Monday, October 08, 2012

Campania Wine Travels

A day in the Italian countryside featuring wines from 
Taurasi, Avellino and Greco di Tufo 

July 25, 2012

     The night before this adventure into the Campania wine regions, I was reading up on some of the DOCG notes on my iPad. I was brushing up on my previous research for a day not knowing what to expect as hired wine tours can sometimes seem amateur, watered down, or just not what you expect. I got to know the core regional wines better from dining the last few days and the last few weeks of reading (thank you Oxford Companion to wine). But I had no idea how they would react to these wine geek Americans poking into their cellars.  Did they speak English? Would they open older vintages?  Would we see the inner passion that fuels all great wine making? The only way to find the answer to those questions would be to sit back, relax and take it all in. And that my friends, is exactly what we did.     

     As we arrived in the lobby the next morning at the wonderful Punta Regina, Gaetano Petrillo met us there and whisked us off to his plush touring van.  The “bus” is actually a brand new smooth riding, spacious and comfortable touring van.  Ever the consummate professional, Gaetano was a professional sommelier before he left that world behind to help others discover the untapped riches of the wine regions of Southern Italy. Gaetano not only knows Southern Italian wines well but he also knows Tuscany and Piedmont quite well. After some small talk about where we were from and what we do, we started to talk about the region’s wine and its best foods. My wife and I both know our wine pretty well, but we learned so much from Gaetano, especially from this region where we are less familiar with the wines and producers. Gaetano is a native of this region so he knows many of the producers well. To try and better understand my tastes in wine Gaetano asked me about the types of Brunelli and Barolo that I prefer. He of course was able to quickly ascertain I really like wine, really good wine.  Not to toot my own horn but he went so far as to call me the “Wine Doctor” as we went back and forth on Italian, French, American and Spanish wines that we liked. We shared similar ideas and principles on what makes a great, natural wine that reflects the terroir or typicity of a particular grape or region. It was not wine geek in any way, the conversation was relaxed, gracious and very humble as we just wanted to learn from each other. I kept thinking to myself this guy is great.  No matter the level of wine knowledge a person has, Gaetano would be able to match the conversation to their level so as to not sound like a know-it-all or a boring wine snob.  This is great because around the world the younger generations of wine leaders, be they sommeliers, wine makers, or wine experts, are helping bring the world of wine to those that want to learn in an honest and humble way. Gaetano gave us a day we will never forget touring the Campania wine regions in Southern Italy sampling some of the best wines from stellar producers Antonio Caggiano and Feudi di San Gregorio. 
     We made our way out of Positano on the winding cliff side roads full of hairpin turns back towards Naples passing through Sorrento’s upper reaches. As we made our way off of the peninsula we headed due east and then a little North towards Taurasi. Along the way we passed Pompeii and the towering, and dormant but still dangerous, Mount Vesuvius which was responsible for the devastating volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii and some of the surrounding villages a little less than 2,000 years ago. 

     As we made our way further east we passed large hills, some with castles on the top of them from several hundred years ago. The region is very hilly, mountainous even, with a lot of greenery in the form of shrubs and trees. This surprised me because for some reason I was expecting terrain more like Tuscany that had some mountains, but was mostly rolling hills that were golden yellow. As we arrived in Taurasi, we were at a pretty high elevation at 1,260 feet above sea level. It snows here frequently in the winter, something else I hadn’t expected. Taurasi itself is tiny, only 5 square miles large and almost exclusively grows the Aglianico grapes for wine production. The DOC allowed some years ago for Aglianico grown in certain vineyards adjacent to Taurasi to use the Taurasi name to some controversy. Many of the original vigneron say that the expanded lands are of drastically different terroir to the orginal Taurasi DOCG and thus reduce the quality reputation which Taurasi touts and has been judged to be the preeminent terroir for Aglianico in the world.

     We arrived at Cantine Antonio Caggiano on time with sun high and warm with a bright blue pastel sky. Antonio Caggiano was there to greet us and shook both of our hands, with his trademark cigar stub in his mouth. Antonio does not speak English, but Gaetano was there every step of the way translating for us so we could communicate and share our thoughts and philosophies on wine, food, travel and life because those are the things good people talk about over good wine. 

