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Apstein's Winery of the Year 2013: Mastroberardino
By Michael Apstein
Jan 7, 2014
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Mastroberardino is my Winery of the Year for 2013 because it excels, not only by consistently making a fine range of wine, but also by preserving history.  They make distinctive and enticing lower end--as measured by price, not quality--wines, such as Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio and Greco di Tufo.  At Mastroberardino, they produce stunning upper level wines, such as Taurasi, which are under-priced for what they deliver and, at the same time, rival Italy’s more famous Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello.  With Mastroberardino’s focus on indigenous grape varieties, they have preserved Italian heritage, and with their Pompeii project, they are bringing history alive.

In addition to being one of Italy’s top wineries, Mastroberardino has been and continues to be the locomotive pulling the region of Campania onto the world’s wine stage.  Despite its three DOCGs (Taurasi, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino), Italy’s highest category of wine, Campania remains under-appreciated and its wines under-valued.  Though tourists flood to the Campania’s Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Naples, they rarely move eastward away from the coast to Avellino, the heart of the wine-producing area, and in the process miss visiting the home of some of Italy’s greatest wines. 

While some producers in Campania try to capture the world’s attention with international grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Mastroberardino continues to produce a dazzling array of wines--both red and white--from indigenous grapes.  And they do this, without a hiccup in quality, despite internecine warfare that resulted in a break-up of the company almost two decades ago, judging from the Taurasi Riservas from that period.

Looking Back 10 Generations

Piero Mastroberardino, the current President and the 10th generation of the family to run the company, notes, somewhat philosophically, that although one looks to future, you can’t forget the past.  Though the date on their labels is 1878 (that’s when Angelo Mastroberardino registered the company with the Chamber of Commerce) Piero says the company was really started about a century earlier, in 1750, by Pietro di Berardino, who was given the title of Mastro (master craftsman), and appended it to his name.   Since then, the Mastroberardino family shrewdly acquired vineyards in the best parts of Campania.

Antonio Mastroberardino, Piero’s father and often dubbed an archeologist of vines, was instrumental, along with his brother Walter, in preserving the viticultural heritage of Campania by saving from extinction and then championing the value of Campania’s most famous indigenous varieties, Aglianico, Greco and Fiano.  Mastroberardino, with their Taurasi, showed the exceptional and distinctive wine that the Aglianico could produce when planted in the correct locale.  They, more than anyone, were responsible for drawing the world’s attention to what is now one of Italy’s iconic wines.

In 1994, Antonio and Walter had a seismic separation, which resulted in Antonio’s keeping the winery and Walter’s keeping the vineyards, at least according to most press reports.  Piero corrects that bit of history by emphasizing that many of their vineyards were held personally by family members and have remained with Mastroberardino--and explains why Mastroberardino’s 1999 Taurasi Riserva is such a stunning wine. 

With their Pompeii project, planting and propagating vines the Romans used, they are actually looking back a couple of millennia. Piero laments that of the 300 grape varieties known to be in Campania only 15 of them are being used currently, so they are exploring the potential of some of these “forgotten” varieties in their Pompeii project.

Not Afraid of Change

Despite their focus on tradition, they are not afraid to change and then fine-tune the changes when they felt they weren’t quite right. Piero describes a turning point for their flagship wine, Taurasi, in 2000 when they extended the maceration time to 4 weeks (the time the skins and juice ferment together).  The resulting wines were more concentrated with darker fruit flavors.   Piero, feeling they went too far in some vintages, reduced the maceration to 3 weeks when the vintage delivers very ripe grapes.  Clearly they are focused on capturing the elegance of the inherently powerful Aglianico grape grown in the Taurasi DOCG. 

Mastroberardino and Pompeii

In the early 1990s, the Italian government invited Mastroberardino to try to recreate vineyards in Pompeii as part of a broader project to make the buried city come alive again.  Mastroberardino studied documents and pictures from Pompeii to understand the viticulture.  The citizens of ancient Pompeii clearly drank wine judging by the remains of “wine bars,” complete with subterranean--temperature controlled--amphora, excavated from under the lava left by Vesuvius.  In 1996, armed with archaeological and documentary data, Mastroberardino planted a small vineyard with a collection of eight different ancient varieties, five white and three red, and studied which gave the best performance.  They’ve expanded the plantings since then and found that the red varieties, Piedirosso and Sciascinoso, which are cultivated on Mount Vesuvius, do best in Pompeii.  These comprise the blend for their Villa dei Misteri, the name of the wine from this project.

Mastroberardino sold the 2001 Villa dei Misteri, their first commercial vintage, at auction and watched it sell out immediately.  Subsequent vintages are equally difficult to find.  But make no mistake, while the Villa dei Misteri is made from grapes grown in Pompeii, it is not wine that the Romans would have made. It is made from grapes planted, as best Mastroberardino can tell, the way the Romans would have planted them, but using contemporary winemaking techniques.  As Paul Lukacs explains in his captivating book, Inventing Wine:  A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures (W. W. Norton, 2012) the wine of antiquity was nasty stuff, often flavored with honey or other condiments to make it palatable.  Nonetheless, Villa dei Misteri is an admirable project for its historical significance and its help bringing Pompeii alive.

Back to the Present: Mastroberardino Wines

Though there is vintage variation among Mastroberardino’s wines, they do have a common thread year to year:

Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco ($20):  Earthiness frames the fruitiness of this wine, which is made from the Coda di Volpe, another indigenous variety grown on Mount Vesuvius.

Greco di Tufo “Nova Serra” ($30):  Although their Greco di Tufo comes from grapes grown inland, you can still feel the influence of Mount Vesuvius--you can almost taste the lava--with its firm minerality.  The wine always has bright acidity and a nuanced honeyed quality, without being sweet.

Fiano di Avellino, “Radici” ($30):  Radici (literally, roots) is the moniker Mastroberardino uses for their top wines.  The Fiano is unique for its glorious combination of floral notes, firmness and slight bitterness in the finish.  I often find subtle pineapple-like notes in it.

The firmness of all of these whites make them ideal matches for seafood dishes, from simple grilled fish to lighter pasta dishes, such as spaghetti with clams.

Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso ($20):  An incredibly complex wine, especially for the price, Mastroberardino’s red Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio is my go-to red wine at Italian restaurants.  Made exclusively from Piedirosso, it has a wonderful firmness and minerality that offsets hearty pasta dishes.

Aglianico, IGT Irpinia ($25):  Mastroberardino’s Aglianico, made from grapes grown outside the Taurasi DOCG zone, gives you an idea of the heights that this grape can achieve.  Powerful, yet actually approachable, it still benefits from a year or two of bottle age.  Perfect for braised beef or other robust fare.

Taurasi and Taurasi Riserva ($60 and $75, respectively):  Both of these wines carry the Radici moniker and are, in a word, sensational.  The Riserva comes from a single vineyard.  Both develop beautifully with proper bottle age and are best left in the cellar for at least a decade.  I assure you, it’s worth the wait.

Producer, Producer, Producer

My advice for buying wines--all wines--is simple and straightforward:  Producer, producer, producer.  You can add Mastroberardino to your short list.  You’ll be thrilled with any of their wines.

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E-mail me your thoughts on Mastroberardino or your favorite producer of 2013 at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein