Think of Campania, and Naples and the sun-blessed coasts of Amalfi and Sorrento as well as the looming volcano of Vesuvius come to mind. What few people probably realise is that Campania also boasts its own ‘Switzerland’.
Head inland northeast of Naples and you come to a hilly, cooler area of the region up in the Apennines. This is Irpinia, the land of the wolf, where you are more likely to encounter snowy winters and autumn rains in its continental climate than the blazing sun you associate with the south of Italy. We visited just on the cusp of the autumn rains and cold winter as we arrived in early December to explore the wines of the region.
A treasure trove of native varieties
Hidden away inland, Irpinia boasts a treasure trove of native varieties and three of Campania’s four DOCGs – Greco di Tufo DOCG, Fiano di Avellino DOCG and Taurasi DOCG – as well as a catch-all Irpinia DOC. You won’t find any Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon here; the region is all about indigenous varieties, 99.99% of grapes are native, so that doesn’t leave much room for others! As well as Greco, Fiano and Aglianico, you’ll also find white varieties Coda di Volpe and Falanghina as well as reds Piedirosso and Sciascinoso. Moreover, this region boasts around half the wineries in Campania. It has a cool climate with normally mild summers and a large diurnal range. Although not strictly speaking a volcanic region, there is important volcanic influence from Vesuvius and its many eruptions, which resulted in black ash being blown inland by the wind. This defines parts of the region – yielding wines with great structure and complexity. The area is also rich in sulphur, with abandoned sulphur mines dotting the landscape. Incidentally, the area north of Naples boasted more than 100 volcanoes!
Our three-day exploration hosted by the Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini d’Irpinia kicked off with a short presentation about Irpinia and its DOCGs followed by a hearty meal with members of the Consorzio, including its president, Stefano di Marzo, at the Trattoria “Valleverde” zi’ Pasqualina on the outskirts of Atripalda, our base for the coming days. We enjoyed local dishes such as savoury cake with ricotta, pumpkin and guanciale, beans with scarola and chickpeas, delicious fusilli avellinesi with the rich tomato sauce that the main course meat was cooked in and a selection of desserts. As the coming days would focus on the three DOCGs, we tasted some of the other wines found in Irpinia DOC, such as Coda di Volpe, Falanghina and Piedirosso as well as Irpinia Aglianico, generally a lighter, fresher version of the variety than the bigger, bolder Taurasi.
Cave winery in Tufo
The following morning, we set off to discover the Greco di Tufo DOCG. On the edge of the town of Tufo, we meet up with Simone from the Cantine di Marzo and head up to the steep vineyards above the town. Between showers of rain and rainbows in every direction, we learn about the various cru that the winery produces, and the ancient trellising system used in the vineyards further down the hill, which we can’t reach that day due to the sticky, heavy, wet clay underfoot. These old vines are trained high, so that other crops can be grown underneath. The clay soil is good for retaining water, while the ancient part of the vineyard is sand from the sea that covered the area five million years ago; there are also areas of limestone with fossils, tuff, volcanic pumice and black ash, which is why they choose to vinify some of their crus separately.
Once the rain sets in again, we head down to visit the Cantine di Marzo, the oldest winery in the region, carved into the tuff of the hillside below the village, where Ferrante di Somma, the current owner, regales us in his impeccable English with tales of history, sulphur mining and wines, while leading us through the quirky ‘cave’ winery. “Sorry about the puddles,” he says, “that’s the inconvenience of working in a cave.” We then head up the hill for a mammoth tasting of Greco di Tufo back to 2018, including a tank sample from 2021, before enjoying a delicious buffet lunch of various local dishes.
So what should you know about Greco?
Well, Greco is one the most ancient varieties in southern Italy, boasting high acidity and phenolic grip, earning it the name of a “red dressed up as a white”. It’s generally deeper in colour than most Italian whites, has a full, opulent, oily body and notes of yellow peach, candied fruit, ginger, tropical fruit and spice, as well as occasional sulphurous mineral notes.
And Greco di Tufo?
There are about 635 hectares under vine with around 3.5 million bottles produced each year, with the most densely planted area on the steep slopes around Tufo, which gives the denomination its name and is one of its ‘grand cru’. To qualify as Greco di Tufo DOCG, the wine must be at least 85% Greco, with Coda di Volpe Bianco making up the rest, although most wines are 100%. The tuff and sulphur-rich volcanic and clay soils result in refreshing, perfumed wines with mineral complexity and aromas of pear, tropical fruit and toasted almond. While mineral and zesty when young, we also confirmed the truth that it is best around 3 years old in our tasting, as the 2018s were still showing extremely well and clearly had the structure and concentration to age for another few years too.
Bracing winds in Avellino
After lunch, we set off for the town of Lapio, considered to be one of Fiano di Avellino DOCG’s grand crus, and visit several of the town’s most important vineyards, lying at around 530 metres above sea level and discover for ourselves how the winds, rather strong on this day, help to keep them cool, ventilated and free of disease – after a while, we take shelter in our vehicle and move to a less exposed spot. This is the most planted area of the DOCG with herbs and olives as well as vines. The soils are predominantly clay and limestone, which lend the wines their distinctive minerality, as well volcanic ash blown from Vesuvius. Lapio itself is included in two DOCGs, Fiano di Avellino and Taurasi, which overlap, so Aglianico is planted here too. Most producers own vines in varying areas planted with different varieties under different conditions. Ian d’Agata considers this DOCG one of Italy’s finest white wine designations, along with Greco di Tufo, of course! However, its area is significantly bigger than that of its more phenolic counterpart, as the DOCG includes 26 communes. We then discover the different styles of the variety produced in the DOCG in the majestic surroundings of the Palazzo Filangieri in the town of Lapio, followed by a finger food reception with some of the local producers.
