Campania’s White Gems - 12/12/14

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“For one “as” you can drink wine

For two you can drink the best

For four you can drink Falernian”

Make mine a Falernian then! Written on a bar wall in the ruins of ancient Pompeii following the explosion of Vesuvius, this pretty much sums up the Petrus of the Roman era. For four “as”, the Roman form of currency at the time, one could drink it, and be happy in the knowledge it was even better than the best!

Emperors drank it, poets waxed lyrical about it; Falernian was all the rage. Modern day Falerno del Massico, however, grown on the same southern slopes of Monte Massico, the range of hills which runs down to the west coast of Italy in northern Campania, has not such the cult status its ancient wine once did.

Wines from the south of Italy have just not made it into the limelight to the degree of their northern cousins with the likes of Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, Amarone and Chianti. At the recent James Suckling Great Wines of Italy tasting in HK, just 7 of the 125 wineries exhibiting were from the south of Italy, and of those, most were from Sicily. Only Feudi di San Gregorio was flying the flag for Campania.

I’m reluctant to think that this is because southern Italy simply doesn’t have great wines. In fact I know, having tasted plenty of lovely wines from the south, that this is simply not the case. Rather, I suspect, it is to do with money. The south of Italy is much poorer than the more affluent north. I imagine marketing and T&E budgets are considerably lower down south and up until recently the costs of these things prohibitively expensive. With the rise of social media, however, and more easily accessible, cheaper air travel, suddenly things appear to be changing. And considering the quality of some of their wines, that’s a very good thing.

A recent tasting of wines from Cantina San Paolo, nestled in the hilly area between Avellino and Benevento, proved just how good these wines can be, especially, I thought, in the case of the whites. Campania, which lies in the south west of Italy, south of Lazio with its capital city of Naples, consists of 5 main regions: Caserta, to the north-west, Napoli, surrounding Naples, Benevento to the north-east, Avellino in the east and Salerno to the south. The most well know DOCs and DOCGs are found in Benevento and the hills around Avellino, with Avellino holding all but one of the DOCGs.

The natural beauty and apparent wealth of the Amalfi coast and Capri can be deceptive. Regions further inland are very impoverished and have suffered huge losses in recent earthquakes, a common occurrence in this highly volcanic terrain. It is these volcanic soils, however, combined with plenty of southern Italian sunshine, which makes for a very interesting area for grape growing.

The key white grapes are Fiano, Greco and Falanghina. Fiano’s best expression is in Avellino where it is labeled as Fiano di Avellino DOCG, or sometimes by its Roman name Apianum, which comes from the Latin name for the Fiano vine Vitis apiana, meaning the vine beloved of bees (no wonder I like it so much!). Fiano di Avellino must be 85% Fiano with Greco, Coda di Volpe (Fox’s Tail) and/or Trebbiano making up any remainder. Pears, hazelnuts, quince, honey, orange blossom and spice are all characteristics of this dry, crisp, mineral wine with medium body and alcohol.

The Cantina San Paolo Fiano di Avellino 2013 is a nice classic example, showing all the crispness and freshness expected of the variety with plenty of mineral character and some nice peach, lemon and pear character (16.5). This would work perfectly with a spaghetti vongole or salt-encrusted sea bass or, due to its firm acidity, could also work with tomato-based pasta dishes.

Greco finds its best expression in Greco di Tufo DOCG just to the north of Fiano di Avellino, which takes its name from the volcanic Tufo soil which lies under the 8 communes within the delimited area of the DOCG. By law Greco must be at least 85%, with Coda di Volpe making up any remainder. Usually deep in colour it has flavours of lemons, peaches, pears, herbs and toasted almonds. The wines are bone dry on the palate with crisp acidity and plenty of lingering minerality to finish. They tend to mature faster than Fiano di Avellino.

I tasted two Greco’s from Cantina San Paolo, both seriously good value for money. The first, their G Greco 2013 has floral notes on the nose with notes of ripe lemon and white peach alongside a hint of banana. It has a lovely rounded, smooth mouthfeel, crisp, firm acidity and a long, mineral finish (17).

The second, their Greco di Tufo 2013 is much more mineral with a touch of savoury character behind all the lemon and peach fruit. Very juicy on the palate with fresh acidity and a tiny hint of banana coming through on the long finish. Nicely complex (17.5). This would pair perfectly with grilled sea bass or swordfish or very simply prepared shellfish such as fresh prawns with a touch of sea salt and quality EV olive oil.

 

Falanghina is the third major white variety in Campania which may have provided the basis for ancient Falernian and today makes the basis for Falerno del Massico and Sannio. The name originates from the Latin falangae referring to the stakes which support the vine. It produces attractive, fragrant, expressive, unoaked wines which have touches of flower blossom and white peach, backed by fresh acidity and nice rounded mouthfeel.   

San Paolo’s F Falanghina 2013 is full of white flower blossom character with a touch of honey and white peach, a very expressive, pretty nose. The palate displays ripe lemon character with crisp acidity enveloped by a rounded, slightly creamy mouthfeel. Very tasty (16.5).  

The San Paolo Falanghina Benevento 2013 is more complex with floral and peach character as well as a touch of apricot. On the palate a savoury minerality comes through, again with lovely mouthfeel, fresh acidity and a long length (17). Food pairing this would be easy with fresh shellfish and most seafood although dishes with punchier flavours of garlic, capers and parsley would also do well.

I would urge you to seek these little gems of Campania out when you go to Italian restaurants or when you are shopping for a great white wine to go with seafood or shellfish. Not only are they really top quality wines the even better news is they are seriously good value for money. The sad news is that San Paolo’s wines aren’t yet here in the HK market but they will be soon so do get in touch if you want to know where to find them in a few months time. I for one will be buying them up as soon as they hit Asian shores!

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