I touched on my trip to Campania briefly in an earlier blog about Lake County. Campania is the eastern coastal region of Italy set against the Tyrrhenian Sea. Campania is a beautiful and picturesque place and is most often remembered for the stunning white blue seas and cliffs of the Amalfi Coast. I drove through the province on the winding coastal roads on the way to Tuscany. It was stunning; I vividly remember the bright green grass, rolling hills, salty sea air, and the scent of Sorrento Lemons. The ragged hillsides were reminiscent of 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 and Volcanos
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, Salerno, the origin of classic Limoncello and is original producer of Mozzarella di Bufala. Many of the famous varietals of Campania are of Greek origin due to the inclusion of Campania in the Magna Grecia some 2500 years prior; it is also home to Falernum (from Falerno del Massico DOCG), a wine mentioned and highly regarded by Pliny the Elder. Although Some producers are chasing after the “ideal wine score” by producing overly ripe wines with a large amount of new oak, and some producers still make rustic, uncomplicated, overly alcoholic swill, many producers stick to the traditional practices and styles. Campanian wine as whole has seen a drastic improvement in quality over the last few decades with more modern viticulture and wine making practices arriving in the region. Campanian wines ( as I mentioned in my Lake County Blog) 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 and coupled with salinity of the sea air, gives the wines their unique character.
As mentioned above, despite the warm temperatures, the grapes of Campania are mineral driven and balanced; not overly ripe fruit bombs. The growing season is long, dry and even. As I previously mentioned, many grapes grown here are of Greek origin and are accustomed to 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 being the highest by-volume producer. The best expressions of Aglianico from Campania are found in the Taurasi DOCG and one of the most notable (and most age worthy) producers is Mastroberardino. I had the pleasure of drinking an old bottle of Mastroberardino from 1990 on this trip and although drinking well it could certainly have aged longer. This wine was lovely with earthy, meaty tones dried olives and savory herbs, with 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 with robust tannin, bright acid and moderate plus alcohol. The Greco grape finds its finest expression in the Greco di Tuffo region and is golden-hued, 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; although the styles of Falerno del Massico are now different the name stuck with the region. Falanghina classically displays rich floral tone, white peach, citrus and mineral with Fuedi San Gregorio making some of the top cuvees. Although these three grapes take the forefront, there are many other lesser known local varietals. One of my personal favorite white wines I sampled was a 100% varietal Biancolella from Ettore Sammarco in the Ravello sub-region of Costa Amalfi DOC. The wine had 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 and the vineyards are terraced and trained on a high wire for maximum cooling potential. These attributes combine to provide a perfectly balanced wine with mouth-watering acid. Sadly, Ettore Samarco’s wines are not yet imported but I see good things in the future for this region.
All the wines of Campania were memorable and could be found at reasonable price point, generally ranging from $5-30. Attention is being drawn to their food pairing finesse. If there is anything sommeliers love, it is little known, unique, mineral driven whites and reds that kill the food pairing game with versatility. Over the last few years these wine have begun to make appearances on the wine lists of big name restaurants and I expect to see more appearing in the not-so-distant-future. – JE