In the region of Campania (see related article on Lacryma Christi) there is red wine that is worth knowing about and which merits acquisition. This wine, named Taurasi, is made from the Aglianico grape, the same grape discussed in the article on Aglianico del Vulture from Basilicata. Indeed, the Aglianico grape is utilized over much of southern Italy. For reasons which will be explained below, the Aglainicos from Campania are some of the best made anywhere.
Taurasi is made in the elevated hill area of Avellino in eastern Campania along the Calore River. Taurasi is also the name of a community in the center of this production area. The most prominent building in the area is the Longobard Castle, a remnant of the Normans. The topography is one reason that Aglianico wines are so successful here. The vineyards are all at elevations of 2100 feet or higher. The soils are mixes of calcareous marls and volcanic deposits. The limestone is often credited with providing the tannic bite so profound in Taurasi wines while the volcanic soil provide a smoky factor.
Taurasi, however, is not an ancient wine. While Aglianico has been grown in Campania for centuries, it was traditionally called Irpinia. In fact, Irpinia Aglianico is a DOC wine still being made today. It was the venerable Campania wine producing Mastroberardino family (discussed in the article on Lacryma Christi) who first brought Taurasi wines to the world’s attention. In fact, it was a particular vintage, the 1968 Mastorberardino Taurasi which put this wine on the world wine map. The wine is a legend among wine aficionados. Well stored bottles currently sell for $400 a bottle and are allegedly still drinking beautifully (I have never had the pleasure). One recent tasting note that I read alleged these bottles still have a youthful quality to them.
I am not aware if anyone knows the exact origin of wines named Taurasi. Taurasi became a DOC in 1970 and was promoted to DOCG status in 1991. Today, under the DOCG rules, Taurasi must be at least 85% Aglianico. The additional 15% can be supplemented with local red grapes, often including the Piedirosso grape. Most of the wines, however, tend to be 100% Aglianico. Besides the wines being 85% Aglianico, they must be aged three years before release with a minimum of one year in wood. To be labeled as a Riserva the wines must be aged for a minimum of four years with at least eighteen months in wood. It is always a dry red wine.
Above and beyond the soil and topography (terroir?), the producers are another reason people insist Taurasi is the best expression of Aglianico. Southern Italy tends to have smaller producers, often underfunded, making small artisanal wines. In Campania, however, there are some large producers who are well funded. They have ramped up production and built sleek modern wineries. This is not to say, they have given short shrift to quality. To the contrary, these are producers who are sparing no expense to make the best wines they can.
As of this writing, perhaps the leading producer is Feudi di San Gregorio. This is a modern producer whose wines dominate the wines of Campania. Their first vintage was 1991. This is a large estate making many different wines at all price points. I would not hesitate to purchase anything made by this winery. In 2004, they opened a 25-million dollar winery and hospitality facility using state of the art production methods. Their Taurasi is made from a blend of Aglianico, Pietradefusi and S.Angelo all’Esca grapes. Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy’s finest consulting enologists assists in the production. The wine retails for around $45. If opened young, it needs a few hours in a decanter. Better yet, cellar these for 5 years and then drink over the following fifteen years.
Other producers to look for include Mastroberardino and Terredora di Paolo. Terredora was founded when there was a split in the Mastroberardino family. Antonio ended up with the name while his brother Walter received the vineyards and created Terredora di Paolo. Their first vintage was released in 1994. Today, they are the single largest producer of wine in Campania. Their Taurasi is 100% Aglianico. In addition, in the best vintages, they release a Taurasi CampoRe which is also 100% Aglianico. The basic Taurasi is around $40 and the CampoRe will run closer to $70.
The other brother, Antonio retained control of family name. Mastroberardino also makes excellent wines. The make a variety of Taurasi from 100% Aglainico labeled as either Radici of Natural Historia. Both are made as a Riserva as well. The current release of the basic Radici sells for around $50 or more but older vintages can often be found for less. As I said earlier, the legendary 1968 is still available on occasion.
There are two other producers I have enjoyed whose wines are quite different from each other. Making wines in a very modern style is Salvatore Milletierri. Their Taurasi Vigna Cinque Querce is an excellent wine which should cost around $50. I have read that they make a Riserva which I have not yet seen or been able to try. On the more rustic side of the spectrum is Fratelli Urciuolol. These wines are made in an ascetic style. They need to be served with food. Put them on the dinner table and their ability to meld with the meal is truly synergistic. At $60, this should be a definite buy.
Taurasi wines are full bodied with large structure. They have an opaque ruby/purple color in the glass. These are powerful wines but also have a certain refinement. The fruit flavors are primarily black raspberries, plums and maybe some dark cherries. Most renditions allow the oak to come thru as a smoky nuance with some coffee, cigar box and leather notes. With age they develop an earthy warm forest floor persona. These are wines that can be a bit rough in their youth. Decanting for a few hours will help the wines. A few patient years of cellaring them, however, will be amply rewarded.
These are jovial wines that can match up well with hearty food. They can be excellent with roasted or braised meats. Campania is also the home to pizza and that is a great combination. These are probably not wines to drink with a light salad or fish preparation as they may overpower the food.
In terms of vintages to buy, Campania has been on a streak of good to excellent vintages (as has most of Italy). I would probably try to avoid the 2002’s. The heat of the 2003 vintage was not as harsh to the Taurasi vines as elsewhere in Europe. This is due to the altitude of the vineyards and the fact that it is always hot in southern Italy. If the bottle has been well stored I would certainly buy any vintage going back at least as far as 1989 (although I would be suspect about the 1992’s). Remember, these wines age beautifully.
I hope you all go out and try a bottle. I really enjoy hearing the comments and questions from many of you.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.