Irpinia: The Heart of Campania

The region of Irpinia has no political lines to define, but culturally and geologically, it is distinct within Campania. Set off from the Mediterranean in the Apennine foothills, the DOCGs of Taurasi, Greco di Tufo, and Fiano di Avellino offer a treasure trove of indigenous grapes.

The different geological and climatological factors of these regions have long been known by locals, but only now are their effects beginning to be explored in earnest. More than ever, generations-old farming families are making indigenous wines specific to their region. Already, the distinctiveness of certain subregions can be tasted, an exciting development for sommeliers eager to learn about and sell compelling wines.

The Colloquial History

Despite millennia of grape growing, Irpinia receives little recognition compared to other Italian wine regions. The average vineyard here ranges from a paltry two to four hectares and always belonged to farmers—unlike Barolo and Chianti, Irpinia never housed nobles or grand estates. Rather, the powerful Mastroberardino family fueled the local market for grapes, purchasing grapes from small, family growers much like a négociant. To this day, Mastroberardino dominates the market, probably providing your first taste of Fiano or Aglianico.

This system of buying grapes resulted in many fine, long-lived wines. In 1968, Angelo Mastroberardino made three Taurasi riserva bottlings that remain the most famous wines the region has ever produced. The wines were labelled with specific regions within Taurasi: Montemarano, Piano dell’Angelo, and Castelfranci. At that time, the most famous houses in Montalcino and Chianti weren’t yet established, and regions like Barolo had only began labelling single-cru wines a few years earlier, with Vietti’s Barolo Rocche and Cavallotto’s Bricco Boschis. Mastroberardino was on the cusp of modern Italian winemaking. Yet their wines were never again labelled with specific communes. Meanwhile, many wines of the region experienced drastic stylistic change, veering toward darker, more extracted, sometimes oaky wines.

Why Mastroberardino never again labelled Taurasi with subregions remains unknown (despite asking the family directly). The proliferation of this practice in Barolo coincided with the proliferation of producers in the 1960s and 1970s and the need to distinguish products. Taurasi experienced quite the opposite, however, as Mastroberardino dominated the market, never forced to distinguish itself from competitors.

Some call this a monopoly, but the value of Mastroberardino’s protection and championing of native grapes and traditions cannot be denied. The family’s efforts preserved grapes like Fiano from the mercurial tastes of the international wine market; when other areas in Italy replanted countless acres to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, vineyards in Irpinia remained planted to native Aglianico, Greco di Tufo, or Fiano. Without a consistent presence in the international market for nearly a century, these wines may have withered in obscurity.

Yet for growers, decades of selling grapes resulted in steadily deflating prices. Even emerging competition to Mastroberardino in the 1980s didn’t help; grape prices bottomed out in the 1990s.

For many families, the depressed grape market made wine production commercially viable, resulting in a group of winemakers with three generations of farming for one of winemaking—though they quickly point out that their families made wine privately well before the commercial pursuit. Their vast farming experience equips them to explore regional variation and more in their wines.

Understanding the Land

Irpinia’s climate is tempered by its elevation in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains. The continental climate here consistently sees snowy winters and risk of spring frost and fall rains. Far from the warm garden that exists along the coast, Irpinia is pre-Alpine and Italy’s second-largest production zone for hazelnuts (after Cuneo).

Despite proximity to Vesuvius, little volcanic influence exists beyond small deposits in topsoil here and there. Geologically, Irpinia is defined by limestone of marine origin mixed with clay. Certain communes possess high amounts of other minerals, particularly sulfur, which exists in enough quantity that abandoned sulfur mines dot the region. The amount of limestone and the topsoil’s depth and content have the greatest impact on wine quality.

The climate and indigenous grapes allow for naturally late harvests in October and November, a source of pride for growers. Elevation is key to a problem-free late harvest. The higher elevation areas are cooler, with wide diurnal temperature shifts that allow even ripening over a long period. The mountains create rain shadows that protect from rains and frost. Vineyards at high elevation are also far from humid valleys and rivers, and thus safe from botrytis and fungi.

