In the region of Campania, a wine is made that is a very nice every day wine that sells for a fair price and, in the hands of a few wineries, presents a very good buy. The really fun thing about this wine, however, is the name. I am speaking about Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio. Long before winemakers started putting cute animals on their labels or giving their wines fanciful names in order to market them to the general public, Lacryma Christi wines were flourishing.
Lacryma Christi means “the tears of Christ on Vesuvius.” There are two versions as to how this wine got its name. Both stories go back hundreds of years.
The simpler story tells us that when Jesus was ascending to heaven, he glanced down at the earth and saw the Bay of Naples. It was so beautiful that he wept tears of joy. His tears fell on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. A slightly different version relates that when Lucifer and the fallen angels were cast out from heaven, they grabbed a piece of it as they were forced to leave. As Lucifer fell, chunks of paradise landed on Mt. Vesuvius. When Jesus, up in heaven, saw what had happened, he wept tears of sadness. Under either tale, when Jesus’ tears hit the ground, vines miraculously sprouted in those spots on the slopes of the volcano. Those are the vines from which Lacryma Christi is made. Without casting aspersions on the legend, it is, at the least, a beautiful marketing strategy for an Italian wine.
As it happens though, the story actually predates Christianity. In an earlier version, it was the Roman God Bacchus, who upon seeing such beauty wept, thus creating the vines. You have to admire a producer who is willing to change with the times.
Winemaking has been taking place in Campania for more than 3,000 years. There may have been grape cultivation before the Etruscans but the Greeks certainly brought vines with them to the area. Campania is in the south of Italy (at about the shin on the boot). Its largest city is Naples and the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius looms over the region. This is the same volcano famous for the destruction of Pompeii. Obviously the mountain is covered with volcanic soils. The climate is mild and tempered by Mediterranean breezes. Grapes grow easily in this environment.
The name of the DOC is actually Vesuvio, which became a DOC in 1983. The requirements to be labeled Lacryma Christi are about the same as for the DOC but alcohol levels must be at least 1 or 1½ % higher. The wine is made in sparkling, white, rosé, and red varieties as well as a “liquoroso” or fortified dessert wine that may be sweet or dry. The white or bianco is made from Coda di Volpe and/or Verdecca grapes with a minimum of 35% up to 80% being Coda di Volpe. Flanghina or Grecco di Tuffo grapes make up the remaining 20%. The rosé and the red or “Rosado” are a minimum 80% Piedirosso and/or Sciascinoso grapes with no less than 50% of the total being Piedirosso and the remaining up to 20% being Aglianico.
The white and the rosé are made for immediate consumption and should be consumed within the first year from the vintage. The Reds are very dark ruby in color often on the verge of purple. The aromas include plums, red raspberries, cherries, and spices including white pepper and cinnamon, and smoke (from the volcanic soils). The best of these wines should last for three to five years, but are at their best the first couple of years after they are released (or 3 to 4 years from the vintage date).
In the old days, before the Italian wine explosion in the United States, these were popular wines on the menus at casual Italian style cafes, the kind with red-checkered tablecloths. They are less likely to be found in today’s American restaurants. They are quite popular, however, in the cheap tourist restaurants that abound in Naples, Italy and near Pompeii. Unfortunately, most of the Lacryma di Cristi’s offered to the tourists are not that good. There are some nice exceptions though.
The premier producer is Mastroberardino. This is a venerable old family run winery that has been making wines for 300 years in Campania. They make a wide variety of wines and their wines are often the standard bearer for Campania wines. While their Lacryma Christi is not the best wine they produce, it is a very pleasant wine and one of the most widely exported. It is available for under $20 and well worth buying. Terredora is another winery that makes a nice wine. Perhaps the best of the Lacryma’s are from a winery called Villa Carafa. Their Lacryma should be available for under $25.
As for food, these are the quintessential pizza wines. Or perhaps simple pasta with a tomato based sauce. These are not wines for gourmet food. They are wines to drink, with food and friends. The price will not break the bank, the acidity will bring out the flavor in the foods, and you can tell your friends the story of how the wine got its name.
I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two and let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.