By Frank Cipparone
Standing on a hillside in Irpinia, the rugged coastline in the distance, you can visualize the first Greek settlers who arrived almost 3,000 years ago. They introduced eastern Mediterranean grapes and methods of cultivation that created the peninsula’s first wine culture. During the Roman era, philosophers and writers praised the virtues of wine from Neopolis and Pompeii.
Naples, Sorrento and the Amalfi coast are internationally renowned destinations. Conversely, until recently Campania’s wines were perceived like those from the rest of southern Italy — unremarkable peasant fare fit only for blending or sold
Thanks to a handful of producers and an influx of outside investment, the region’s potential for fine wine is being realized. To drink wine from Campania is truly a journey into antiquity, a museum tour of Italy’s wine history.
Like most of the Mezzogiorno, red wine dominates the scene, specifically Aglianico. However, its distinctive whites are Campania’s contribution to Italy’s wine industry. Only Friuli can match them in quality, but Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and other continental varieties are key players there. Campania’s indigenous grapes have thrived for millennia, authentic and unadulterated representatives of their enological heritage.
There are differences among them, but in general they are aromatic, delicate, flavorful and unassuming. Falanghina was named for the stakes, or phalanges, used to train the vines. The Romans knew it as Falernina. All but abandoned in the 1940s, it was saved from extinction by Francesco Avellone, who was conducting research on ancient Roman wines. He founded the Villa Matilde estate in 1963 to rescue long forgotten varieties. His work has made Falanghina the house wine of coastal Campania. Crisp and fresh, its soft aromas and fruity flavors are a perfect match for the area’s seafood
or as a late afternoon aperitif.
Campania can boast of the only white wines in southern Italy to merit DOCG classification — Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo. A step up in body and concentration of flavor from Falanghina, Fiano comes in two styles. Those from Avellino are dry; from Sannio either ripe to the point of sweetness or semi-sweet. The latter is closer to what the Romans called “apiano” since the heady scent of the clusters attracted swarms of bees. The drier version has only become popular recently. Sometimes referred to as “pesto in a bottle,” its unusual taste of hazelnuts, resin and pine is offset by a creamy texture of pears and ginger.
Greco’s name is an obvious reference to its Greek origins, and not to be confused with Grechetto and Grecanico, which have nothing to do with Greece. There are Greco-based wines made all over Campania, but Greco di Tufo only comes from eight small towns near Avellino. It is firmer and more full bodied than its neighbor, Fiano di Avellino, and can be identified by its lush flavors of peach, pear and tropical melons. Depending on elevation and soil composition it can have a range of textures, tannins, and intensity of aroma. Like Falanghina, it is best when young and fresh.
Coda di Volpe is another historic variety, its name referring to the grape cluster’s resemblance to a foxtail. It is adaptable to different natural conditions but only does well in Campania. In the interior hills of Benevento and Avellino, small amounts are allowed in the two DOCG wines mentioned. On its own it can be fruity and full of richly exotic tropical flavors or dry and loaded with bracing, crisp minerals.