Greco di Tufo

Of Irpinia’s native grapes, Greco di Tufo is the most difficult to pinpoint in terms of typicity. Locals describe the wine as “a red dressed like a white” due to its acidity and phenolic bite. However, different producer styles can lead to two extremes: squeaky-clean and fruity wines driven by high acidity, and wines dominated by oxidative, leesy aromas with bitterness and fuller weight.

Greco di Tufo can be difficult to grow. The fruiting canes often bear twin clusters, and some canes inexplicably produce no fruit at all. The grape clusters are tight and compact, a target for downy mildew in lower-elevation vineyards.

The Regions of Greco di Tufo

The Greco di Tufo DOCG includes eight communes, but locals divide the area into two broad regions, each with distinctive wines. The communes of Tufo and Prata di Principato Ultra produce full-bodied, hard-edged, and mineral wines; the area has an elevation of 300 to 400 meters and soils with high sulfur content. The Sabato River snakes between these communes, increasing humidity and the risk of frost; in April of 2016, frost left yields ruinously low. To the east, the communes of Santa Paolina and Montefusco define the second region. At 500 to 600 meters, they are less affected by the Sabato River. The soils here have more organic content and higher levels of nitrogen. Their wines are rounder and softer, with aromas of sweeter citrus and fleshier fruits.

Greco di Tufo in the Cellar

In the cellar, Greco di Tufo demands certain practices; natural phenols inhibit fermentation, discouraging the use of ambient yeasts. According to Marilena Aufiero of Cantina Bambinuto, Greco is prone to oxidation and favors stainless steel and other anaerobic practices. Key decisions include the extent of cryomaceration, amount of destemming, use of pied de cuvee or manufactured yeasts, and amount of lees stirring. Such decisions determine whether Greco will be an easy quaffer or a more savory, structured white wine.

Yet the purest expression of Greco is perhaps still unknown. Producers in the best areas, like Bambinuto, offer precise and expressive Greco di Tufo, structured yet lithe with balanced sweet and savory flavors. Examples like this one suggest a distinct identity: aromas of ripe citrus, ripe orchard fruits, and citrus blossoms balanced by tomato skin, uncured olive, laurel, pine needle, chalk, and salt, with the intensity and composition varying by area and producer.

Fiano di Avellino

Fiano is a relatively recent success story for Irpinia. Resurrected by the Mastroberardino family in the mid-20th century, it has since become one of Italy’s greatest white wines. Unlike Greco di Tufo, the wine has an immediately recognizable flavor profile of sulfur, peat, and smoke.

The Regions of Fiano di Avellino

The Fiano di Avellino DOCG delimits 26 communes for production, but locals define the three most important areas as Summonte, Montefredane, and Lapio. Summonte, in the shadow of Montevergine, is the highest elevation at about 700 meters. Montevergine, a limestone peak, casts a rain shadow over the area, making it drier than its neighbors. Furthermore, the limestone lends a heightened acidity and chiseled texture to the wines as compared with those from more organic soils. The wines of Summonte are consistently smokier than those from neighboring areas. Common lore draws a connection between volcanic soils and smokiness in the wines, but more likely, the elevation and dry climate help concentrate aromatic compounds in the berries’ skin. A discussion of Summonte is incomplete without mention of local celebrities Guido Marsella and Ciro Picariello; both garner widespread respect from other producers, and their wines command higher prices than most.

Montefredane is at a similarly high elevation of about 600 meters. Wines here have structure much like those from Summonte but are far less smoky. One of the most prominent producers is Villa Diamante.

Lapio is, along with the commune of Montefalcione, allowed to produce both Taurasi and Fiano di Avellino. Vineyards here sit lower, at about 400 meters, and have thick topsoil with greater amounts of clay. The wines of Lapio are some of the least smoky and most fruit-forward of Avellino. The commune is also home to one of the most commercially successful producers, Colli di Lapio, which offers a polished, rich, and precise expression of Fiano di Avellino.

Fiano di Avellino in the Cellar

The producers here were some of the first in Irpinia to independently bottle their own wines. Clelia Romano of Colli di Lapio started in 1994, and both Antoine Gaita of Villa Diamante and Guido Marsella began in 1996. With only two decades of commercial winemaking, it is hard to define a traditional technique; however, most producers allow a short, cold maceration and employ fermentation in stainless steel followed by extended lees ageing. The amount of time on lees and lees stirring determine final style. Typically, lees aging ranges from six months to a year. Producers like Guido Marsella practice very little bâtonnage, while others stir the lees extensively, sometimes at the expense of Fiano’s inherent aromas.

