Taurasi, Campania’s best wine, has a powerful allure. Years ago, I spotted one on the shelf of a simple seafood trattoria outside of Naples, where instead of a wine list the choices were arrayed on a shelf. I asked for this sturdy red even though we had ordered grilled langoustine. The waiter brought it to the table along with another bottle. He handed over the Taurasi, then said: Da bere domani con carne – “drink it tomorrow with a steak.”
Without asking, he opened the second bottle, a Greco di Tufo, a local white wine. This is what you drink with langoustine, he all but commanded.
Most people think of northeast Italy – areas like Friuli – for Italian white wines. But Campania, far to the south and well known for red wines like Aglianico, has two top-quality appellations, or DOCGs, for dry white wines, more than any other region in Italy. Excellent white wine coming from south Italy surprises most consumers since southern climes are usually too hot to produce white wines with the requisite acidity to keep them lively. But Campania’s unique geology explains why its white wines are so exciting. Mountainous topography means that vineyards have been planted at higher elevations, where cooler temperatures allow grapes to ripen without losing acidity. Couple that with the region’s volcanic soil and you have the potential for stunning white wines.
Although Campania produces more white wine than red wine – the production of the two largest producers, Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio, is about 75 percent white – the focus of the press and consumers until recently has been on its ageworthy reds, such as Taurasi, the region’s only DOCG for red, and others made from the Aglianico grape.
It has become “the most important region in Italyfor making serious wine,” says Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy’s foremost enologists and a consultant to several Campanian wineries, including Feudi di San Gregorio. Although he was speaking primarily of the red wine, he thinks that the region, formerly known for “chestnuts, potatoes and humble whites,” is ready for production of upscale, world-class white wines as well.
Greco Bianco and Fiano are the grapes responsible for Campania’s two DOCGs for white wine, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, respectively. Both trace their origins to the Greeks, who brought them when they settled this part of Italy in the seventh century B.C. The other two major white grapes in the region are Coda di Volpe (literally “tail of the fox,” because of the shape of the clusters) and Falanghina, an aromatic variety whose popularity is skyrocketing. (See “Buying guide,” this page.)
Greco and Coda di Volpe, like Fiano, do well in the volcanic soil in the mountainous terrain of Avellino, while Falanghina thrives in the towns of Sannio and Sant’ Agata de’ Goti in the neighboring province of Benevento.
Other white varieties, such as Pallagrello Bianco, are starting to appear on the radar screen, not surprising since there are hundreds of varieties native to this region, where wine has been made for 9,000 years. The wine made from Pallagrello has a wild character that could get out of hand if not vinified carefully. Good natural acidity tends to balance its viscous nature. Produced by only four or five wineries, it has limited availability in the United States, but so did Falanghina until about 20 years ago.
Local industry expands
After centuries of producing mostly rustic bottlings – plus the occasional compelling Taurasi – that were mostly consumed locally, Campania’s wine industry surged in the 1980s, expanding from a single major producer, Mastroberardino, to more than 100 wineries today. This growth resulted from a general decrease in poverty in the region, more widespread exposure from increased tourism to the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Naples, money from the European Union finally finding its way to wineries, and resurgence in interest in local grapes by the Italians themselves, according to Tom Maresca, a leading American authority on Italian wines. “The Italians discovered great resources that had always been there,” he says.
Importers specializing in Italian wines, such as Palm Bay International, Winebow and Vias Imports, saw a great opportunity for growth – and greater profits – for these wines compared to the more well-known ones from northern Italy, according to Jane Kettlewell, a public-relations executive who has worked for several Italian wine importers. They were aided, she adds, by the efforts of the Italian Trade Commission, which turned its attention to southern Italian wines.
The wines got a further push as sommeliers and wine buyers around the globe began discovering them and introducing them to customers. “Some customers order Pinot Grigio,” says Matteo Scaccabarozzi, sommelier and manager at London’s Alloro in Mayfair, “but I direct them to Fiano or Falanghina instead.”
