Campania is a region that is rich not only in history, culture, food, and a mecca for tourists, it also has a viticultural heritage like no other. There are many different wine areas in Campania that stand out each in their own way. Just think about areas such as Caserta, Sannio in the Benevento area, Vesuvius, Campi Flegrei, Irpinia, the Amalfi Coast, and Cilento. These are important wine areas in Campania, not only top travel destinations. How do the grapes express themselves differently in the wines in these areas? In this article, I will shine the light on some of these areas and the wineries I got to know there thanks to Campania Stories.
Campania Stories is a yearly wine event that highlights the wines of Campania and serves as a sort of preview of the currently released vintages. The event generally lasts 3-4 days where tastings are combined with visits to wineries. Last year, in September, they managed to organize it during the slightly calmer summer in the midst of the pandemic.
3 Wine Areas, 3 Winemakers in Campania
Last year, in September, the first stop at Campania Stories was at the Tempa di Zoè winery in the Cilento area. More precisely, it is located close to Agropoli and not far from Paestum. Francesco Domini came to pick up me and Rowena Dumlao Giardina at the train station in Salerno and during the drive down to Agropoli, he told us a lot about their winery and its history.
The project started as a joint venture between Bruno de Concilis, Vincenzo d’Orta, Francesco Domini, and Feudi di San Gregorio when they decided to invest in a small winery project in Cilento. They found a winery that was under construction and where the owner wanted to produce wine as a sidekick to his ordinary job. The previous owner soon realized that it was too big a commitment though, Francesco said. Thus, the four friends took over and founded Tempa di Zoè. Today, the people behind Tempa di Zoè are Francesco Domini and Bruno de Conciliis as the other partners are no longer in the picture since early 2020.
Tempa di Zoè has about 2 hectares of vineyard plots where they cultivate Fiano and Aglianico. The vineyards surrounding the winery are beautifully situated with the rolling hills and mountain slopes in the background and the sea in front of you. The climate also changes vastly from the cooler temperatures on Mount Gelbison and Cervati to the heat by the seaside. The blue shades of the sea and the sky melt together in harmony with the green colors of the vegetation and the vineyards. This is an area of Campania where there are no active volcanoes or much of a volcanic influence in the soil.
Bruno de Conciliis says that the previous owners were quite attentive to not use a lot of chemical treatments, therefore it was easy for him and his partners to head in the direction of organic and biodynamic farming methods. He continues to stress that they are not biodynamic out of any “religious conviction” but rather because of more practical reasons.
The Cilento area is perhaps not as well known as other wine areas in Campania, but it is an area with extraordinary Mediterranean flora and biodiversity. The National Park of Cilento is a World Heritage Site acknowledged by UNESCO.
They produce the wines Asterias Campania Fiano IGT, Zero Rosso Paestum IGT (the first wine they produced from 2015, at the Feudi di San Gregorio winery), Diciotto Rosso Paestum IGT, and a more recently added rosé wine that I hope to taste very soon. The first Fiano Asterìas 2019 we tasted is a very interesting blend of grapes from four different vineyard plots and shows that you can produce different and great Fiano wines also in the warmer Cilento climate. The Asterìas 2019 is a fresh and mineral wine with notes of citrus fruits, apple, a shrub herby touch, and it feels like a breeze of salty sea wind has blown into the glass. It also has some smoky notes as a result of the fermentation in oak.
We then tasted a second Fiano 2019 wine with grapes from only one vineyard plot that in September 2020 did not have a specific name yet. This Fiano had a lovely mix of fruity, less apple though, and floral notes, mainly white flowers. Then, you could also feel the touch of macchia Mediterranea, i.e. all the typical Mediterranean flora of the area combined. Just as Asterìas 2019, it also had a sort of biting or gripping feeling, almost something spicy. Bruno de Conciliis claims that it comes from the grapes.
Generally, I am not much for white wines fermented or aged in oak but as you may have noticed I really enjoyed these two Fiano wines. I also enjoyed their Aglianico wines a lot for their beautiful fruit-forwardness, good acidity, and a splash of saltiness from the sea.
From Handcrafted Gloves to Artisanal Wines
The Phlegraean Fields – I Campi Flegrei – is one of the most fascinating areas that I have visited so far in Italy, for its history as well as for its viticultural tradition. Let us not talk about viticulture and winemaking yet, but rather go back one step and talk about the fact that Campi Flegrei is a volcanic area, i.e. a collapsed caldera, containing many small eruptive centers that have been active in different periods during the last 39.000 years. The Flegreo volcanic area includes not only Campi Flegrei but also a part of Naples, the Gulf of Naples as well as the islands Procida and Ischia.
Now, I am not going to go more in-depth about the history of the volcanic activity in Campi Flegrei, other than saying that it is still an active volcano. During the last decade, researchers have indeed been more and more worried that a larger eruption might occur in the near future. Due to the collapsed caldera Campi Flegrei, and especially the small town of Pozzuoli, have for long had problems with gradual uplift (positive bradyseism), leading in the 1980s to the need to evacuate 30.000 inhabitants following an earthquake.
