As the weather finally begins to get warm, my thoughts again turn to white wines. The southern Italian region of Campagna produces some very good red wines (see my previous articles on Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio and Taurasi), but they also make a trio of white wines that should be on any wine lover’s radar. The trio of Greco di Tufo (GREK-koh dee TOO-foh), Fiano (fee-AH-noh) and Falanghina (fah-lahn-GEE-nah) are three white grapes and that are being made into admirable wines that should be on any wine lover’s radar. All three of these grapes date back to ancient times and were on the verge of extinction before being saved within the last few decades.
The most legendary of all Roman wines was called Falernian made from a white grape called Aminean which today, is believed to be Greco di Tufo. Pliny the Elder, perhaps the most famous of Roman historians, wrote extensively about the wine. Reminiscent of today’s Burgundy, Pliny wrote about different sub-regions for growing wine grapes in Campagna. Caucinian was grown on the higher slopes, Faustian, was grown on the estate of Faust on the mid-slope and Falernian was grown from the lower slopes. Falernian was a wine that needed to be aged; not peaking for fifteen or twenty years. We know it was high in alcohol, which means the grapes were allowed to hang on the vine and get very ripe. They were then picked and allowed to dry out on straw mats similar to the wine of the Veneto. The wine was then aged in amphorae and sealed with wax and resin. Interestingly, the wine was not drunk on its own but was combined with seawater. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Falernian fell out of favor.
Greco is the oldest white grape variety in Campania. It was brought to this area by the Pelasgian’s (an ancient Greek people). A first century B.C. fresco, recently discovered at Pompeii, refers to wine made from Greco grapes. As was said, this is most likely the grape used in Falernian. This grape is one of the varietals used to blend the white version of Lacryma Christi. The best wines made from Greco grapes are made near the town of Tufo and carry the Greco di Tufo DOCG designation. The rules require Greco (di Tufo) grapes of 85-100% with up to 15% Coda di Volpe Bianca.
Greco di Tufo is a mineral driven wine that reflects the ancient volcanic chain that makes up the soil in this area. It is a clean refreshing wine that needs to be consumed young. These wines need food as they contain a lot of natural acidity and are not high in “fruit” flavors. They have an almond like quality and some background notes of pears. Although historically a sweet wine, they are almost always vinified completely dry and make great parings with sea food or salads. The better producers include Mastroberardino, Feudi di san Gregorio, and Terredora. The wines are available for around $20. Other Greco di Tufo’s I have liked are Vigna Irpine and Amenia. Mustilli makes a very good Greco Sannio DOC wine for around $20.
The grape Fiano was originally called Vitis Apiana in Latin because the grapes were so sweet they attracted bees or api. There are records of the grape being successful in the middle ages. Emperor Frederick II was a consumer of the grape in the early 1200’s. Charles d’Anjou, of the same period, had 16,000 Fiano vines planted in his Royal Vineyards.
Eventually, Fiano fell out of favor and was bordering on extinction. It was the Mastroberardino family that led the reclamation of these varietals. As was discussed in the above referenced articles on red wines from Campagna, this family is and has been the leading producer in the region. In 1940, they identified a single strain of Fiano in their vineyards and from it began a replanting. Although historically, Fiano was made into a sweet, and sometimes sparkling wine, Mastroberardino began to vinify the grape dry. It is grown in many places in southern Italy, but the wines made near the village of Avellino are the best. Fiano di Avellino is a DOCG and are the best expressions of the grape. DOCG rules allow up to 15% possible additions of Greco and/or Coda di Volpe Bianca and/or Trebbiano Toscano grapes.
Fiano has a hazel nut quality to it and also basil and pine notes. That makes it a wonderful match for Pesto (an often difficult food to pair). The wine is soft and medium to light bodied. The better wines include Mastroberardino’s Radici, Feudi di san Gregorio’s Pietracalda, and Terredora’s Terre di Doran which are all labeled as Fiano di Avellino. These wines should cost around $25 but all these producers make a basic bottling that will cost under $15. De Falco and Toricino are two other producers who make excellent Fiano di Avellinos, both around $20. I have also liked Donnaluna’s Fiano.
Falanghina is the name of a grape and not tied to any single DOC(G). The name comes from the Latin word Phalange, which was the early Greek method of training vines to a stake. It is made across southern Italy (I recently tasted one from Puglia), but the ones from Campagna are the best (for now). It is a crisp wine with lovely aromatics. In my opinion it is the biggest but least interesting of the three wines. The grape is often blended with other white varietals. They are versatile wines that go with seafood and lighter fare.
At the risk of repeating myself, the better producers again include Mastroberardino, Feudi di san Gregorio, and Terredora. Mustilli makes a very interesting Falanghina Sant’Agata dei Goti DOC that sells for around $20. Cantina del Taburno makes an inexpensive Falanghina Taburno DOC that is quite pleasant.
All of these wines are best consumed young. They are not blockbuster wines but rather enjoyable wines that are inexpensive enough to be opened with anyone yet good enough to hold a place at any table. The very best of these should not cost you more than $30 and many very nice ones can be found closer to $15. I hope, with the warmer weather coming, you all go out and try a bottle of these. Please let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.