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Giovanni Piccirillo Brings a Fresh Approach to Winemaking in Alto Casertano

Alta Campania or more specifically the Alto Casertano is an up-and-coming and buzzing wine area in Campania, even though it is a district with a long winemaking tradition. Viticulture and winemaking in the area date at least to the Etruscan period, then it flourished during the Roman era, and Pallagrello wine would become the favorite of the Bourbon royal family in the 18th and 19th centuries. The wine region is in the province of Caserta and is home to native grapes such as Pallagrello Bianco, Pallagrello Nero, and Casavecchia. For the Italian Food, Wine, and Travel group this month, it seemed perfect to talk about Giovanni Piccirillo and his winemaking at Masseria Piccirillo in Caiazzo in Alto Casertano.

March with the #ItalianFWT

On Saturday, 4 March the Italian Food, Wine, and Travel group are focusing on the regions Campania, Basilicata, and Molise. I will look closer at Giovanni Piccirillo and Masseria Piccirillo where they make wine with the native grapes Pallagrello Bianco, Pallagrello Nero, and Casavecchia.

Source: www.xtrawine.com

Pallagrello, the Favorite Wine of a Bourbon King

Pallagrello Bianco and Pallagrello Nero have a bit of an obscure history, and it is difficult to pin it down to a certain period. Some say it dates to the Roman era while others see the grapes as “descendants of the Pallarelle varieties” of the 18th and 19th centuries. (See Ian D’Agatha, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, pp. 122-123.) In an article by Fabio Giavedoni in Slow Food, he traces a connection to the Greek Vitis alopecis mentioned by Pliny as Pallagrello Nero was often called Coda di Volpe Nero due to its shape. However, he does not give any clear source for this.

It is generally known though that Pallagrello Bianco and Pallagrello Nero had their heyday as grapes during the 18th and 19th centuries when the Bourbon family was fascinated by the grapes. In the second half of the 18th century (probably), King Ferdinand IV of the Kingdom of Naples (he was King Ferdinand IV of Naples and Ferdinand III of the Kingdom of Sicily from 1759-1816, thereafter, he was Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies) took the initiative to plant the experimental Vigna del Ventaglio (the fan-shaped vineyard) vineyard and also the San Silvestro vineyard plot southeast of the Reggia di Caserta, on the hills of San Leucio. A part of the San Silvestro vineyard has recently been included in a project by the Reggia di Caserta to recuperate it. Fontana winery located in the Sannio area was selected to take care of restoring the San Silvestro vineyard, and it had its first harvest in 2021.

Source: Antonella Amodio via www.lucianopignataro.it

Returning to talk about Vigna del Ventaglio, it was shaped as a semicircle divided into 10 rays, just like a fan, where they cultivated different grape varieties, mainly local. A stone with a plaque was placed in each row (ray) to indicate the grape grown there. Two of these were Pallagrello Bianco and Pallagrello Nero, which in that period were called Piedimonte Bianco and Piedimonte Rosso. The grape was originally grown in the area around Piedimonte Matese north of Caserta, thereof the ancient name.

After Unification in 1860, and towards the end of the 19th century, Pallagrello Bianco and Pallagrello Nero went into oblivion. Partly due to the phylloxera and perhaps partly due to the fact that the kingdom ceased to exist with the election of the first parliament in 1861. It was only in the mid-1990s that Pallagrello Bianco, Pallagrello Nero, and Casavecchia started to be recuperated.

Giovanni Piccirillo, a Dynamic Vintner in Caiazzo north of Caserta

Already as a teenager, Giovanni was passionate about studying viticulture and winemaking and further on he would study it at university guided by Professor Luigi Moio. In 2014, he started his graduation thesis on how to make sparkling wine with Pallagrello Bianco and he finished in 2015. After university, he continued to do a 2-year Master’s program in Bordeaux and it was while he was in France that he got even more interested in learning how to make sparkling wine with the Champenoise method. After Bordeaux, Giovanni decided to move to Epernay in 2016 where he wanted to work at a local Champagne winery to get an up-close experience.