     We made our way in to the Cantine and over to an area where the photographer Antonio Caggiano (and architect) had many of his best works on display of vineyard scenes and workers toiling in the vineyards. Antonio also had two albums in particular that help translate without words the inspiration for two of his regional white wines Bechar and Devon, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo respectively. Bechar was inspired from a trip to the deserts of Morocco and Devon from a trip to the North Pole. Each album showed aspects of the trip and the lands that gave Antonio this inspiration. 

     We then made our way winding through the back of the property underground where the bottle and barrel cellars rested both the young and the old wines peacefully in a rustic iron, steel and stone construction that spoke of medieval days. Reconstituted materials from the vineyards and cellar made some of the d├ęcor in the cellar in the form of ballerina sculptures made from grape vines, and barrel rings were joined to create globes for lighting. 

     Also in the tour was a space dedicated to ancient and more recent equipment used in the vineyards and the cellars to make wine. There was also a space tastefully built into the barrel room for a chapel where masses can be held to bless the harvest or even for the occasional wedding. 


     We made our way through the large room that looked like a hanger where the grapes came in from the vineyards, are de-stemmed, and then put into large steel tanks for initial fermentation. From there gravity then fed the wines from tank into barrel for extended aging of the reds and whites if warranted. 

     We sampled 5 of the latest releases from Caggiano and all of them were excellent. The whites were without flaw and showed the best of what Fiano and Greco di Tufo offer. The reds made from Aglianico were sturdy, solid and noble wines that can easily age for 20 years in the best examples. Giuseppe Caggiano, Antonio's son, stopped in to introduce himself as he is the current winemaker.  We talked some more about life on the road as Giuseppe constantly travels when vineyard and cellar work do not fill his schedule.  He regularly travels to New York so we talked about meeting up on his next trip to see his distributors.  We signed the guest book and left our business cards with Antonio who promptly stapled them to the guest book where we signed and thanked Antonio for his graceful hospitality and superb wines.  We had to run to lunch so we packed up and headed southwest toward Avellino for lunch and then to our next appointment in the afternoon.

     We had a phenomenal, classic lunch at the Italian trattoria Zia Pasquelina where we were treated like royalty. The food kept coming from the kitchen in generous amounts. Fresh local Buffalo mozzarella, a huge board of prosciutto, fresh local ricotta, ricotta and spinach pie, and simply made, but fresh and delicious fusilli pasta with tomato sauce. With the food we had by carafe a locally made Aglianico.  It was simple and perfectly delicious with our lunch.  We polished of some espresso and made our way to the next appointment nearby at Feudi di San Gregorio. Before we left we toured the wine cellar that was jam-packed with treasures from all reaches of the fine wine making quadrants of Italy. 

     Feudi di San Gregorio was high up in the hills of Campania in Taurasi. Feudi is a huge producer of wine, one of the bigger, if not the largest, in Campania. Mastroberardino may be larger and is one of the oldest wine producers in the Campania region. The tour was what you would expect from a large, successful winery. A walk through the facilities with the wine making production equipment, tanks, barrels and finally the tasting lounge where we sampled 4 different wines representing the variety of wines available from this important, high quality producer. We also walked through one of the Fiano vineyards, inspecting the vigorous looking vines. Fiano is a very hardy vine and if it is not controlled it will grow too many shoots and too many grape bunches. Ideally you want to limit the growth so that the energy of the plant is placed into fewer grapes, concentrating the flavor and intensity of the grapes.  
The four wines we tasted were a Fiano, Greco di Tufo, a younger Aglianico from Taurasi and an older vine and older vintage Aglianico from Taurasi (1999). Below are my tasting notes. 

     When we confirmed the appointment the day before the trip, I asked Gaetano if we could stop by a wine shop as there were much better prices in Italy on many wines that we would pay much more for back in the USA. Gaetano of course said no problem as it was nearby.  Gaetano made sure we would have time to go to the shop and pick out a few bottles to take with us. We stopped off at what looked like a somewhat fancy candy store as the family that owned the wine shop also ran a famous cake and candy company.  This shop was one of their stores that doubled as a wine shop. We made our way downstairs where many of the great wines of Italy were available in new and older vintages and at great prices. I selected a few hard to find Brunelli from Biondi Santi, a bottle of Le Pergole Torte from Montevertine, and a few older 90's Felsina Rancia Chianti Classico. 