When I visited the vineyards of Mario Portolano winery together with Mara, the daughter in the family who dedicates her time to the winery, she parked behind a house in a very crowded residential neighborhood so typical for that area close to Naples. We then walked up a small hill arriving to stand in the middle of Mara’s vineyards. I got a look at the about 4 hectares of Aglianico and Piedirosso vines where most of the vines are ungrafted and the roots are spreading down directly into the volcanic soil. Mara says that the volcanic soil consists of lapilli (volcanic fragments), ashes, and yellow tuff. Some years ago, they also created an Artesian aquifer with groundwater where the temperature of the water is approximately 90 °C. Amazing, right? It is not water suitable for irrigation as it is brackish.
I must say that it felt like a mix of surreal, captivating, and humbling to stand on the volcanic soil in Mara Portolano’s vineyard with ungrafted vines while looking out over the bay and seeing Vesuvius. It was like walking on a piece of history, at the same time as being part of nature and its elements that are so very much alive still today. I did a live video, and it could not have been more meta-history than that…history and nature alive within a live stream.
They produce one Falanghina white wine made with grapes from another vineyard plot in the Campi Flegrei that I also visited with Mara. The first vintage was, in fact, the 2019 i.e. the same year that we visited as part of Campania Stories. Then they make three red wines, namely one monovarietal Piedirosso, one monovarietal Aglianico, and one blend of the two grapes. I liked all their wines, but I was really intrigued by the particularity of the Piedirosso wine for its freshness, mix of fruity and floral notes, tannins, and, of course, the volcanic touch.
Piedirosso is another very ancient grape that has also been mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his “Naturalis Historia”. Piedirosso was usually only used in blends with Aglianico in the past to soften the latter one, but more recently several wineries have started to make monovarietal Piedirosso wines. It is, in general, a grape with lower acidity and smoother tannins compared to Aglianico, writes Ian D’Agatha. (See further Ian D’Agatha, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, pp. 398-399.)
I love my Piedirosso because it is an authentic expression of the territory; mineral, fresh, and 100% Piedirosso. It is a very versatile wine that is easy to be paired with food if you prefer that. I would never stop drinking it.
However, Mara continues to point out that Piedirosso is a very difficult grape to master, but she stresses that it’s what the terroir offers her and she wants to make the best possible Piedirosso out there.
A Family Winery in the Benevento area
After a day of tasting the new vintages at Campania Stories in 2020, the almost two-hour-long drive from Paestum to Benevento felt long and overwhelming. However, when we arrived at the Rocca dei Rettori castle in the center of Benevento, I felt energized and ready to learn more about the producers from the Benevento area.
I had a long and very nice talk with a small family winery, Fattoria Ciabrelli, where father and son, Antonio and Raffaele, were presenting their wines. The farm is located in the Castelvenere district close to Benevento where Antonio has run the show since 1976 when he took over the management of the family farm. When he got control of the winery he decided to start bottling wine rather than selling it in bulk or, I guess, selling the grapes which are in line with the general trend in those years.
Viticulture and winemaking is something that is part of the local soul in the Sannio area (as in most of Campania and Italy), which is today more or less the same district as the province of Benevento. Historically, Sannio was the area of the Samnites, a people that from the VII century up until a couple of hundred years AD inhabited an area that included present-day Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, and Campania. As it says on the homepage of the Sannio DOP, the vine is in an indisputable manner part of the cultural identity and heritage of the Sannio Beneventano area. On the rolling hills of Sannio, viticulture is what stands out with the many vineyards dominating the landscape. (This is an area I still need to visit more.)
When it comes to Fattoria Ciabrelli, I was fascinated to learn more about the Barbera grape that I did not know much about, while tasting their monovarietal Barbera DOC – Repha’el – at the tasting in the inner courtyard of the Rocca dei Rettori castle. It is a particular wine that I enjoyed a lot with its mix of fruity and floral (for example, geranium) notes, its freshness, and a certain structure.
Barbera is not the Barbera of Piemonte but rather a local variety to the Benevento area in Campania that for some reason got the name Barbera del Sannio in the past. Recent studies have shown that Barbera del Sannio, in reality, is the same as the native grape Camaiola and that there at some point was a mix-up because the traces of Camaiola had gone lost. Barbera, i.e. Camaiola is, furthermore, related to the grapes Casavecchia, Catalanesca, and Summariello. Soon, it will also be registered in the Italian National Registry for Grape Varieties. (See also See Ian D’Agatha, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, pp. 488-489.)
I liked all the wines that Fattoria Ciabrelli sent me also to taste at home. I wanted to mention their Coda di Volpe wine here as it was lovely and really worked as a bright light in the pandemic “red zone” period. It has a nice fruitiness and richness, almost a creamy feeling.
Coda di Volpe is an old grape variety that dates at least to the Roman era and it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his “Naturalis Historia” that he called “Cauda Vulpium”, that is “foxtail” because of the shape of the grape bunch. Ian d’Agatha calls it the underdog Italian grape as it has been a bit in the shadow of other white grapes such as Fiano, Greco, and Falanghina. (See Ian D’Agatha, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, pp. 254-255.) It is grown in Irpinia, on Vesuvius (it has indeed often been mistaken for Caprettone), as well as in the Sannio and Taburno areas.
There is so much to say about Campania…
…however, I will take a break because this article is already too long. The three areas of Cilento, Campi Flegrei, and Benevento do indeed represent different faces and terroir of Campania. They all contribute to the expressions of wine in Campania. What are your thoughts?