A Virtual Trek Thru Italy: Campania’s Unknown Grapes

Italians have been lauded and derided for their affinity for a unique sensibility concerning life and their pursuit of a philosophical, religious and hedonistic lifestyle.

Throughout Italian history, this approach to life, this engrained pursuit of all things expressive of La Dolce Vita, has influenced the Western World in lasting ways. From the literary works of Dante, Boccaccio and Machiavelli, to the artistic brilliance and innovation of Michelangelo, Bernini and Raphael, to the centuries of Papal rule over the Roman Catholic church, to the countless contributions to high fashion, architectural design, gastronomy and all things sensory, Italians have indelibly etched their imprint on today’s society.

Years ago, I came upon a term that encapsulated the underlying theme that runs through these contributions – Sprezzatura, the art of effortless mastery.

How ironic, in the 21st century, that a significant source of Italy’s new-age influence comes not from the cultural city centers but from those areas not generally known for their historic influence – wine regions. Not from the famous wine regions, but from the agricultural underbelly that has been feeding Italians for centuries, including Campania, Veneto and Puglia.

This week, in my multi-art series on relatively unknown grapes grown in Italian wine regions, I’m focusing on Campania, the region just south of Rome, incorporating Naples, the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii.

Even before the Italian Renaissance, there were wines produced here. Revered wines from Campania date back two millennia to Greek and Roman settlements. Then came a long period of neglect and the near extinction of grapevines planted as early as 1,000 B.C. The exodus of farmers to urban areas after the devastation wrought by World War II contributed to this demise.

But things began to improve in the early 1990s. Winemakers from the north rediscovered the coveted volcanic soil and temperate climate of the Campania region. They began to experiment in applying modern techniques and technology to the production of wines from these ancient grapes. The result: a Southern Renaissance in winemaking that is just now available in the United States.

This is the meaning of Sprezzatura. The new winemakers of Campania, plying their trade, their craft, but with a distinct elegance and aplomb that sets them apart from previous generations. 

What are they planting? What grapes from this forgotten agricultural paradise are creating a stir?

There are three white grapes and one red from Campania that have surged in popularity in the last 10 years.

Greco de Tufo. It is the oldest cultivated grape in Campania. Its mild aroma and flavor profile make it perfect as a quaffing wine but, paired with a light seafood dish or a simple vegetable recipe, it seduces you with almond and pear aromas, followed by a subtle flavor. This is the wine the Greeks cherished for its ideal balance between fruit and acid.

Falanghina. If you like Pinot Grigio for its light, middle-of-the-road bouquet but you’re looking for a suitable substitute, try this crowd pleaser. Crisp and highly aromatic, it pairs well with Mediterranean white fish and light chicken and pork dishes.

Fiano. This is the most interesting of the Holy Trinity of Campanian whites. It has an intensity not found in its brethren and is redolent of nutty and spicy aromas. Try it with shellfish; you may never go back to (entry-level) white Burgundies.

Aglianico. This is the red grape that is ascending to stardom next to its esteemed brothers, Nebbiolo and Brunello di Montalcino. An intense wine, rich in red fruit aromas, high in acid and tannins in its youth, this wine is made for aging. I rarely drink an Aglianico that is less than five years old. This is a wine I will place in my wine cellar, next to my Nebbiolos and Brunellos, to enjoy with my young grandchildren on their 21st birthdays.

Campania’s winemakers are practicing their craft with Sprezzatura – it’s in their heritage and defines their destiny.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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