Taurasi

Though Taurasi is widely known as the “Barolo of the South,” local winemakers quickly reverse that saying, citing the long history of Aglianico dating to Grecian times (a dubious claim). Regardless, it is difficult to explain why Barolo and Barbaresco have achieved such international fame while Taurasi remains relatively unknown. Nonetheless, the wines have always been famed for power and age-worthiness.

The inherent flavors and structure easily draw comparison between Nebbiolo and Aglianico; however, the grapes’ differences are even more compelling. Nebbiolo tends toward elegance, red fruits, and flowers, while Aglianico is a shade darker, with hints of black fruit, more dried herbaceousness, and savory, smoky, leathery aromas.

The Regions of Taurasi

Like Nebbiolo, Aglianico demonstrates distinctive characteristics depending on the area of production. While the Taurasi DOCG covers 17 communes, organizations like Campania Stories, a marketing project promoting the region’s wines, recognize four distinct geographic subzones.

The area with the lowest elevation (about 300 meters), the Versante Nord (“north side”), includes Venticano, Pietradefusi, and Torre le Nocelle and sits directly east of Greco di Tufo. Harvest typically happens earliest here, in the beginning of October, and the region is not highly regarded for Taurasi.

The Versante Ovest (“west side”) includes Lapio and Montefalcione, which are also part of Fiano di Avellino DOCG, along with Montemiletto and San Mango sul Calore. This area is east of Fiano di Avellino.

At 350 to 450 meters sits the Valle Centrale (“central valley”), which is comprised of the communes of Taurasi, Mirabella Eclano, Bonito, Fontanarosa, Luogosano, and Sant’Angelo All’Esca. This area harvests a little later than the Versante Nord, in October or early November. Soils are deep clay-limestone with sand or volcanic ash depending on the region.

Taurasi itself is defined by four plateaus surrounded by hills and mountains. The Calore River snakes between the plateaus, which, combined with underground springs, can leave the area with too much moisture. One of the plateaus, Case d’Alto, is also known as Piano dell’Angelo, the subzone labelled by Mastroberardino in 1968. Piero Mastroberardino describes this region as warmer and drier than Montemarano or Castelfranci (the other 1968 subzones labelled). Aglianico ripens earlier here, producing “softer wines, more concentrated and structured.” A handful of producers work exclusively within the Taurasi commune. Most recognizable stateside is Cantine Lonardo, an estate that stopped selling fruit and began commercially bottling wine in 1998.

Also notable in the Valle Centrale is Mirabella Eclano, as it is one of the two communes from which Mastroberardino sources its flagship Radici Taurasi Riserva.

The fourth subzone of Taurasi DOCG, and home to the most renowned communes, is the Versante Sud-Est (“southeastern part”). Castelfranci, Montemarano, and Paternopoli have historically produced the highest quality Taurasi. At the highest elevation, 500 to 650 meters, these communes have the coolest and rainiest climate with the latest harvest, typically in late October and into November. Soils are clay and limestone.

Castelfranci is commonly known as the example of Taurasi with the most effusively aromatic profile. Soils here have considerable silica sand mixed with calcareous clay. One of the most noteworthy producers in the commune is Michele Perillo, who harvests his Aglianico grapes from 90-year-old pergola vines planted on four hectares.

Winemakers in Taurasi say that Paternopoli produces the most elegant Taurasi. Perhaps this is because vineyards here sit slightly lower than those in Montemarano and Castelfranci, though still above neighboring communes. Luigi Tecce makes his wines from his grandfather’s vineyards and, in a rare bit of regional solidarity, is often cited by locals as the greatest producer in the region.

Montemarano has the highest average elevation in Taurasi, making it the coolest region with the latest harvest. Along with Mirabella, this commune is the source of the grapes for Mastroberardino’s Radici Taurasi Riserva. It is also the source of the grapes for Marco Tinessa’s Ognostro, Aglianico from a small, 30-year-old, north-facing vineyard planted with cordon-pruned vines and farmed organically.

