right. When setting out to taste across Campania’s offerings of Fiano, Greco and Falanghina, it’s immediately apparent that there is a strong dividing line between the zesty and characterful or deep and ageworthy versions, and those that are simply not that interesting. To add even more confusion, it’s not uncommon to find a producer that excels at one or two, yet falls flat with the others. Most producers of Taurasi will also have a Fiano, a Greco and a Falanghina in their portfolio; in fact, it’s practically a given that they will. However, in many cases, it’s clear that the Taurasi is the focus, while the white varieties are just there to fill out the catalog. But don’t worry, for all the producers releasing forgettable poolside sippers, there are plenty making world-class examples of each.
We move back to the mountainous center and northern parts of Campania to explore its favorite white varieties. If one of the three stood out above the others, it would be Fiano, which, around Avellino, creates what many believe to be one of Italy’s greatest white wines. Much of this is due to the region's mountainous terrain and calcareous volcanic soil, rich in minerals, but the drastic diurnal temperature swings between day and night are also a factor. I’m not one to argue with the belief in Fiano’s place among Italy’s top whites; in fact, I’m quite a fan. However, it’s finding the best representations of Fiano that’s the problem. Erminio Spiezia, co-owner and winemaker at Stefania Barbot, also a producer of Taurasi, put this into perspective during our interviews when he offered that “Fiano is a neutral grape variety that becomes Fiano di Avellino wine, thanks to the harmony of the molecules that, during and after fermentation and refinement, together form a choir where each component plays its own instrument.” The moment I heard this logic, it all began to make sense. Fiano, although it has its own typicity and natural traits that are very pretty, is something like a textured yet blank canvas that finds its top expression through a combination of source and winemaking. In the case of Fiano di Avellino, that would be the aging vessel, the bâtonnage and the time spent refining on the lees. In the end, a fresh Fiano that spent three months in tank and very limited time on its skins can be gorgeous, supple, classically dry and fully satisfying, but the sumptuous, long-aging, world-class expressions we seek are often the result of the choir that Spiezia spoke of.
If Campania’s star white wine is Fiano, then Greco di Tufo is its understudy. The biggest difference is that it’s much easier to make a highly enjoyable Greco di Tufo in a zesty and fresh style, but seemingly more difficult to impart a level of importance. That said, there are a number of producers doing just that. Simply look at the deeply mineral-laden stylings of Quintodecimo, I Favati and Calafè to see what I mean. The Greco di Tufo DOCG borders the north of Avellino and Taurasi, with vineyards ranging in elevation between 450 and 600 meters. The name comes from the volcanic ash that collected throughout the region and was compressed over the course of many millennia to form tuff. This, together with high levels of volcanic sand, sulfur and clay, makes up the soils through much of the region. Just as in Avellino, the long exposure to the sun and extreme diurnal temperature shifts at night help to create fruit packed full of character. There’s nothing quite like a fresh Greco di Tufo after a long, hot day, with all of its zesty acidity and minerality. Blending regulations allow for up to 15% Coda di Volpe, another of Campania’s white varieties that has been getting more attention recently; however, most of the wines you find in the market will be 100% Greco.
The much larger DOC of Falanghina del Sannio provides wines that are more fruit-forward and richer, but they are a pleasure to taste. Due to the often flamboyant expression found from Falanghina, they can be much easier to enjoy at the entry level. Unfortunately, it’s usually sugar that imparts some of that pleasure, though the best examples have the acid to balance. The fact is that the majority of interesting Falanghina being produced in Campania doesn’t bear the Sannio DOC, producers opting instead for regional subzones such as Irpinia or Beneventano. For another unique interpretation of Falanghina, look to Falerno del Massico Bianco, as mentioned above, where the combination of elevation and proximity to the sea creates heady wines with tremendous depth.
Lastly, while staying on the topic of white varieties, this article wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the island of Ischia, along with its one DOC, where cable cars are used to harvest vineyards on the steep volcanic slopes of Mount Epomeo. Here we find just 98 hectares under vine, but they are producing some of Campania’s most interesting and ageworthy white wines using the Biancolella and Forastera varieties. Making wine here is more a labor of love than a profitable business, but producers like Cenatiempo and D’Ambra continue to turn out some amazing expressions of these rich yet minerally-intense wines that have the capacity to mature over the medium term. The reds can be pretty amazing as well, though there’s much less to be found in the market; the main varieties on the island are Cannonau, Piedirosso (often called Per' 'e Palummo here) and a small amount of Aglianico.
Falanghina vines planted along side Olive trees in the biodynamic vineyards of I Pentri.
The Most Recent Vintages
While I covered 2019 in my previous report, Campania: Forgotten Realms, I thought it prudent to revisit it quickly, since many of the more important whites are just coming into the market. It’s also quite interesting to compare 2019 and 2020, as each had their own challenges, yet both were generally successful in the end.
The 2019 vintage started with a mild, dry winter and early spring. By May, unseasonably cold weather descended on the region, along with abundant amounts of rain, which caused 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, when 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 varieties, which are fruit-centric yet show sapidity and depth. The later-ripening red varieties fared even better due to the extended harvest, producing complex, elegant wines with the balance to mature for decades.
The winter of 2020 was mild, giving way to a spring that was warmer than average with moderate rainfall, resulting in an early budding that took place around mid-April. Temperatures dropped in late May through June, which delayed flowering and fruit set. Parts of Benevento also suffered from sporadic frost. By mid-June, temperatures began to slowly increase, leading to a warmer-than-usual summer that reached peak highs during August. The fall season brought a dramatic drop in temperatures, as well as rain, which delayed harvests. White varieties were picked throughout the month of October, and in some cases into early November, which also saw the harvest of Aglianico. While many producers frame 2020 as an excellent vintage, my findings (at least with the white varieties) place it in the good to possibly very good range, depending on how the reds show when they arrive next year. Many of the whites lack the acid boost and depth of fruit necessary to take them to the next level.
All of the wines for this report were tasted in our offices in New York City through September and October 2021.
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