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The Unique Wines of Campania
By Ed McCarthy
May 29, 2007
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After many years of letting Tuscany, Piedmont, the Veneto, and other Northern Italy regions take the spotlight in the wine world, Southern Italy--primarily Sicily, Puglia, and Campania--is now getting its share of attention in a major way.  And for me, the wines from Campania are Southern Italy's most interesting, largely because almost all of Campania's wines are made from native varieties. 

Campania is a large region south of Rome.  Even though wine was made there since at least the 7th Century B.C. by Greek settlers (who brought a few grape varieties with them), and though the area was a favorite vacation destination for Romans (remember Pompeii?), modern winemaking was slow to get started in the region.  Until recently, Campania has been known to the outside world for its two famous destinations: Naples and the Amalfi Coast.

Like much of Southern Italy, Campania had long been shackled by the chains of poverty and lack of industry.  As late as 1970, only three wineries were producing wines commercially in Campania, but only one really made significant amounts: Mastroberardino.  Today, Mastroberardino is still going strong, but there are now 120 wineries in Campania.  Many of the wineries are in the mountainous province of Avellino, known as Irpinia by the locals.

Avellino is not too far from Mount Vesuvius (about 25 miles), the very much alive volcano that destroyed Pompeii in 79 A.D., and which last erupted in 1944.  Also, Avellino has had to contend with earthquakes; the last one, in 1980, destroyed many villages (and wineries) and killed more than 3,000 people.  But the villages were re-built, and today more and better wine is being made throughout Campania than any other time in its long history.  I recently visited Campania, with a major stopover in Avellino province.

I will be concentrating on the wines from Avellino here.  But good wines are coming from other parts of Campania as well, such as:

--Benevento province, north of Avellino.  Here are the Sannio/Sant' Agata dei Goti wine regions, home of the white Falanghina variety.  Mustilli is a leading winery.

--Caserta province, in the northwest, home of the ancient Roman wine, Falerno, which is primarily a Bianco (made from Falanghina), but also a Rosso, made from Aglianico, the native Piedirosso, and sometimes Primitivo.  Villa Matilde is a leading winery.

--Salerno and Naples provinces, which include the Campi Flegri, the area outside of Naples including Ischia and Capri; the Sorrento Peninsula; and Cilento, in the south.  Grape varieties grown here include the white Biancolella and Coda di Volpe, and the red Piedirosso and Aglianico.  Leading wineries include De Concilus, Marisa Cuomo, D'Ambra Vini d'Ischia, Montevetrano, and Luigi Maffini.

Three major wineries dominate Avellino (aka Irpinia): Mastroberardino, Feudi di San Gregorio, and Terredora di Paolo, usually known simply as Terredora.  Even though Mastroberardino has the longest history by far (est. in 1878), it is no longer the largest wine producer.  Today, Feudi di San Gregorio--founded in 1986, with its first wines produced as late as 1991--has surpassed Mastroberardino in production with over three million botlles a year; Mastroberardino produces about 2.4 million bottles annually, while Terredora, which began in 1993-94, makes 1.2 million bottles a year. 

All three wineries have much in common, and yet they differ significantly.  For example, all make more white wines than red: Feudi and Mastroberardino produce about 70 to 75% white wines while Terredora makes about 55% white.  And the wines all three produce are the same: all make Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino, Falanghina, and Lacryma Christi white wines; plus Tauasi (an Aglianico DOCG wine from the area of Taurasi village), other Aglianico reds and Lacryma Christi Rosso.  Italy--mainly Rome and Campania--is the major market (70 to 75%) for all three wineries, with the U.S. all three's major foreign market.

And now the differences.  Feudi di San Gregorio is clearly the most modern winery of the three, and obviously growing the fastest.  It has a very impressive, state-of-the-art wine facility sitting  atop a hill near the village of Sorbo Serpico (outside the town of Avellino).  Among other things, Feudi has lots of new French barriques at the winery, plus an impressive restaurant on premise.  It also now owns vineyard land and a winery in the Mount Vulture region of Basilicata, and is producing an Aglianco del Vulture called Vigne di Mezzo.  Feudi's wines are also the most modern, or polished; Ricardo Cottarella is its consultant.  Even though all three wineries use barriques to age some of their wines, many of Feudi's wines display more evidence of barrique aging, in general, than the other two wineries.

Mastroberardino, long Campania's most renowned winery, is located in the town of Atripalda, outside of Avellino.  It is not resting on its laurels.  In 1996, proprietor Antonio Mastroberardino and his son, winemaker Piero Mastroberardino, began an amazing project in ancient Pompeii, re-planting the very same varieties that were growing there 2,000 years ago!  Knowledge about the ancient varieties was obtained by analyzing the DNA of grape seeds buried in the ashes. 

Nowadays, their viticulturist, Antonio Dente, runs the project.  Eight varieties apparently were growing in Pompeii and have been re-planted, five white and three red.  The white varieties are Greco, Fiano, Coda di Volpe, Falanghina, and Capronetta; the reds are Aglianico, Piedirosso, and Sciascinoso.  One wine, the 2002 Villa dei Misteri, has been commercially bottled at this point (the 2001 was the first vintage); it's a blend of 85% Piedirosso and 15% Sciascinoso, apparently the two varieties that have performed the best so far.  Less than 2,000 bottles were made; it's hard to find and expensive (about $185).  Dente has not given up on growing Aglianico, although Pompeii seems to be too warm and dry for this variety.