Jeannie Rogers, wine buyer at Il Capriccio in Waltham, outside Boston, finds that “these wines are especially popular in the summertime when diners are choosing lighter fare.” Rogers’ theory: Customers are introduced to these wines during visits to the region and order them when they return home.
But the country’s leading booster for wines from Campania may be Shelley Lindgren, wine director at A16 in San Francisco. She has 25 selections of Fiano, Greco and Falanghina on her wine list and two Pallagrello Biancos, and is always looking for more. More and more small producers who previously sold their production to the larger wineries have started to bottle and export the wines themselves, as the region receives international acclaim. “But it’s still a big bridge to cross to get wines from small producers to market,” Lindgren laments.
Lindgren’s evangelism for southern Italian wines continues to resonate through the Bay Area. “These wines definitely sell,” says Mark Middlebrook, wine buyer at Paul Marcus Wines in Oakland. “I’ve seen a steady increase in their sales over the seven years I’ve been here.”
Though smaller producers have a growing U.S. presence, most consumers’ first exposure to Campanian whites comes from the so-called big three, who have given them name recognition and cachet: Mastroberardino, Terredora di Paolo and Feudi di San Gregorio. Mastroberardino, founded in 1878, is credited with resurrecting the focus on Campania’s native grapes – always eschewing international varieties – and until as recently as the early 1980s, was essentially the region’s only significant winery known internationally. The winery went so far as to analyze DNA from grape seeds buried in Pompeii in an effort to replant, cultivate and eventually make wine from the varieties growing at the time of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption two millennia ago. The research confirms the belief that Greco, Fiano and Falanghina were grown in the region at that time.
As is often the case with wine families, a dispute arose among the members and brothers Antonio and Walter went their separate ways in 1993. Older brother Antonio kept the name, Mastroberardino, the winery and a few vineyards. Walter took the bulk of the vineyards because they belonged to his wife’s family, and established a new winery, Terredora di Paolo, in a neighboring village.
Since the split, Mastroberardino has purchased more vineyards, established contracts with local growers and now produces about 200,000 cases of wine a year. Terredora produces about half as much, but is far less reliant on growers, since its vineyards supply 90 percent of its grapes.
The third major producer, Feudi di San Gregorio, founded in the mid-1980s, was able to establish a thriving business as the Mastroberardino brothers were distracted by their internecine feuding. It is now the leading producer, by volume, with an annual production of 250,000 cases. Its wines are the most modern of the three since they have the greatest emphasis on new oak, especially noticeable in their reds. (See “Matters of style,” this page.)
With the whites, the choices seem to be whether to blend Fiano and Greco and bottle under the more liberal IGT regulations or blend Falanghina with Coda di Volpe into a wine called Lacryma Christi (literally “tears of Christ”). An occasional producer ferments Fiano on the skins, but unlike in northern Italy and Sicily, Chardonnay is nowhere to be found. While many of more modern-style reds show obvious oak flavors when young, it’s the rare white that conveys obvious oak influence.
These whites do not have allure of Taurasi or Supertuscans yet, but they might as more people taste them. It wouldn’t be the first time that demand for Italian whites has enticed high-quality small producers to grab a piece of the action. Lindgren sums it up. “People think Pinot Grigio is Italy’s white wine. But these are the noble whites of Italy.”
The white wines from Campania, the region of Italy surrounding Naples and its beautiful bay, pair exquisitely with seafood.
Greco di Tufo
Greco, an aromatic white with earthy nuances and bracing acidity, has a firm edge that reflects the volcanic soil where it’s grown. Sometimes shy when young, it gains considerable complexity after two or three years in the bottle. It’s a good foil for sushi or sashimi.
