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Back to the future

Published:  23 July, 2008

In Roman times Campania, the region that lies to the south of Latium, was the vacation land of choice for the rich and powerful.

Its attractions included the Greek-founded city of Naples, Vesuvius and the Campi Flegrei, the spectacular Amalfitana coast, paradise islands like Ischia and Capri - upon which the emperor Tiberius ended his days in degenerate luxury - the cool-climate and wooded hills and mountains of Irpinia and Samnia, and much besides. There was an abundance of good things to eat - fruits and vegetables, cheeses, nuts, meats of all sorts, superb seafood. And of course there was wine, some of the finest in the land, including the famous Falernum.

Fast forward to 2005, and many of these joys are being rediscovered by the world outside. It's not that they had disappeared - indeed tourism to Naples and its surrounding attractions, augmented since classical times by the wonders of Pompeii, Paestum and Herculaneum, always has remained reasonably healthy - but that the gastronomic delights of Campania had remained a well-kept secret. Fewer than 20 years ago, the Campanian wine scene was being dismissed by no less an authority than Burton Anderson as, with a single exception, one of mediocrity that still shows only feeble signs of recovery'. And Professor Michele Vitagliano, in his book I Vini DOC Irpini, celebrating the Irpinian oenological miracle', was complaining that unfortunately, 15 years after the launch of Irpinia's DOC wines, there are extremely few producers'.

Yet Campania's potential, resting on a foundation of grape varieties, has never been in doubt. Of Italy's 20 regions, only Piedmont can rival Campania for sheer number of quality indigenous grape varieties. Several of these, as names like Aglianico (from Hellenicum) and Greco reveal, either were introduced by or discovered and cultivated by the Greek colonialists from 600-400BC. They include, in the red department, Aglianico, often claimed as the south's answer to Nebbiolo, and Piedirosso, as well as the recently rediscovered' Sciascinoso, Montonico and Mangiaguerra. And among whites are Fiano, Greco di Tufo, Falanghina and Coda di Volpe; Biancolella and Forastera are found near the coast or on the islands; Asprinio, used mainly for sparkling wine production; and the rediscovered vines of Coda di Cavallo and Roviello.

The heartland of the Campania wine revival is Irpinia. Although this is a historic production zone - not just of wine but, like Alba in Piedmont, of all sorts of other delicious things including truffles, various nuts, honeys and some extraordinary cheeses - Irpinia is a land whose name enjoys little recognition abroad. It corresponds roughly with the modern province of Avellino, named (like all Italian provinces) after its principal city, and it boasts mountains (Apennines), hills and valleys and is aesthetically striking as well as being agriculturally bounteous. Today, rather than the small handful of wineries that existed fewer than 20 years ago, there are 60 and rising, and there are 7,000ha planted and rising, about a quarter of these falling in DOCG zones.

Indeed, it is the fact that Irpinia boasts three DOCGs - as many as any other province in the land - that it is held up most often as proof of its enormous vinous vocation. The DOCGs themselves correspond to grape varieties: Aglianico for Taurasi DOCG, Fiano for Fiano di Avellino DOCG and Greco di Tufo for Greco di Tufo DOCG. (It is necessary to specify Greco di Tufo for the grape name as well as for the wine since there are various types of Greco in southern Italy not necessarily having anything in common.)

In terms of growing conditions, there is not much to choose between them. Altitudes vary between 300 and more than 600 metres, and there is a healthy breeze blowing inland from the sea, which reduces infestation from insects and infection from fungi. There is reasonably regular rainfall during the growing season, as the clouds arriving from the sea are trapped by the mountains, but a tendency to long dry autumns allowing for late, indeed very late, harvesting. Most important of all, the hot sun of southern Italy is usually mitigated by cooler temperatures at night, a thermic variation that many viticulturists credit for bringing freshness and complexity to fruit.

