This is something I wrote for Espress, a magazine that you can pick up for free in Benugo:
There has only been one moment in my life when I’ve had an inkling of what it’s like to be an oil sheik. It was about ten years ago; I was on holiday in Naples and it was two euros to every pound. Naples is a cheap city compared with London anyway but with that exchange rate, I was rich. At restaurants, Il Patrono would come over and I’d declare in lordly fashion: ‘bring me your finest Taurasi.’ That trip, I fell in love with the wines of Campania in southwestern Italy, only to find that back in England, most wine merchants had never heard of them.
The vinous treasures of Campania felt like my secret. The region’s grandest wine, Taurasi, is made from the Aglianico grape in the hills to the east of Naples. It’s known as the Barolo of the south and needs at least seven years’ age to show its best. The grape is one of the world’s greats, producing a deeply coloured tannic red with surprising delicacy and perfume. The more affordable Aglianico del Vulture offers some of that magic at a younger age.
Most of the viticulture in this region is at high altitude and the cold mountain nights are the reason the wines maintain freshness despite the daytime heat – the opposite of the rather rustic reds of neighbouring Puglia. Aglianico aside, there is also a holy trinity of white grapes: Fiano, which makes nutty, lemony wines that can age, especially from the province of Avellino; Falanghina, which tastes of oranges and warm spices; Greco which is floral and peachy.
The term Greco is apt given that Naples was founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC as Neapolis, meaning ‘new city’. Later Campania became the playground of ancient Rome – the Emperor Tiberius had a villa on the nearby island of Capri. Falernium, the most prized wine of Roman times was from this region and inspired Pliny the Elder to write: ‘No other wine has a higher rank.’ Made from raisined grapes and boiled to concentrate the must (unfermented grape juice), it would have been intensely sweet with a consistency close to oil. The best Falernium vintages lasted for decades; the nearest thing nowadays would be a Pedro Ximinez sherry.
There is no continuity between the wines of ancient times and the present day. Just as with Biondi-Santi in Montalcino and Baron di Ricasoli in Chianti, the modern Campanian wine story starts with one ambitious producer, the family firm of Mastroberardino. In a region more used to producing cheap bulk wines, this great firm has been exporting wine in bottles since 1878. To put this into perspective, Bordeaux chateaux such as Lafite and Latour were shipped in cask throughout that era, so Mastroberardino were making a big statement of intent and guarantee of authenticity. They mapped out the best land to grow the noble Campanian grapes, and for a long time was the only firm making Taurasi and Fiano di Avellino.
When I visited in 2004, Campania was in the middle of a wine explosion, with new producers appearing at a fast pace. Everywhere we went we tried amazing local wines from simple gluggers to drink with fried seafood (normally Falanghina), to serious Aglianicos. In the last five years, these wines have crossed the water to England. Mastroberardino is still the king, but other firms are challenging. Of the bigger producers, Feudi di San Gregorio makes excellent wines, both red and white. Smaller producers to try include Fattoria Alois, who make exquisite Fiano, and Quintodecimo, who make some extremely fine and expensive Taurasi.
These characterful grapes are finally getting the recognition they deserve outside their home region. One can buy some decent affordable Fianos from Sicily and Grecos from Puglia; of potentially more interest to serious wine lovers is the fact that Fiano and Aglianico are now planted in Australia. The climate in South Australia’s Clare Valley, with its hot days and cool nights, is not dissimilar to Campania. One firm in particular, Grosset, has made a fine wine called Apiana, a blend of Fiano and Semillon. Like the best Campanian wine, it’s not exactly cheap; luckily you don’t need to be an oil sheik to afford it.