Breaking the Mold: Campania’s Push to Reinvent Itself

BY ERIC GUIDO | MAY 23, 2024

Campania remains one of the most polarizing regions in Italy. It can produce high-quality, long-aging wines that compete with top reds and whites worldwide. They’ve proven this over and over again, going as far back as the 1960s. There has never been a more extensive selection of fine wines from Campania than there is today. However, outdated perceptions of these wines pose a challenge. Experiences with young Aglianico often leave consumers confused and wondering how intensely structured and often painfully youthful wines could ever evolve into mature masterpieces. The global market lacks sources of aged wines for consumers to explore. I question whether I would have ever fallen in love with Barolo if the wines of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s weren’t available in the secondary market when I began collecting. Without a clear illustration of what’s possible, and only young, aggressively tannic and animalistic wines to give insights into the future, how does a young consumer decide to make a 20- or 30-year investment? 

Salvatore Molettieri's Cinque Querce vineyard in Taurasi.

Many categories of reds, including Taurasi, Aglianico del Taburno and Cilento Aglianico yield world-class, seriously ageable wines that represent remarkable value. Considering the escalating prices across the globe for high-quality wines of longevity, a savvy collector can fill their cellar with Aglianico and Aglianico blends at a fraction of the price. 

Producers in Campania are starting to explore their region and its terroir more deeply. This trend is slowly gaining traction with wineries such as Quintodecimo, Feudi di San Gregorio, Guastaferro, Cantine Lonardo and Salvatore Molettieri. However, I’m surprised by the small number of single-vineyard wines that speak to the individual traits of specific sites. Let’s keep in mind that the five previously mentioned producers aren’t new to the game. Still, their work hasn’t inspired countless others. It’s clear as day that Aglianico is a site-transparent variety that produces wildly different wines from one location to another. Granted, few winemakers talk about that outside of the many DOCs, DOCGs and IGTs of Campania. That said, there are smaller producers willing to focus on experimenting with the region's older vineyards, tiny parcels of 150-200-year-old vines considered too challenging to maintain by most wineries. The prospect of seeing single-vineyard bottles from old-vine locations is fascinating, yet I expect quantities to be minimal.

We can generally rely on the wines of Taurasi to deliver power, earthiness and gruff tannins, and for Aglianico del Taburno to be richer, deeper and rounder, with more pronounced acidity. Cilento Aglianico and Paestum Aglianico provide a Mediterranean flair—plush with sweet tannins, yet still particularly balanced and refined. All of them can age remarkably well, retaining that textbook acidity that carries the variety through decades in the cellar, each developing quite differently over time. This is the tip of the iceberg showcased by the producers listed above.

Silvia Imparato, of Montevetrano, and her daughter Gaia.

Campania suffers from a severe identity crisis. It needs more organization and clearer messaging to consumers in Italy and abroad. Beyond the renowned DOCGs of Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, readers will find a treasure trove of fantastic, progressively styled wines that bend the rules. These are instead labeled as IGT Campania and Irpinia Aglianico. Each year, I find more serious Aglianico matured only in stainless steel, concrete or amphora. Where do these wines fit in, and aside from following the work of a publication such as Vinous, how does a consumer become aware of them?

Many of Campania’s producers are fractured within their communities or siloed. It’s rare to see winemakers working collaboratively or speaking favorably about each other's projects. Historic producer Mastroberardino remains separate from the Consorzio Tutela Vini d’Irpinia because they believe the organization operates in favor of bulk wine production. Also notable is Luigi Tecce, who abandoned the Taurasi DOCG and began labeling his wines as Campania Aglianico. The Consorzio remains largely out of the picture, as Campania is one of the few regions in Italy that doesn’t insist on having an open line of communication with journalists. 

A growing number of wineries have the right idea, and they want to move the region forward by improving the quality of their work and communication with international markets. However, an overwhelming number of producers seem frozen in time, stuck within a paradigm of what they consider traditional winemaking instead of challenging an older model that today’s consumers consider antiquated. As a result, those excessively dark, rich, sometimes dirty and overly tannic wines still exist today. 

When approaching a report on Campania, I consider all of these factors. With each passing year, the selection of wines I write about and producers I visit and interview becomes more finely tuned. I focus on the wines and wineries that deserve the attention of our readers. Each year, I learn of and add new producers through word of mouth, recommendations from other wineries or sampling of wines at local establishments. In the end, each successive report gains further refinement, even as I continue to expand my scope. I do not include many of the lackluster and often dirty wines I encounter. Still, I assure you that they exist en masse and litter the markets, creating a bad name for a region that deserves a much better reputation.

The barrel aging room at Feudi di San Gregorio.

The Future of Campania

Looking backward in Campania is easy, but looking ahead is imperative. In the wine world, the word “tradition” typically elicits positive responses from collectors. However, in Campania, it’s much more complicated. Outside of a few producers, tradition here means farming vineyards and selling fruit or finished wine to much larger wineries. Quantity was more important than quality, and often, cellars were packed with old barrels existing in less-than-favorable conditions. Many of today’s top artisanal wineries have only begun bottling their production over the last 20 to 25 years. As a result, Campania has constantly progressed and experimented as producers worked to understand their varieties better and improve their wines. That growth continues to this day, with producers that many consider traditional surprisingly open-minded to change.

In Campania, not adhering to tradition does not mean that a winery should be considered “modern” or “internationally styled.” If anything, the wines coming out of the region 25 years ago were much more international than the majority of what I taste today. These wines were based on a Bordeaux model, using aggressive oak aging or even appassimento to mask grippy tannins or inferior fruit. 