So what should you know about Fiano?
Fiano is a versatile variety that reflects its terroir and responds well to winemaking. It is more restrained than Greco and feels right at home on volcanic soils, yielding wines with delicate fruit aromas and lovely pure minerality. There are marked differences in its wines depending on where it is grown, so the Consorzio is considering zonification. Although it was nearly extinct by the latter half of the 20th century, only planted sporadically around Avellino, the variety is now experiencing a renaissance and Fiano wines can be found on menus all around the world.
And Fiano di Avellino DOCG?
There are about 420 hectares under vine with around 2 million bottles produced each year. The most planted area is in the northeast around the town of Lapio, considered its best cru. To qualify as Fiano di Avellino DOCG, the wine must be at least 85% Fiano, with Greco, Coda di Volpe Bianca and Trebbiano Toscano making up the rest, though most are 100%. It may also use the name Apianum on the label to show its connection to the historical Roman wine. The soils are mainly clay, limestone and volcanic, giving the wine its distinctive mineral traits. Besides the basic version, a Riserva requiring minimum 12 months ageing may also be produced since 2019. The wines are fine, elegant, refreshing and savoury with relatively high acidity. They boast notes of mint, musk, quince, kerosene and toast, as well as orange blossom and white flowers, which helps to differentiate Fiano from Greco and Falanghina. With age, the wines take on notes of honey, chestnut and hazelnut – also grown in the area.
Barolo of the south or Taurasi of the north?
Finally, we come to Taurasi, sometimes referred to as Barolo of the south, although of course the Taurasi producers say that Barolo should be called the Taurasi of the north! We did not specifically visit Taurasi vineyards due to our very short visit but spent a morning tasting through a decade of Taurasi wines in the company of Massimo Di Renzo, winemaker at Mastroberardino, and prominent Campanian journalist Luciano Pignataro. And this tasting certainly showed these southern behemoths’ ability to age! Indeed, one of the panel members said he had tasted as far back as 1934 a few years ago and the wines were in perfect condition!! We didn’t get to taste wines that old, but the wine we tried from from 2008, a perfect year with good temperatures and rain at the right time, was certainly showing well. Muscular and powerful with lovely freshness and well-integrated oak, displaying notes of dried and fresh crunchy fruit as well as great complexity from smoke, spice and balsamic tones. Finished very long, of course.
Phylloxera arrived very late in the south of Italy, so in the 1920s there was big production here in Irpinia, with the powerful Aglianico wines produced here (and in Vulture in Basilicata) being shipped north to beef up more ‘insipid’ northern Italian wines, and even those of Bordeaux. Much of this wine was dispatched from the Taurasi station, which is how the DOC, and later DOCG got its name. It received the DOC in 1970, along with Fiano di Avellino and was then promoted to DOCG in 1993, becoming the first in south and central Italy to receive this honour.
Mountain viticulture in the south
Although we are in the far south, Taurasi is a cool climate wine, as temperatures inland in Irpinia are 2-3°C lower than on the coast, with thermal currents creating a large diurnal range. For example, in 2021, we were told, even on the hottest days of 40-41°C, the temperature dropped to 20-22°C at night! This is mountain viticulture with vines planted from 300 m to 650 m above sea level.
Paradoxically, this is one region in Italy that is benefitting from climate change, with the grapes ripening more easily and earlier and resulting in better tannin maturity – important in a variety like Aglianico with its prominent tannins! One of the things that makes Aglianico difficult to cultivate is the fact that it is late ripening, so it was a big risk for the farmers here to leave the grapes on the vine for an extra month. It is, surprisingly, one of the last regions in Italy to harvest, often as late as the end of November! Although this is, of course, changing.
What should you know about Aglianico?
Aglianico produces deeply coloured, complex wines with intense sour cherry, spice, black pepper and vanilla and floral hints. It also boasts leather, resin, eucalyptus and smoky red and black fruit. Most important to note are its high tannins and high acidity, which is why it is frequently compared with Nebbiolo, and these give it long ageing potential. It takes well to oak ageing, with some producers using French oak barrique and some large Slavonian casks, although in the past, the local chestnut was typical. Aglianico performs well on volcanic soils.
And Taurasi DOCG?
There are around 475 hectares under vine with around 850,000 bottles produced each year.. There are 17 towns in the DOCG. The area is large and diverse with differing soils – limestone, sandstone, clay and volcanic deposits – and altitudes, with the best sites at higher altitudes. Hence interest in creating zones within Taurasi. Increasing numbers of producers are becoming organic, around 20% to date, but conditions make this challenging. To qualify as Taurasi DOCG, the wine must be at least 85% Aglianico, with Piedirosso usually making up the rest, although Barbera and Sangiovese are also permitted. Taurasi must age for 36 months (12 in wood), while Taurasi Riserva requires 48 months (18 in wood). Taurasi wines are always firm savoury wines with great depth of flavour and structure, ensuring they can age wonderfully. They may also boast a floral note along with the smoky red and black fruit and flinty minerality. When young, they are tough, tannic and acidic, but with time, they develop lovely notes of spice, leather and smoke as well as their dominant sour cherry.
And on to Vesuvius and Salerno
And our odyssey did not finish here. We also briefly travelled to sunnier climes in Naples to taste some wines from Vesuvio and to Salerno to discover the wines to the south of Naples. But that will be two more tales!