I touched on my trip to Campania briefly in an earlier blog about Lake County. Campania sets against the Tyrrhenian Sea in eastern Italy. It’s beautiful, picturesque landscape encompasses stunning white blue seas and cliffs dotted with colorful houses along the Amalfi Coast. I meandered through the province’s winding coastal roads on the way to Tuscany.
Campania’s views were stunning to say the least. I vividly recall the bright green grass, rolling hills, salty sea air, and the zesty scent of Sorrento Lemons.The ragged hillsides are like winding stairways with terraced vineyards trellised on high wires to keep the hot, sea breezes at bay. The view of the three islands, Ischia, Procida and Capri, was breathtaking. I spent most of this drive hanging out the window of the car taking pictures and of course tasting wine. The lovely thirst quenching wines and dramatic views stole my heart. I joked with my friend and tour guide Giancarlo that I would retire there someday.
Now, let’s dive into what makes this region so unique and special.
History & Volcanoes
Campania has 15 DOC’s and 4 DOCG’s and yet only 15% of their wine production is at DOC level or higher. Why? Traditional Italian pride and the knowledge that their wine doesn’t need a label. Campania is one of the most ancient and historically significant wine regions of Italy. On top of amazing wine, Campania encompasses the culinary epicenter Naples, the literal home of pizza. There’s also Salerno, the origin of classic Limoncello and original Mozzarella di Bufala producer.
Many of Campania’s famous grape varieties are of Greek origin. Long ago the region was in Magna Grecia some 2500 years prior. This Italian destination is also home to Falernum (from Falerno del Massico DOCG), a wine mentioned and highly regarded by Pliny the Elder. Some producers are chasing after the “ideal wine score” by producing overly ripe wines with a large amount of new oak. Whereas others still make rustic, uncomplicated, overly alcoholic swill. Many producers stick to the traditional practices and styles.
Wines from Campania as whole drastically improved in quality over the last few decades. The arrival of modern viticulture practices and winemaking techniques made this possible. Campania’s wines are mineral driven. This is largely thanks to the ring of active and dormant volcanoes called the “Campanian Volcanic Arc”. The main volcanoes of the region include the active Vesuvius, Mount Epomeo, Campi Flegrei, and Solfatara, an active crater within the caldera of Campi Flegrei. The volcanic ash and rock essentially cover the region. Coupled with salinity of the sea air, these factors give the Italian wines unique flavors.
The growing season in Campania is long, dry and even. Yet the wines are not overly ripe fruit bombs. These grapes with a Greek lineage are friends of the sun and sea. Despite the heat, the diurnal shift (cool nights, hot days) allows the grapes maintain their natural acidity.
The main grapes of the region are Greco, Falanghina, Aglianico with Aglianico as the highest by-volume producer. The Taurasi DOCG claims the best expressions of Aglianico from Campania. Mastroberardino is one of the most notable and most age-worthy producers of the region. I had the pleasure of drinking an old bottle of Mastroberardino from 1990 on this trip. This wine was lovely with earthy, meaty tones dried olives and savory herbs, plus a core of black pepper and ash.The grape variety Aglianico is traditionally unoaked and reminiscent of black olive, salty brine, dried oregano, dark fruit, plums, blackberry, and pomegranate. There’s normally robust tannins, bright acid and moderate plus alcohol.
The Greco grape finds its finest expression in the Greco di Tuffo region. Here the wines are golden, slightly tannic and waxy, with notes of cheese rind and honey. The family owned winery Terredora de Paolo, is one of my favorite producers. Last but not least, Falanghina is the fabled grape of Pliny’s Falernum coming from the modern region of Falerno del Massico. Falernum was traditionally the name given to wines from the lower hillsides of the region that needed significant aging. In the old days, wines from this region were aged on straw mats and tended towards a slightly sweeter style. However, the styles of Falerno del Massico are now different, but the name stuck with the region. Falanghina classically displays rich floral aromas, white peach, citrus and mineral with Fuedi San Gregorio making some of the top cuvees.
Other Campania Wines
While three grapes shine, other lesser known local varieties are worth seeking out in Campania. One of my personal favorite white wines I sampled was a 100% varietal Biancolella. The wine was from Ettore Sammarco in the Ravello sub-region of Costa Amalfi DOC. The Biancolella offered soft notes of lemon, orange blossom, green herbs and anise with a saline, mineral, acid driven palate. The Ravello sub-region is the highest region within the DOC. This means it receives the biggest night to day temperature swing. The vineyards are terraced and trained on a high wires for maximum cooling potential.These conditions combine to provide a perfectly balanced wine with mouth-watering acid. Sadly, the United State doesn’t import Ettore Samarco’s wines yet. Buut I see good things in the future for this region.
All the wines of Campania were memorable and reasonable priced, generally ranging from $5-30. Plus, their food pairing finesse is drawing attention. If there is anything sommeliers love, it is little known, unique, mineral whites and reds that kill the food pairing game with versatility. Over the last few years these wines have begun to make appearances on the wine lists of big name restaurants. I expect to see more appearing in the not-so-distant-future.