This same forward-thinking approach is helping producers adapt to today’s markets and deal with the onset of global warming. We are experiencing a surge in quality from Fiano and Greco, which now display more depth and mineral concentration as a result of producers working more with stainless steel and lees-aging. In fact, while we think of Fiano as Campania’s top white for long-term élevage in bottle, Greco is emerging as a contender. Let us not forget Campania's infatuation with rare indigenous varieties. Most recently, the resurgence of Grecomusc (no relation to Greco di Tufo), otherwise known as Revollo Bianco, has stirred some excitement. This variety nearly disappeared following the phylloxera epidemic but is now being championed by the likes of Cantine Lonardo and, in the near future, Guastaferro. I was also pleasantly surprised during my visit by a mini-vertical of Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco from Villa Dora, which blends Caprettone and Falanghina, two varieties I wouldn’t have expected to find in a 20-year-old wine of such energy and depth. Don’t get me wrong—there’s still an ocean of forgettable whites produced in Campania made from Fiano, Greco and Falanghina, but when discussing the top producers, there’s much to be excited about.

Raffaele Guastaferro's 150-200 year old Aglianico vines.

As for global warming, Piero Mastroberardino explained, "We can now achieve softer tannins in a big Taurasi; the world has changed." Many producers I visited share his sentiment, and in tasting through the new releases from a radiant vintage like 2019, I see his point. That said, the effect of global warming is noticeable even further back. A good example is 2016, a classic year showing the intensity of fruit and structure necessary to age for decades without coating the palate in searing tannins. It’s also important to mention that Aglianico ripens later than many varieties, so even when the region suffers through a hot and dry summer, precipitation in the fall and cooler temperatures help regulate maturation. Due to local warming trends, Piedirosso is another red variety with a bright future in the region. Dionisio Meola of I Pentri, one of the top producers of Piedirosso from the Benevento province, explained that achieving ripeness with the variety was an issue at one time. Today, they can produce wine in every vintage. 

While tasting recent vintages of white varieties, especially Greco and Falanghina, I notice an increase in ripeness across the board and a lack of elegance. There are excessively potent wines from 2020, 2021 and 2022. However, in most cases, a core of brilliant acidity keeps them in balance. As for Fiano, it benefits slightly from being a late-ripening variety (much like Aglianico), and in a location like Avellino, with its high elevations, drastic diurnal shifts and constant ventilation, Fiano continues to produce classic wines despite the changing climate.

What’s In The Market

That brings me to the recent vintages. Due to the later release of Taurasi and some bigger Aglianico-based wines, it’s prudent to discuss the primary vintages in the following notes to help readers understand what to expect.

A small amount of 2016s still make it to my tasting table. Ironically, many producers are split over 2016, possibly due to the desire for warmer vintages that create riper tannins. But in my opinion, 2016 remains one of the region's best vintages in the last ten years. The wines are cool-toned and classic in feel, with well-formed tannins and a core of fruit to carry them for decades. For lovers of long-aging wines, 2016 is currently your best bet. 

The 2017s can be quite intense. The vintage was extremely hot, coupled with drought conditions that dehydrated berries and reduced yields. Tannin management was especially important, and producers that rely heavily on oak often compounded the problem. The 2017s are typically large-scale wines of power, yet they lack complexity. There are gems to be found, but it’s important to make informed buying decisions.

The biodynamic vineyards of I Pentri in the Beneventano province.

Like the polar opposite of the previous year, 2018 was generally cold, wet and abundant. Disease pressure was high due to rain throughout most of the season. These wines can be lifted and finessed or just plain thin. In the worst cases, I’ve found that producers who continue to use an aggressive oak regimen further dried out their wines and masked any remaining fruit with wood sensations. 

Then there’s 2019, a true modern-day vintage in that it was warm yet still well-balanced with an even amount of precipitation. What’s more, the sunny but cool conditions throughout the fall ensured that the late-ripening Aglianico was able to reach perfect maturity. Tasting these wines is a real pleasure; they are fruit-focused, cool-toned and classic, with silky tannins that provide a lovely punctuation. I don’t believe we’ll see any fifty-year-old wines from 2019, but they will impress for at least the next twenty years. 

Pure, elegant, sun-kissed and warm, the 2020s can be quite seductive, yet I question how they will mature over time. This was a productive year, and it was important to limit the crop to mitigate the risk of creating blowsy, one-dimensional wines. July and August were excessively warm and dry. It was only the break in temperatures during the fall that allowed late-ripening varieties to regain balance. 

Another warm year (still more balanced than 2020 and 2022), the 2021 vintage was a nail-biter for most producers, but the resulting wines possess depth and concentration that hold my attention. The winter was unusually warm and wet, generating humidity and disease that posed a problem throughout the region. However, these wet conditions built up water supplies that would last through the dry months of June and July. Thunderstorms in August and September helped regulate temperatures and slow the pace of maturation. Most of the Greco and Falanghina I tasted from 2021 come across as extremely ripe in style. However, the young reds show lovely balance and structure that will carry them in the cellar. This could be an excellent year for Aglianico.

Campania's exciting reds outside of the Taurasi DOGC.

That brings us to 2022, which made up the majority of my tastings of white varieties, with a small number of young reds thrown into the mix. At this time, the reds show more aromatic complexity and vivid fruit, while the whites come across as excessively ripe, nearly creamy in texture and lacking finesse. The 2022 vintage was dry from the beginning, with a mild winter and warm spring that brought about early budding and flowering. Hot and dry weather continued throughout the summer, resulting in drought conditions and a halt in maturation. A small amount of precipitation in August helped to replenish the vines somewhat. Even though the fall months were more balanced, with cooler conditions and precipitation, harvest happened earlier by a whole week, if not more. I am hopeful about the 2022 red wines, but they will always possess a warm-vintage character.

I tasted the wines for this article at organized tastings in Campania and during visits with producers in March 2024.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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