Giovanni says that he talked to one of his professors in Bordeaux about his interest in working at a Champagne-making Maison to learn more. He confessed to her that his dream was to work and train at Moët & Chandon at which she told him something like “if you want to learn how to push a button in the winery you can go to Moët & Chandon, but if you want to learn how to make Champagne you need to go to a smaller vigneron.” So that is what he did, he went to work at Laurent Bénard in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.

Let’s go back to look at Giovanni’s work with the Pallagrello grape. During his graduate studies with Professor Moio, they started to look more in-depth at the possibilities to make sparkling wine with Pallagrello Bianco. Moio asked Giovanni if they had any pergola-trained vines at the family winery, and Giovanni knew that his father had a vineyard plot suitable to turn into a pergola system where the chickens at their farm, however, usually went to pick on the grapes. They raised the vines to a pergola-trained system and fenced in the chickens.

Why the need for a pergola-trained vineyard plot?

Giovanni says that thanks to the pergola the grapes are protected by the foliage against the sun and stay mainly in the shadow. This increases acidity.

After 2014, he continued to step by step try to make traditional sparkling wine with Pallagrello Bianco at home in Caiazzo even if he was working in France. After his experience in France, at wineries both in Epernay and Bordeaux, he also went to manage a winery cellar in Canada (he had a Canadian girlfriend at the time) but after a while, he says “I was dreaming about the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Rome…” and he wanted to go back home.

In 2019, he returned to Campania and started to oversee the work in the vineyard and the cellar together with his father Carmine Piccirillo at their family winery. The idea was to raise the quality level. The family farm in Caiazzo comprises about 3 ha of vineyard and is both a winery and agritourism, the latter managed by his mother and sister. They grow Pallagrello Bianco, Pallagrello Nero, Falanghina, and Casavecchia. He also works as a consultant enologist together with Alessandro Fiorillo, for example at Alois winery.

The First Joy of a Sparkling Pallagrello Bianco

First Joy because Masseria Piccirillo’s sparkling Champenoise wine is precisely called Prima Gioia. The joy of being the first to produce a Champenoise method Pallagrello Bianco wine is indeed something to celebrate. The first vintage of Prima Gioia Brut Metodo Classico was 2014.

Photo by Masseria Piccirillo.

When I visited Giovanni last year, we got to taste Prima Gioia Brut Metodo Classico 2017 with 36 months on the lees and disgorgement in January 2022, followed by a 2017 that had not been disgorged yet after 5 years.

Both Prima Gioia 2017 disgorged and the not disgorged one had an elegant and persistent perlage, notes of yeast, bread crumbs, gunpowder, and white flowers and fruit. The disgorged 2017 had a creamier texture and notes of candied fruit while the not disgorged 2017 had a more distinct freshness, notes of apple, and more vivacity. Both had a hint of almond which is so typical for Pallagrello Bianco, especially as an aftertaste in the white wine version.

I really enjoyed both the disgorged and the not disgorged 2017 and it was indeed a fantastic experience to be able to taste a Champenoise method Pallagrello Bianco wine.

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Katarina Andersson

Seen often at wine events streaming live, Katarina is a wine writer, wine educator, social media strategist, and translator. She is the founder of WinesOfItaly LiveStream. She has been a guest at The Cellar, hosted by Richard Glover, at Wine Two Five, a podcast hosted by Stephanie Davis and Valerie Caruso, and at the Twitter chat #WiningHourChat founded by Li Valentine.

4 thoughts on “Giovanni Piccirillo Brings a Fresh Approach to Winemaking in Alto Casertano”

  1. I love learning about these more obscure varieties and find it interesting that so many winemakers are leaning into sparkling wines with them.
    Can you explain the disgorged vs. non-disgorged? Would the non-disgorged still be on its lees? Is that correct? You mention that it appeared “fresher.” I’m fascinated. Can you explain?

    Reply
    • Thank you, Robin, it is great that you liked the article. Yes, a non-disgorged metodo classico is on the lees. Probably there was a bit more vivacity and grip in the non-disgorged, it might that the disgorged one (January 2022) had lost a bit of its vigour.

      Reply

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