2007 Mastroberardino Nova Serra Greco di Tufo ($24) Earthy rather than floral, you can almost taste the volcanic soil in which the vines are planted. A clean citric edge in the finish of this firm wine adds to the appeal. Mastroberardino’s 2006 Greco – still available in stores – has more amplitude at this stage and reinforces the notion that Greco benefits from bottle aging. (Importer: Winebow)
2007 Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo ($25) Ferrara, a very small producer with 7 acres of vineyards, produced a full-bodied Greco that is more forward – and ready to drink – than Mastroberardino’s at this stage. At first blush, it seems to have been oak aged, but it’s just the concentration of the stone-fruit flavors coming to the fore. Vibrant acidity keeps it together. (Importer: Estate Wines)
As with most wines, the character of Fiano varies with where the grape is cultivated. In Avellino, known as Irpinia by the locals and Campania’s most important province for wine, it offers intriguing minerality that’s fuller, riper and softer than Greco. When planted nearer the coast, floral elements overshadow its minerality. But its signature characteristic – a subtle waxy texture – persists regardless of where it is grown. Its popularity is spreading; consumers are likely to see Fiano from other parts of southern Italy including Sicily. Try it with full-flavored seafood, such as grilled salmon.
2007 Terredora Di Paolo Fiano di Avellino ($30) Distinct notes of ripe melons coupled with hints of minerality complement the characteristic waxy texture. Bright acid is the counterweight in this marvelously complex wine that demonstrates why Fiano di Avellino has DOCG status. (Importer: Vias Imports)
2007 Mastroberardino Fiano di Avellino ($22) Tighter with more minerality, you see the more traditional hand of Mastroberardino at work. The waxy texture is still apparent in this firmer rendition of Fiano. Not an aperitif-style wine, its racy acidity cries for a splash of olive oil on grilled fish. (Importer: Winebow)
Virtually unknown as a fine wine grape until the early 1990s when Feudi di San Gregorio’s version appeared on the scene, now everyone seems to be making one. Falanghina is a deceptive wine. Its engaging floral character suggests sweetness, but it is not. High acidity imparts a complementary cutting edge, which keeps it lively and refreshing throughout a meal. Quite versatile, it stands up to spicy seafood preparations that use cilantro or Thai basil. It’s also a fine choice as an aperitif or with antipasto.
2007 Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina di Sannio ($17) Alluring aromas of white flowers are apparent and then hints of peaches and melons hit the palate and persist into the finish. The absence of oak flavors and uplifting acidity keeps it fresh and encourages another sip. The juxtaposition of the floral nose and cutting acid makes this an exciting wine and a good match for a wide range of foods. (Importer: Palm Bay International)
Coda di Volpe
The most difficult grape among these to transform into wine, Coda di Volpe, also known as Caprettone, has lower acidity and a tendency to oxidize when not handled correctly. Although the primary – when blended with Falanghina – or the sole grape for Campania’s best known white wine, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, it lacks the stature of Greco and Fiano. A fine choice for cioppino or another seafood stew.
2005 Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio ($16) Made exclusively from Coda di Vopa; Mastroberardino shows that a talented producer can make fine wine from this temperamental grape. (It also makes a Lacryma Christi red from Piedirosso, another indigenous grape.) This midweight wine has a firm edge and almost tastes of lava, reflecting the volcanic soil of the region. An uplifting freshness in the finish makes it a fine choice for a hearty seafood pasta rather than a sipping aperitif. (Importer: Winebow)
Matters of style
Among red wines, there is the ongoing dichotomy in Campania as in other parts of Italy between traditional wines, such as Mastroberardino’s – although under Piero Mastroberardino, even this traditional firm is edging toward a more approachable style – and international or modern styles, like those from Feudi di San Gregorio and to a lesser extent, Terredora di Paolo.
Traditional Taurasi, similar to other great Italian red wines, such as Barolo, requires years of aging for its tannins to mellow and it grandeur to unfold.
The modern styles, sometimes named by Taurasi’s primary grape, Aglianico, usually have seen the inside of a small French oak barrel and a few even include Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot in the blend with the aim of making them more accessible when young.
Some producers opt to use the less restrictive IGT designation for their wines even though the grapes come from the DOCG Taurasi area because they are experimenting with shorter aging requirements and other techniques that fail to comply with DOCG regulations, but might make the wines more approachable.
This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, September 12, 2008