Campania’s Golden Triangle
I’ve been celebrating the wines of Campania quite a bit lately, and I’m not yet tiring of doing so. Every time I think I’ve said all I have to say on the subject, a new wine or a new slant appears, and off I go. That’s what stirred up this post. A conversation with a puzzled wine lover, confused by the many wine and place names of Campania, prodded me to conceptualize a simpler way to understand some key wine geography. Ergo: Campania’s Golden Triangle, the points of which are Avellino (to the south), Taurasi (to the northeast), and Tufo (to the northwest) – each of which towns is the epicenter for one of Campania’s three greatest wines, Fiano di Avellino, Taurasi, and Greco di Tufo.
Taurasi, top right; Tufo, high middle left; Avellino, lower left
.Let me start, at the risk of boring everyone who knows this already, with some basic geopolitical information. Campania is the region – that’s Italy’s largest geopolitical designation, the equivalent of the regions of Piedmont or the Veneto or Tuscany, for instance – and Naples is its capital. Campania fronts on the Mediterranean, which is the only part of it most tourists know, and backs on the Apennine mountains, with borders on Lazio in the north, Basilicata and Calabria in the south, and Molise and Puglia in the east. A very short way back from its seacoast, Campania rises – often quite high – into beautiful and in some places still quite wild hills, where winters feature snow and cold that belie the travel-poster fictions of palm trees and sunshine.
Here, some 30 kilometers east of Naples, starts the province – that’s the second largest geopolitical designation – of Avellino, at whose heart lies an ancient zone known as Irpinia. In pre-classical times, this area was the home of the tribe or nation the Romans called Sabines, against whom they warred for years and whose territory they eventually absorbed. Winemaking traditions here date from at least that time, if not earlier, and nowadays Irpinia counts as one of Campania’s premier wine-producing zones – if not the premier zone.
What I’m calling Campania’s Golden Triangle sits in the heart of Irpinia, and it contains some of the most distinctive terroirs in all Italy. These are volcanic soils, old and decayed, and they are laced with alluvial deposits and sea sands, in some places stratified, in others mixed together, so that terroirs can vary tremendously within a short distance. The altitude of the land makes for colder winters than Naples and the coast ever see, but the same hills that create that altitude also make many different exposures for vineyards, which here are cultivated quite high. In some parts of the Taurasi zone, vines grow above 600 meters, and – since Aglianico requires a long growing season – harvests in the snow are not unheard of. Those same altitudes and soils, with their attendant day/night temperature differentials, give the white grapes Greco and Fiano their wonderful aromatics.
Irpinia holds the greatest concentration of top-flight wineries to be found in Campania. They range in size from almost boutique to very large indeed: Some make only one wine, and some make the whole gamut of regional wines. To begin with (in many senses), Irpinia is home to the Mastroberardino firm. The Mastroberardinos are widely and justly regarded not only as the pioneer of quality winemaking in the region – the family was already exporting around the world in the 19th century – but, even more important, as the savior of serious Campanian viticulture. In Italy’s deep economic and psychological depression after World War II, when many winemakers throughout the country had decided that the only way to survive was to plant French varieties, Mastroberardino made the crucial and highly influential decision to trust Campania’s indigenous varieties – a choice for which anyone who relishes difference and distinctiveness in wines reveres the whole family. They fought for the recognition of Irpinia’s now famous three, first as DOC and later as DOCG wines, and they still make some of the best bottles of them all.
They have been joined since those days by many more producers who now make the Golden Triangle the most lively locale in the Campania wine universe. Notable among the more large firms are Terredora, owned by a split-off branch of the Mastroberardinos, and Feudi di San Gregorio, an ambitious and steadily improving – from a very good base level – maker of all of the Campanian specialties. But the greatest growth and, for the wine aficionado, the greatest opportunity for discovery come from smaller producers, who have multiplied in the past 20 years.
I want to call special attention here to three that I happened upon only recently, though all three are already well known and highly regarded in Irpinia. Each stands as a fair representative of the exciting wines to be found in their appellations: Rocca del Principe for Fiano di Avellino, Benito Ferrara for Greco di Tufo, and Guastaferro for Taurasi.
Rocca del Principe, owned and worked by Aurelia Fabrizio and her husband Ercole Zarella, comprises about five hectares divided among three separate hillside vineyards in the township of Lapio, about 15 kilometers northeast of Avellino. All are over 500 meters high, some parts almost 600. The land was worked by two generations of their family and the grapes were sold off before Aurelia and Ercole in 2004 began vinifying on their own. They are clearly quick learners: Their Fiano di Avellino has already been awarded Tre Bicchieri four times. I tasted with them barrel samples of the separate vineyards, which are only blended at the final assemblage of the wine. Each was strikingly distinctive, with its own gout de terroir – so much so that I thought any of them could have been bottled as a first-rate cru. Clearly, Rocca del Principe’s vineyards yield fine basic material. The eight-year vertical to which I was next treated emphatically verified that.
2013: Lovely, intense Fiano nose: volcanic soil, apples, and almonds. The same elements on the palate, with an ever-so-slightly buttery finish. Excellent.
2012: A warmer vintage, consequently richer and riper on the nose, with hints of peach. Again, the palate shows exactly the same elements, with a long, lovely peach-and-mineral finish.
2011: A big, pungent, lees-y nose. On the palate, round and soft, yet still acidic, with excellent fruit, and a long, sapid finish. This wine is maturing beautifully.
2010: All superlatives here: a step more mature than the ’11, the nose and palate pervaded by dried peaches. Very fine.
2009: Aroma similar to 2011, plus dried peaches and orange skins. The palate follows suit. A superb wine, intense and elegant, round and acid, and very long-finishing. The stylistic consistency from year to year, despite harvest differences, is totally impressive.
2008: On the nose and the palate, the dried peach elements are now going mushroomy – another stage of the wine’s maturation. The mineral elements are beginning to deepen, and the finish has a taste of forest underbrush. Intriguing and lovely.
2007: This wine tastes less advanced, still peachy on the nose and fruity and acid on the palate. This was a hot vintage, with lots of fruit and glycerin. Could live years yet.
2006: Deep, earthy, dried peach and orange peel aroma. In the mouth, round, slightly smoky, slightly sweet, a little less complex than the preceding wines – perhaps beginning to be a bit tired. This post is already running longer than I had planned, so I’ll break it here and in a future post talk about my similarly exciting tastings of Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo and Guastaferro Taurasi.
Tom’s Wine Line