In 1993, brothers Antonio and Walter Mastroberardino went their separate ways, a fairly common occurrence in Italian wineries.  Younger brother Walter, whose wife Dora and her family owned many of Mastroberardino's key vineyards, kept these vineyards in the split-up.  Antonio kept the winery name and the winery in Atripalda.  And so both wineries went though a difficult time in the 1995-2005 period, with Antonio Mastroberardino seeking to acquire new vineyards--never an easy endeavor in Italy--or at least to establish long-time contracts with growers, while Walter built a new winery, called Terredora, in the village of Montefusco, north of Avellino.  Is it a coincidence that Feudi di San Gregorio grew so rapidly during this period?

Terredora, the smallest of Irpinia's big three, has the huge advantage of owning 90% of the vineyards from which it sources its grapes (Feudi and Mastroberardino own about 50 percent or less).  Walter's oldest son, Paolo, is the agronomist and takes care of the domestic market; younger son Lucio is the winemaker and looks after the export market, while daughter Daniella takes care of finance and public relations.  Walter personally still looks after some long-time accounts in Naples and Rome.  The most striking vineyard I visited on this trip--in fact, one of the most beautiful vineyards I've ever seen--was one of Terredora's, the Lapio Vineyard, in Lapio village, high on a dramatic hillside, with Mt. Vesuvius in the background.  Both Fiano and Aglianico are grown there; the Fiano di Avellino wine made from these grapes is especially regarded as perhaps the finest example of this variety.

What are the differences in the three main white wines, Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino, and Falanghina? Here are my general observations:

--Falanghina:  The fruitiest and broadest in flavor, and the most aromatic; often rich and minerally, and tasting of its lees; seems to be best when consumed in its first three years or so.

--Greco di Tufo:  Earthy and rich, with lots of personality and obvious flavors; a showy wine; can age well for six to eight years.

--Fiano di Avellino:  The thoroughbred of the three; the most floral, with the most delicate flavors, often of hazelnuts; very elegant, and the most long-lived (12 to 15 years); needs a few years to develop.

As in other parts of Europe, 2003 was a very hot vintage in Campania, although not quite so bad in the mountains and hillsides of fairly cool Irpinia.  Nevertheless, wines from the 2003 vintage were usually my least favorite; look instead for 2004s, 2005s, and 2006s.

Here are some wines that I tasted on my recent trip to Campania:

Whites:

Villa Matilde, Falanghina del Sannio (Campania, Italy) 'Rocca di Leoni' 2006 ($15, Empson USA):  Dry and delicate, with minerally, floral aromas and flavors and substantial acidity.  Fresh and clean, not as heavy-handed as some Falanghinas.  Excellent with pasta and seafood.  89

Marisa Cuomo, Furore Bianco (Costa d'Amalfi, Italy) 2005 ($22, Panebianco): Also known as Gran Furore, Marisa Cuomo's winery, run by Marisa and husband Andrea Ferraioli, is the best on the Amalfi Coast.  It's located In the town of Furore, but they also source their grapes from Ravello; in both cases grapes are grown on very steep hillsides.  The 2005 Furore Bianco, made from Biancolella and Falanghina and unoaked, is broad and minerally, with flavors suggesting white peaches.  A sheer delight.  90

Feudi  di San Gregorio, Greco di Tufo (Campania, Italy) 2006 ($19, Palm Bay Imports):  Firm, almost steely aromas with a touch of anise and honey.  Fascinating minerally flavors, resembling a rich, ripe Chablis, but more expressive.  The 2005 is the current vintage available, but will be replaced soon by the 2006.  91

Feudi  di San Gregorio, Falanghina di Sannio (Campania, Italy) 2006 ($15, Palm Bay Imports):  Feudi is the largest producer of both Greco di Tufo and Falanghina.  Its 2006 Falanghina from Sannio is dry, but with ripe, fruity, floral aromas and flavors.  It is earthy, with very good depth.  A lovely $15 white wine.  90

Mastroberardino, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco (Campania, Italy) 2006 ($16, Wilson Daniels):  Perhaps the most popularly known wine of the region, if not the best.  In the hands of a good producer, such as Mastroberardino, it is very solid and substantial: dry and lean, with lots of minerality and lingering on the palate.  89

Mastroberardino, Fiano di Avellino (Campania, Italy) 'Radichi' 2006 ($22, Wilson Daniels):  Mastroberardino makes a standard Fiano, but its Radichi comes from a selection of grapes in its best vineyards.  It is dry, with wonderful aromas of white flowers, mint, and eucalyptus, great concentration of flavors and substantial acidity.  Very sleek, with good aging potential.  92

Terredora, Fiano di Avellino (Campania, Italy) Terre di Dora 2006 ($20, Vias Imports):  Terre di Dora is one of Terredora's own vineyards.  Dry and crisp, with fresh fruity aromas suggestive of pineapple.  It has great length on the palate, with a rich finish.  Excellent Fiano.  92


Reds:

Terredora, Taurasi Riserva (Campania, Italy), CampoRe 2001 ($45, Vias Imports):  Taurasi Riservas get four years of aging at the winery and usually need another few years to be at their best.  Teredora's fine CampoRe has excellent concentration, is very dry, but with explosive fruit.  It should only get better in a few more years.  93

Mastroberardino, Taurasi Riserva (Campania, Italy) 'Radichi' 2000 ($39, Wilson Daniels): Very refined, tart cherry and herbal aromas and flavors with great concentration of fruit, along with substantial acidity.  This is a wine made for the long haul.  At $39, it is actually a bargain when you compare it to Barolos and Barbarescos.  93

Feudi  di San Gregorio, IGT Irpinia Aglianico (Campania, Italy) "Serpico" 2003 ($65, Palm Bay Imports): Coming from three different vineyards of old vines, Feudi's Serpico is one of its super-Aglianico wines, with substantial barrique aging.  Feudi chooses to age it less than the minimum three years required for DOCG Aglianicos because it wants to empasize its enormous concentration of fruit.  A blockbuster of a wine, very rich and ripe, in the modern style.  92