Let Campania Keep You Company

(Originally published August 2005)

Summer vacations are often fantastic opportunities to get out into the world and explore, finding fresh and new landscapes to reinvigorate one's personal experiences. But if you're like Hanes the last thing you want to do is leave your apartment — it's scary out there! So, get comfy inside with your doors locked, windows shut and curtains drawn as we “explore” the scintillating white wines of Italy's Campania wine region!

Campania is one of the better known regions of Southern Italy. There's the ever-popular and bubbly Mount Vesuvius, the ancient city of Naples and the breathtaking Amalfi Coast. Wow. It's even the home of pizza. And you thought it was the Famous Original Ray's Pizza around the corner. In the early 20th century there were almost 400 different grape varietals found in Campania yet by the 1980's that number was down to less than 50 varietals. A sad commentary on the land the Greeks once called “Enotria” (i.e., “wine land”). But the situation has changed for the better as the Campanians got their act in gear to preserve what was left and build off of that. No longer is Campania the largest Italian wine region to sell its grapes to cooperatives.

The climate in Campania is on the whole warm and dry, even during the winters, so grape ripening is rarely a major issue. Campania is lucky because the volcanic composition of the soil there makes it impossible for the deadly phylloxera louse to survive while also adding lots of iron, copper and other minerals into the grape's ultimate flavor mix. Winemakers tend to favor the local indigenous grapes of yore but there are some experiments with foreign varietals. The most troublesome experimentation, however, is with using oak barrels. The oak-derived flavors tend to mask the unique and delicate aromas and flavors which would make you drink a Campanian white wine versus, say, a standard Chardonnay. Stainless steel or other neutral vessels are best for fermenting and aging Campanian whites. So sayeth Hanes. That out of the way, Campania is indeed a fruitful (“fruitful,” especially for grapes, get it, do you get it?) wine region to investigate because a growing number of wineries are committed to making high quality wines, maintaining an abiding respect for local winemaking traditions while at the same time incorporating modern vineyard management and harvesting techniques.

So. Within Campania lies the Irpinia area east of Naples. In these hills we find the best white wine grapes grown. And they are…

Greco di Tufo: Probably the “best” grape grown to make white wines in Campania. “Greco” is named such because the grape was brought to Italy by those Greek guys. “Tufo” is the name of the village around which these grapes are grown (Tufo is actually within the larger Avellino district). These are probably the most full-bodied white wines from Campania, somewhat oily in texture yet remaining crisp. Fruit-driven, there's plenty of pear, peach, fig, apple flavors. Greco di Tufo also may be more floral than its immediate Campanian peers with at times touches of anise or garden herbs. On average, these are less acidic too than its peers. Prices range from like $14 to $22.

Fiano di Avellino: Hanes knows you'll never guess so he'll just tell you. “Fiano” is the name of the grape and “Avellino” is the area where the grapes are grown. Freaking crazy, huh? The name comes from the Roman Vitis apiana which means “vine beloved of bees.” Knowing this will make the wine taste so much better. With Fiano you get pear and apple fruit and more citrus tones than with Greco. Fiano is noted most for accents of hazelnuts or almonds, with minerals and spice next as most common descriptors. The level of acidity in Fiano can be on the high side, adding to its grip and firm mouth feel as well as earning it a reputation as the best Campanian white wine to age (note that Hanes has never had an aged example). Prices here are similar to those of Greco di Tufo.

Beyond these two, the major white wine grape of Campania is no doubt…

Falanghina: Gets this cute name because the vines were trained on Falanga (i.e., phalanges) by those loopy Greeks. If they had called phalanges “stakes” like normal people the wine would be then called “Stakerina.” Falanghina is very acidic yet delicate without the firm mouth feel of Fiano. It has a “little bit of everything” approach: pear, peach and apple fruit flavors as well as minerals and usually some florality. Many times it also presents a honeyed aspect which can counter some of the pucker from the above average acidity. Falanghina is grown all over Campania, notably in Irpinia but also of high quality in the Sannio region. These wines are less expensive, ranging from $10 to $17 or so.

Elsewhere in Campania…

Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio: The vineyards for these wines are located on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and result in smoky wines of a high level of minerality. The name means literally “the tears of Christ at Vesuvius.” There's two stories about the name. Supposedly either as he was going up to heaven Christ looked down on the beauty of the area and wept from the majesty of it all. Or when Lucifer was cast out of heaven he snatched a piece as a going away present and this made Christ weep and tears fell right there in Campania. Sweet. The main grape used for LCdV is Coda di Volpe with some Verdeca, Falanghina or Greco allowed. You get some peach, pear, pineapple fruit but the emphasis is on that minerality with accents of licorice and flowers, sometimes a slight nuttiness. Not overly complex, more so fresh and straightforward. These are also less expensive, running from $10 to about $15.

Costa d'Amalfi: It's the Amalfi Coast (duh), and the Falanghina grape dominates being supplemented by other local grapes such as Biancolella, Fenile and/or Ginestra. Sometimes Biancolella is bottled on its own. All these wines are simple, smooth and light of touch with plenty of the region's typical smokiness and minerality. Clean and fresh, that's what they are. Very traditional. Alas, these wines are not that inexpensive, a product of their scarcity. Sub-regions include Furore, Ravello and Tramonti and you will likely see these names on the label.

Asprinio di Aversa: Light and often witheringly acidic and dry, this is a wine for developed palates which demand a unique flavor and textural profile. Really needs food, particularly fish, to rise above mediocrity. The vines grow up local poplar trees to heights of up to 45 feet, supposed to be quite the sight. By now you ought to be able to guess that the grape is called “Asprinio” and the area called “Aversa.” Since the chance of you finding any outside of Campania is slim don't sweat it. If you are averse to aspirin try to find a bottle of “Advilia.”

Falerno del Massico: Here they just basically rename Falanghina “Falerno Bianco” and call it a day. Supposed to be of average repute, nothing special but nothing horrible either. On the upswing but not quite there yet. More white fruit flavors like apricots or peaches with a touch more honeyed nature. Hanes doesn't know much here for firsthand experience.

Naturally, there's more to be had. Campania does have, after all, 3 prestigious DOCG zones in addition to 17 DOC zones and 10 IGT zones. That's a lot of zones. But you probably have to go to Campania yourself to see what they are about. Or pay to send Hanes there and he'll report back.