Taurasi in the Cellar

Prior to the surge of small, family wineries, producers grew grapes alongside a variety of other crops. Like many places in Italy, this agricultura promiscua prompted growers to train grape vines high above other crops. In the commune of Taurasi, this vine training is called Starseta Taurasini; other communes simply call it pergola. These vines account for most of Taurasi’s old-vine material.

Antonella Lonardo of Cantine Lonardo harvests grapes from some of her neighbor’s Starseta Taurasini vines and is quick to note that the old vines provide more concentrated fruit, even if the vine training system allows for a higher yield. In Paternopoli, Tecce appreciates his father’s old pergola vines for their genetic diversity and capacity to ripen later in the year.

However, issues with the high-yielding vine system exist. Aglianico vines can produce a considerable amount of sugar, acid, and tannin even at high yields, but whether those grapes are achieving complete “ripeness” is a matter of perspective. Most telling, Aglianico is never replanted to pergola; instead, growers replant to Guyot or cordon espalier. Similarly, most new vineyards are planted with higher densities to curb Aglianico’s prolific growth.

Producers follow DOCG regulations requiring three years of aging (one in wood) for Taurasi. Otherwise, there are few widespread traditional practices to follow. Most producers opt for a long maceration with lots of pumping over before extended time in oak.

Aglianico, like Nebbiolo, is very reductive, and racking, pumping, stirring, and other oxidative techniques result in a wine ready to drink early. Tinessa, inspired by Barolo, employs such techniques for his Ognostro.

In contrast is Luigi Tecce, who adheres strictly to his family’s traditional winemaking techniques. He boasts 80-year-old, pergola-trained Aglianico vines and his grandfather’s hand-crank wooden press (used exclusively). His is an old Italian winemaking style once common in Brunello and Barolo: oxidative pressing, fermentation at uncontrolled temperature in old wooden vats, and resting on skins for about 30 days. The wines age for a year in tonneaux followed by a year in botte grande without racking. Tecce’s wines draw the fairest comparison to Barolo. They are gripped by volatile acidity that either burns the nostrils or tones the wine’s muscle, depending on vintage. While the wines possess a familiar, earthy spice imparted by sotolon and other oxidative aromas, they maintain the distinctive savor and dark, earthy sensibility of Aglianico.

With a more modern, polished sensibility is Cantine Lonardo in Taurasi. Red wines are fermented in stainless steel and large oak barrels with a specially cultivated pied du cuvee before aging in 15-hectoliter Garbellotto barrels or 500-liter Rousseau barrels. Notable among Lonardo’s wines are two Taurasi from subregions within the commune. The first is Coste, from vineyard sites with clay-limestone soils on steep slopes. It is a classically structured and chiseled Taurasi with dark fruits and warm spice aromas. Vigne d’Alto, from lower elevations and sandier soils, is a wine with softer impact and more body as well as elegant aromas of dried orange peel, dark berries, and leather. Though distinctly different, these wines share flavors and structure that distinguish Taurasi wines from those of other communes.

Irpinia’s Future

The growers in Irpinia are blessed with a wealth of indigenous grapes and microclimates that invite varied expressions of wine, but winemakers are still working to capitalize on their abundant natural resources.

Labelling wines with single plots or subzones could offer a competitive edge among fine wine consumers familiar with such parcelization elsewhere and would help distinguish these wines from mass-produced, regional examples like Mastroberardino or Feudi di San Gregorio. Unfortunately, DOCG law doesn’t recognize subregions within Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino, or Taurasi. Further, Taurasi has always been considered an expression of the entire region, much like Bartolo Mascarello’s Barolo or Jean Louis Chave’s Hermitage.

Yet Irpinia is still early in its history as a winemaking region. Producers adhere to high-yielding farming, heavy extraction, and overly oxidative winemaking not due to carelessness but rather the slow process of catching up. Change may be slow, but producers are gradually evolving. Michele Perillo’s son, for example, is currently studying viticulture and will soon decide a region to visit for his internship, where he will surely learn new ideas and bring home improvements.

Sommeliers, in the meantime, can aid this evolution through purchasing decisions. With due respect to Mastroberardino’s protection of native grapes and long history, there are now many younger producers to champion. The more sommeliers support producers making singular wines representative of Irpinia, the greater the wines we will taste from this extraordinary place.

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