     We were now ready to make our journey home back to Positano. As we drove back we passed by the port city of Salerno, again the ruined city of Pompeii that was destroyed by the still active volcano Vesuvius and then Sorrento which was near the home stretch. The sun had just set and we were ready for another wonderful Italian meal to reflect over the wonderful day we just had.

     I cannot recommend Gaetano enough as he a is a classy, knowledgeable, safe driving and hardworking guy that makes it his sole mission to ensure that his guest have the best possible experience as possible.  I plan to meet with him again when we go back to Positano someday or if he makes his way to New York.  Gaetano also has contacts in other regions so if you ask he may be able to also help you in visiting Tuscany, Umbria or even Piedmont. The Wine Bus is wonderful and truly one of a kind! 

Cin cin! 

Tasting Notes 

Cantine Antonio Caggiano, Azienda Agricola Antonio Caggiano, Taurasi, Campania, Italy 

Devon, Greco di Tufo, 2011, Campania 
A deep gold color. Aromas and flavors of apples and pears, sweet lemons. Clean finish with fresh acidity and length, flint like minerality. I really liked this version of Greco di Tufo. It was full bodied but cut a nice mineral streak in the wine that also retained great freshness from the acidity. Ultra hard to find in the US.

Bechar, Fiano di Avellino, 2011, Campania 
Bright cold in color with green flecks. Citrus aromas of grapefruit and lemon, zesty herbal notes with granite minerality. Some tropical notes poke in but are more tame such as medium ripe banana and mango. The finish is acid driven, racy and floral with a clean, zesty finish. 

Tari, Aglianico, 2011 Taurasi young vines, Taurasi, Campania 
This wine is the intro level Aglianico Taurasi from Caggiano. The fruit is mostly sourced from younger vines from vineyards owned by Caggiano. A bright red at the edges, the center is a nice deep red core. Violets, red cherry, forest floor and licorice aromas rise from the glass. On the palate plum adds to the flavor mix with some cedar/neutral wood like flavors and textures. Gripping tannins are very present with the ripping acidity that will keep this wine around for quite a few years. Great now but better with a few years on the bottle.

Taurasi, Vigna Macchia Dei Goti, 2008, Aglianico di Taurasi, Campania The color is purple-red at the edges with a deep red core, not dark. This wine is WAY too young but hints at the possibility of what is to come. Spicy red and black fruits, lead pencil, licorice, very complex, meat notes even. Plum, juicy acidity, medium to full tannins. Finishes long and complex with bright and juicy acidity, bright red to purple fruits all wrapped up in a tannic frame.

Feudi di San Gregorio, Campania, Italy 

Fiano di Avellino, 2011 
Fun fact: The Fiano name originates from the bees that are abundant at harvest as the Romans named this grape in Latin vitis apiana, with the root of apiana being the Latin for bees.

Colors of bright gold again with green hints. Citrus especially lemon, with fennel and green leaf herbs. Juicy and bright acidity and that is from a riper than normal vintage according to our guide. The grapes are larger than Greco di Tufo as well.

Cutizzi, Greco di Tufo, 2010, Santa Paolina (finest expression of Greco from Feudi) 
A golden hue, a perfect light gold shines from the glass. Rich, with crushed rock and granite aromas coming through from the soil leads to a long mineral laden finish.

Aglianico Dal Rae, 2010, Irpinia, Campania 
Ruby red color. Plum nose, pencil lead, tar, espresso, black cherry, spicy licorice, ripe & fleshy, silky tannins, medium to full bodied with a tight, gripping finish. 

Serpico, 1999, Taurasi old vine Aglianico, Campania 
A dark core with brick red edges. Mature aromas of baking spices, fall leaves, dried black fruits, stewed but strong beef notes, smoked meat. The palate is rich and strong showing nice mature character. Fine, but full tannins frame a long and serious finish. Good, ample acidity too. Some brown sugar and balsam notes. This is for sure mature, but should have plenty of years to go and still improve. Vines for this wine are 70, 100, and 150 years old.

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