Campanian Grapes: A Brief Guide

Aglianico_prior_to_Veraison-300x238Today, John Camacho Vidal showcased a pair of Campanian wines for his expert selections. We thought we’d look a little more deeply into this southern Italy region, and pick out a few of our favorite grapes.

Italy’s a confusing place–especially for wine. A few thousand years of winemaking history, a couple thousand of grape varieties, twenty regions and lots of designations, as well as IGT, or wines that fall outside easy designations. Today, we take a quick look at some of the grape varieties that hail from Italy’s South, especially Campania. Rustic, wild, intense and vibrant, the grapes that comprise Campania’s traditional wines can  turn elegant, finessed and especially age-worthy, particularly in the hands of super-skilled producers like Galardi, Mastroberardino, Imperato, and De Conciliis. Aglianico, a bold, spicy grape known for making the “Barolo of the South,” has grown popular in the last few years, and for good reason. It’s delicious. It’s only time until other Campania grapes begin to get the international love that Aglianico has garnered–and recent superstars like Raffaele Palma show that this region is prime for serious attention.

Aglianico (ah-LYAH-nee-kah, ah-LYAH-nee-koh)

This black grape makes a wine that’s often called the “Barolo of the South” due to its amazing range of expressions, unmistakable class and age-worthiness. While for a long time ampelographers thought this grape was Greek in origin, recent genetic research suggests that it’s indigenous to Italy. Grown primarily in Campania and Basilicata, Aglianico also is cultivated in Molise and Puglia, though to a far lesser degree. The grape’s best-known vinification is in Taurasi, the grape’s only DOCG designation, and in Aglianico del Vulture, its only DOC; however, it makes its most poetic appearance as a component of Lacryma Christi, or “Christ’s tears,” a wine of great mythical status originating from the gulf of Naples. Aglianico appears in a wide variety of wines throughout Campania, including rosés, whites, sparkling and, in the passito style, desert wines. Aglianico is usually ruby to brick red, full-bodied, and characterized by sometimes imposing tannins. It has a palate of black cherry, plums, berries and a hint of violet, chocolate or black pepper. Aglianico wines can be drunk in their youth, but due to their often formidable acidity, these wines do best when vinified for ageability. Here’s a video on how to say “Aglianico,” featuring Bruno de Conciliis.

Piedirosso (pyeh-dee-ROHS-so)

Named for the color it turns when ripe in the fall, Piedirosso, or “red feet,” grows almost exclusively in Campania, especially on the foothills of Mt. Vesuvius. Primarily used in blends to make Lacryma Christi, Taurasi and Rosato, Piedirosso has historically been added to fellow indigenous grape Aglianico because where the latter is highly acidic, Piedirosso is soft and lighter-bodied. The refreshing Piedirosso has an herbaceous nose and notes and a ruby color.

Falanghina (fah-lahn-GEE-nah)

This ancient grape is undoubtedly indigenous to Campania and quite possibly is the formative grape in the great wine of Roman antiquity, Falernium. Falanghina was poised on the brink of extinction by the mid-twentieth century because of the one-two punch of the phylloxera epidemic of the early twentieth century followed by the decimation of vineyards during W.W. II. Falanghina has, however, been nursed back to health and is now experiencing a renaissance of sorts. While producers had long considered this varietal as just a component grape in a faceless corps of grapes to concoct yet another anonymous white, today’s winemakers are vinifying Falanghina on its own to produce a straw-colored wine with bouncy acidity, a palate of citrus fruits underlain by a vanilla note, all complemented by a clean finish. Ten DOC(G) appellations require Falanghina, all are in Campania, and a couple also appear in passito versions.

Fiano (fee-AH-noh)

The piquantly flavored Fiano has been cultivated in Campania for over two thousand years. There are two clones of Fiano in Campania; the more famous clone is called Fiano di Avellino, or “Fiano of the bees,” due to the way that ripening grapes draw clusters of the insects; Fiano di Avellino is the main component in its eponymous DOCG appellation. Fiano is an unusually sapid varietal that makes a wine with an interesting waxy quality, a nuanced aroma, and a palate often full unto bursting with wildflowers, honey and smoky hazelnuts. As happened to other indigenous grapes, Fiano was nearly extinct in the early twentieth century, but it has recovered due to the diligence of famed winemaker Dr. Antonio Mastroberadino.

Greco (GRAE-co)

To make a long story short, ampelographers agree the name “Greco” essentially designates two clones: Greco Bianco cultivated in Calabria and Greco B or Greco di Tufo cultivated in Campania. To explain at length, Greco is another one of those deeply problematic names. In 8th century B.C. Greeks sailed across the Ionic and the Adriatic Seas to find new and potentially more fruitful homes along the east coast of Italy, and when they emigrated, they took grape vine clippings and seeds to plant. Over time, these disparate Greek grapes became known under the umbrella sobriquet “Greco,” a term that was also applied in antiquity to any great wine, much to the great disgruntlement of current-day ampelographers. To further complicate the Greco issue, as these vines mutated and adapted to their new climates, the name Greco became yet muddier. For example, while Umbria’s Grechetto and the Veneto’s Garganega appear to be descended from the Greco, they are not synonymous with Greco, and while the varietal Albana has been called Greco, it shows no relationship at all to Greco. The only two varietals that can rightly be called Greco are the Greco Bianco and the Greco B.

Greco Bianco (GRAE-co BYAHN-koh)

One of the two main Greco clones, Greco Bianco is cultivated almost exclusively in Calabria, where it is a component of all of the region’s dry white wines, notably Cirò Bianco and Lamezi Greco. Greco Bianco is the basis for the confusingly, nearly identically named Greco di Bianco, a sweet wine made by drying the grapes before pressing. The varietal Greco Bianco when vinified into a dry wine is pale gold and carries note of figs and roasted almonds. As a sweet wine, it’s an unabashed golden color with a bouquet of oranges, figs and honeysuckle.

Greco di Tufo (GRAE-co dee TOO-foh) or Greco B (GRAE-co bee)

Greco di Tufo, which also goes by the prosaic name Greco B, is one of two main Greco clones; it is cultivated in Campania. Having taken root in the volcanic slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, Greco di Tufo has shown its affinity for higher altitudes, preferring sites around 400-700 meters above sea level. Unlike most other whites from the region, Greco di Tufo has a decidedly fruity profile, which it shows to advantage in its confusingly and eponomously named DOC wine, Greco di Tufo.

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