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 influence comes not from within the cultural city centers but from those areas not known for their historic influence – wine regions. Not from the famous wine regions such as Tuscany and Piedmont, but from the agricultural underbelly that has been feeding Italians for centuries, including Campania, Veneto and Sicily.
Here, I’m reprising an earlier column that focused on Campania, the region just south of Rome, incorporating Naples, the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii. In the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring a personal connection to the region (through my heritage) and the wines (through a recent wine tasting event). Stay tuned.
Before the Italian Renaissance, there were wines produced in Campania. Revered wines 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.
In the mid-20th century, winemakers from northern Italy rediscovered the coveted volcanic soil and temperate climate of the Campania region. They applied modern techniques and technology to the production of wines from the sparsely scattered ancient grapevines of the land. The result: a southern Italian Renaissance in winemaking that is just now gaining popularity 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 had been submerged for generations. Fine, distinct wines emerged, seemingly as a genetic trait rather than through an arduous and lengthy trial-and-error process.
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 are gaining a foothold in the United States.
Greco. 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 its almond and pear aromas. This is the wine the Greeks cherished for its ideal balance between fruit and acid.
Falanghina. If you like the fine Pinot Grigios from northern Italy for their light, balanced bouquet, but you’re looking for a suitable substitute, try this palate pleaser. Crisp and highly aromatic, it pairs well with Mediterranean white fish and light chicken and pork dishes.
Fiano. In my opinion, this is the most interesting of the Holy Trinity of Campanian whites. It has an intensity not found in the other white grapes of Campania and is redolent of nutty and spicy aromas. Try it with shellfish; you may prefer it to several entry-level white Burgundies.
Aglianico. The red grape that is ascending to stardom next to its esteemed brethren, Barolo (Piedmont) and Brunello di Montalcino (Tuscany). Aromas of black cherries are juxtaposed with firm tannins and earthy flavors with a hint of chocolate. Not surprisingly, Aglianico pairs well with typical Southern Italian cuisine. This wine is made for aging; I rarely drink one that is less than five years old. These are wines I will place in my wine cellar 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 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.