Nostalgia and local pride always play a part in the love of regional wines, whether from the Loire Valley or the banks of the Rhine. So it’s hard not to be in thrall to a wine that you’d drink on the island of Capri overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Yet until recently I would be hard put to defend the overall quality of the wines my ancestors drank in Campania, the region of Capri, Naples and the Amalfi Coast.
Prior to my great grandparents’ emigration to America in 1888, they hadn’t a clue what kind of wines they were drinking back in the Old Country, where no one had ever tried to classify one grape from another.
In those days, as in most of Italy, most grapes were self propagating, a condition called “promiscuous cultivation,” and the vines had to compete with other plants for water and nutrients, thereby producing wines of little character. Oxidation was considered characteristic; wine was sold almost exclusively from huge, old, oak barrels.
Even after Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture established its denomination of wine origins in 1963, it was a frustrating job to delineate the distinctions among dozens of Campanian grapes like greco, fiano, falanghina, biancolella and coda di volpe (tail of the fox).
The first Campanian winery of note was Mastroberardino in Avellina, which in the 1970s pioneered the red wines of taurasi and ancient near-defunct white varietals like fiano. Now, as throughout Italy, modern viticulture and technology have allowed a young breed of Campanian winemakers to reveal the distinctiveness of their terroirs, from vineyards near Mount Vesuvius to the island of Capri and the rocky hill towns of the Picentini Mountains.
“What’s important about Campanian wines now,” says restaurateur and wine writer Joseph Bastianich, “is that they are showing the potential of true indigenous Italian varietals that are just beginning to express themselves.” He sells more of them at his mid-range restaurants like Esca and Lupa than the high-end Babbo and Del Posto, all co-owned with Mario Batali.
Currently Campania has three D.O.C.G. appellations, Italy’s top quality guarantee -- fiano di avellino, greco di tufo, and taurasi. Another 18 are D.O.C., or controlled origin, and there are nine I.G.T. wines, similar to the French vins de pays, making quality wines, but with non-traditional grape varieties.
Fiano is said to taste of the piney woods of its region of Irpinia; greco di tufo, imported from ancient Greece, was originally cultivated around Mount Vesuvius, where it later took the name Lacryma Christi (“Tears of Christ”). Taurasi is a big, robust, long-aging red made from aglianico, whose name may have derived from ellenico, meaning Greek.
I bought a good selection of Campanian wines from a new wine shop, San Pietro Wine and Spirits in Tuckahoe, New York. The owners, the Bruno brothers, who run New York’s San Pietro and Caravaggio restaurants, are from Campania and therefore proudly promote the wines of the region.
San Salvatore Paestum Fiano 2009 ($19.99)
Made near the sea around Salerno, this fiano has a characteristic flinty crispness and a little brininess that makes it ideal with Neapolitan seafood like branzino and orata.
Marisa Cuomo Costa d’Amalfi Fiorduva 2008 ($62.99)
The price is astonishing for a white Campanian wine, but Marisa Cuomo is one of the stars of the region, and this blend of falanghina and biancolella, planted 500 meters above the sea, is enormous and very rich. To appreciate fully its character, I’d serve it with the simplest of seafood on the grill.
Marisa Cuomo Furore Blanco 2009 ($22.99)
If the price of the above puts you off, her “white fury” is still a big mouthful, almost a little fizzy upon being opened, and with 13.5 percent alcohol, excellent for a dish of spaghetti with clam sauce. The estate’s red, Fuore Rosso 2009 ($22.99) has the same bountiful release of fruit and a balance of softened tannins. I loved this wine with a grilled porterhouse steak done over a charcoal fire.
Luigi Maffini Kratos 2010 ($21.99)
Another of Campania’s bright young lights, Luigi Maffini modernized his father’s winery of four cultivated hectares, which now produces about 40,000 bottles of reds and whites. His Kratos vineyard produces a very pretty white wine in the sense that it is light and well balanced between fruit and acid, citrus and apple flavors, making it a wonderful wine with linguine with garlic and oil or shellfish in a spicy tomato sauce.
Villa Matilde Falanghina 2010 ($14.99)
Usually this quite simple wine lacks body and texture, but I found Villa Matilde’s -- with a big 14 percent alcohol -- to have the perfume of the Mediterranean in its nose, sun-rich fruit and a clean, acidic finish. The wine is so good on its own, I’d serve it as an aperitif with slices of prosciutto or with a Caprese salad of mozzarella and fresh tomatoes and basil.
Campi Flegrei Piedrosso 2008 ($17.99)
A dominant red varietal in Campania, piedrosso has weight and heft, and Campi Flegrei, near Naples, respects that. Its aromatic aroma lasts and lasts, and fruit and tannin flow easily on the palate. This is an $18 wine I’d gladly pay double for.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)