The eruption of Mount Vesuvius (Monte Vesuvio) in AD 79 blanketed the region in volcanic ash and rock, and it also created one of the most unique viniculture regions in Italy known today as Campania. We journeyed into the province of Avellino in Campania in April in search of the "Barolo of the South"- Taurasi- crafted from the ancient varietal Aglianico. After landing at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport and pointing our rented cinquecento south on the E45 for two hours, we were navigating the country roads around Avellino and hill towns of Taurasi and Tufo. Vineyards of the ancient varietals Aglianico, Greco, and Falanghina blanket the hills at remarkable elevations—400-500 meters above sea level.
The Irpinia district of Avellino has three DOCG appellations named for its respective commune- Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo. The unique terroir of each creates distinctly different cultivation zones for these varieties. We had our sights on two of the wines this trip—the big red Taurasi, which is crafted from 100% Aglianico, and the well-known white Greco di Tufo. There are also 14 protected designations of origin, DOCs. Two wines from these appellations were also on our wish list—the red Irpinia Agliancio and an elegant white known as Falanghina.
We found what we were looking for in Montemiletto, a town and commune in the Avellino province named for its ancient historical significance of once being the base of a Roman army, hence its name "mountain militia". The Norman castle of Leonessa stands today on the highest point of the town center.
(Castello Leonessa in Montemiletto)
Since ancient times, families in the commune grew Irpinia vines and produced wine for personal use. I always look to the local experts for recommendations on producers, and who best to offer an opinion on the finest producers in the commune than the town elders who can be found on park bench in the historic center of town, the Centro, just below Castello Leonessa.
(My panel of experts in the Centro of Montemiletto)
Following self-introductions and a riotous discussion about my search for the finest wines in the area, I left this meeting with a unanimous endorsement of the De Santis Family at Macchie Santa Maria. This was very fortunate since I already had a meeting arranged with the family for later that afternoon. Macchie Santa Maria is an artisan, family winery steeped in the rich traditions and history of Montemiletto, where for generations, they have cultivated the native varietal vines to produce wines for personal consumption. Today, winemaker Oreste De Santis draws from the experience of three generations to craft Irpinia wines that display the best characteristics of these local varietals.
So, what should you expect from the wines of Campania? Not surprisingly, the local winemakers consistently pointed to the unique and diverse soils of this area as a major determinant of the wine profiles. These characteristics were determined nearly two thousand years ago when Monte Vesuvio blanketed the soils rich in clay with volcanic ash (tuff) creating a type of clay-tuffa. The roots of the vines must run deep in search of water. The mediterranean climate provides for warm days and cool nights. And, at an elevation of 400-500 meters, snow commonly blankets the dormant vines in the winter months. It is not unusual to find Aglianico vines 200 years old and still used in production.
("Old vines of Aglianico and clay-tufa soil in vineyards of Nativ Cantina)
Look for Greco di Tufo to show an intense straw yellow, almost gold, color in the glass, distinct almond notes, and a fresh 'minerality' on the finish. Falanghina will show high acidity giving it a crisp finish and notes of ripe fruits and wildflowers. The big red, Aglianico, expresses bold tannins, savory notes, complex layers of dark fruits, and a long finish. These are wines that when young can be tannic, brash and irreverant; however when handled and properly refined, Taurasi earns its reputation as the "Barolo of the South" and provides a uniquely rich, smooth and complex wine experience.
(Aglianico vineyards in the foreground, Commune of Taurasi in the background)