So if all these conditions are similar, what are the variables? The grapes, obviously, but also the soil. The three varieties mentioned above thrive in three different types of soil. Aglianico likes a relatively compact clay-chalk structure, requiring the roots to dig deep in search of moisture, but not so compact as to impede penetration, so an element of sand doesn't go amiss. Fiano enjoys something similar but less compact, perhaps with more sand as well as some volcanic elements - not a problem in the land of Vesuvius. And Greco di Tufo, as the name suggests, performs well in the high-sodium tuffaceous rock and its detritus, explained by the presence of caves dug in rock similar to those one might find in Orvieto or Vouvray.

Taurasi, often held up, together with Aglianico del Vulture, as the shining example of Aglianico, is supposedly capable of ageing in a positive and complex manner, although it has to be said that at the present time there are precious few examples of old Taurasi, indeed of old Aglianico, to demonstrate this point beyond dispute. It was elevated to DOCG status in 1993, the first to achieve that eminence in southern Italy.

The best producers make it in purezza, ie without blending, but Piedirosso, another Campanian native, is often used to soften its firm tannins, mellow out the characteristic bitter aftertaste and give it a bit more colour. Some 15% of the blend may be of other grapes recommended or authorised in the province of Avellino', but unusually, and fortunately, that does not include Merlot or Cabernet, much to the annoyance of those who have brought in the Bordeaux grapes in order to soften and internationalise - some might say undermine - the wine's typicity. Those who feel driven to resort to this measure are forced back onto Irpinia IGT.

Strangely, for a wine that is supposed to represent the highest expression of wine in southern Italy, Taurasi DOCG is allowed a thumping yield of 100 quintals (one quintal equals 100kg, or approximately 70 hectolitres) per hectare, 20-25% higher than other top-quality Italian reds. Aglianico for Taurasi is picked very late - often into November, though the tendency is to seek out clones that will ripen earlier.

Fiano di Avellino, DOCG since 2003, has a similar disciplinare (set of rules) allowing a per-hectare production of 100 quintals and a blending maximum of 15% of other authorised grapes. Depending on the soil and other factors, it can have quite a lush fruitiness, combining both cool-climate (apple, pear) and more exotic (pineapple, banana) aromas. Nuts, flowers and honey also are used as descriptors for the wine, which, as can be imagined, can be quite complex and difficult to pin down.

Greco di Tufo, likewise, was elevated to DOCG status in 2003, with the same production stipulations except that only Coda di Volpe is allowed in the blend at up to 15%. At a recent tasting, organised in Irpinia for journalists by the wine tourism organisation Go Wine, it tended to display a tighter, slightly austere character in comparison with Fiano, and in some examples something of a citric note - orange or grapefruit in some cases, veering nearer to apricot and peach in others. We were assured by Dr Vincenzo Mercurio, the talented winemaker for Campania's most famous producer, Mastroberardino, that these characteristics represent different exposures.

One should not, however, overlook the other excellent grapes and wines of this region. Among whites, apart from the already mentioned Coda di Volpe, a most attractive variety is Falanghina, giving wine of racy acidity and plenty of fresh fruit flavour, both in near-coastal areas and inland in the province of Benevento. Among reds, the sturdy, deep-coloured Piedirosso, said to be related to Friuli's Refosco, can deliver chunky, fruity if not particularly complex wines.

Probably Campania's most celebrated wine of recent years, however, is the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Aglianico blend called Montevetrano, from the estate of that name near the coast in the Salerno province. Silvia Imparato has raised the status of this limited-production cru to the level of cult, not just because she has managed to stamp it with her own personality rather than that of her famous winemaker, Riccardo Cotarella, but also because Robert Parker took a shine to it as soon as it came out in the mid-1990s and has consistently given it scores of mid-90s.

For a marvellously informative, well-written and beautifully produced guide to the wonders of gastronomic Campania in all its aspects, including wine (nearly 70 wineries are featured), the reader is recommended to seek out Carla Capalbo's The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania, published recently by Pallas Athene of London.