A Guide to Campania Red Wines
Far before the rise of the Roman Empire, Campania was already cultivating an intriguing array of grapes and fermenting into richly volcanic wines. Ancient Greek mariners fleeing the Trojan Wars (at least if Virgil is to be believed) brought the first vines or vitis vinifera to Southern Italy. The first red varietals included Piedirosso and Aglianco- a grape whose very name means ‘Hellenic’ in local dialect. Later Roman nobility would consider Campania’s wines the best in the Empire. While Campania has experienced invasions, volcanic explosions, earthquakes and plagues, her vinicultural traditions continue to surprise and delight. Here we outline the most notable Campania red wines. You can find the companion Guide to Campania White Wines here.
The queen of Campania red varietals. Aglianico is a grape of vinicultural legend. Searching for new commercial opportunities, Greek settlers began arriving in Southern Italy around 700 BC, creating a loose federation of polis or city states known as Magna Grecia. They brought grapes with them and the first among these was Aglianico. Interestingly, oenologist Denis Dubourdieu has said "Aglianico is probably the grape with the longest consumer history of all". A full bodied tannic wine, Aglianico pairs well with roasted game and braised meats- particularly Neapolitan ragù.
Barbera del Sannio
Don’t confuse this wine with the Piedmontese Barbera. In spite of the shared name, Barbera del Sannio bares no close genetic relationship to the Northern version. A robust varietal that thrives in the Sannio Hills of Benevento, Barbera del Sannio is mostly used as a blending grape due to its intense violet color. It produces a medium bodied, lightly tannic wine with notes of stone fruit and berries.
Deep in the wine producing region of Pontelatone and not far from the Royal Palace of Caserta, there is a grape of legends. According to local legend, a small but mighty vine managed to survive in the ruins of an old country house following the 1851 Phylloxera outbreak. The name Casavecchia, meaning old house, is a testament to the varietal’s humbly tenacious origins. Researchers at Federico II University in Naples have speculated that the newly named Casavecchia grape was actually a descendent of Trebulanum, a Roman varietal praised by Pliny the Elder in his famous work Historia Naturalis. With a seductive bouquet of berries and leather, Casavecchia is a supply ambrosial wine that is once subtly tannic and undeniably provocative.
Pair: Wild Boar Ragù, Cacio e Pepe, Bollito Misto with Salsa Verde
Falerno Rosso (Falerno del Massico)
Though not a grape varietal in its own right, Falerno Rosso a blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso grapes merits discussion. According to Roman myth, Bacchus, turned the slopes of Mount Massico into vineyards after a local farmer, Falernus was kind to him when he was disguised as a bedraggled vagabond. From that day on, Roman poets, soldiers and nobility praised Falernum as the greatest wine of their time. In those days the wine was far more alcoholic than it is today. In his Historia Naturalis, Pliny the Elder stated that if a good-quality Falerno was held too close to a naked flame it would catch fire. A smooth wine with a vegetal finish, Falerno is perfect for a lazy country lunch and an even lazier country nap.
Pair: Eggplant Parmesan, Grilled Steak
A light, effervescent red wine, Gragnano seems trifling until you take a moment to enjoy with a Margherita pizza, friends and a view of Vesuvius. Gragnano wines generally are blends of Piedirosso, Aglianico and Sciascinoso grapes. Italian journalist Mario Soldati once who wrote: “At last the Gragnano, a little wine, but unsurpassed.” It may not be a noble wine, but it is certainly convivial. Fizzy and served cold, the best bottles of Gragnano are bought on country roads in the shadow of Vesuvius.
Pair: Pizza, Taralli
Best Labels: Iovine
The red version of Lacyrma Christi refers to a special blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso grapes that grow on the slopes Vesuvius. A boldly mineral forward wine, Lacryma Christi evokes pleasant notes of sulfur and citrus. These are bright wines that offer surprisingly fun food pairing opportunities given their strong minerality.
Pair: Spaghetti with Tomatoes, Provolone del Monaco Cheese
Best Labels: Cantina del Vesuvio
Planted by famed architect Luigi Vanvitelli at the Royal Palace of King Ferdinand in Caserta, this is a royal grape once favored by ruling Bourbon nobility. The Phylloxera epidemic and two devastating World Wars nearly destroyed the grape, but in recent years, local vintners have resurrected the varietal. A spicy wine with notes of cherry and tobacco, Pallagrello Nero pairs well with roasted game and aged cheeses.
Pair: Thanksgiving Turkey, Ischia Rabbit
Best Labels:Vini Alois
Meaning red feet, Piedirosso is so named for the bottom of its vine which resembles the red feet of a pigeon. In regional dialect, the varietal is also called Palombina or pigeon. After Aglianico, this is the most famous autochthonous varietal of Campania. Single variety Piedirosso wines are full bodied with a subtle minerality due to their volcanic soils
Pair: Porcini Risotto, Polpettone (Meat loaf)
The most celebrated red wine of Campania, Taurasi is a playfully lush Aglianico blend from the Province of Avellino. If you are fond of Barberas and Brunellos but want to sample a mineral forward, full bodied Southern red, Taurasi is the wine for you. A corpulently tannic wine aged in oak, Taurasi is best with a big bloody steak.
Pair: Florentine Steak
This little grape from the town of Tramonti, which overlooks the Amalfi Coast is so called because it tints or adds color to other wines. Across Southern Campania many wineries simply use this as a blending grape. If you are lucky enough to venture deep into Tramonti, a beautiful mountain hamlet with the best food on the Amalfi Coast, then you will surely sample house-made versions of the wine. It is nearly impossible to find single varietal versions of Tintore in large supermarkets. You must journey to Tramonti and drink it straight from the cellars of a local farmer.
Pair: Nnunderi Ricotta Gnocchi
Best Labels: Tenuta di San Francesco