Getting to know Avellino

wp-1578363306003.jpgI’ve always been a fan of Aglianico. Although in America, pickings can be slim, and–as it is considered a variety of great aging potential–often moderately old. Not that there’s anything wrong with old wines, not at all. But feeling these wines in their bright freshness–at their source–and seeing all the measures taken to PRESERVE that youthful fruit is something quite overlooked when only exposed to wines developing tertiary. There were several side benefits to experiencing the Aglianico at Tenuta Del Meriggio. First of all, it exposed me to Taurasi, the very special DOCG dedicated to Aglianico, but nearly overshadowing these powerful reds are the ridiculous whites produced alongside: Greco (Tufo DOCG) and Fiano (Avellino DOCG). It should also be mentioned a couple ancient, indigenous grapes are also produced: Coda di Volpe as a DOC and Falanghina, which Americans are probably far more familiar with in relation to wines from Campania–at least when I mentioned I was traveling there, Falanghina was the first word out of my wine-friends’ mouths.

While we’re on the subject of *Compania knowledge* I should mention what EYE knew about it going in. 99% of my exposure in several decades of drinking wine in the U.S. had been under the Feudi Di San Gregorio label. This is a brand fairly common in the US and pretty much represented the extent of my experience save for a few outliers over the years. As part of my research WHILE in Campania, I picked up this same label off a local shelf just to see how it compared to the stuff I was being exposed to at a boutique winery. The results were shocking. It is–quite literally–supermarket plonk, nowhere NEAR exuding the sort or lavish fruit and mineral experienced at Meriggio. And to think I have a fair amount of this in my cellar!


The other thing I always do before such trips to relatively unknown regions is to snoop around what others say. I went through my library of Usual Suspects on all things encyclopedic to wine and came away with not much more than I already knew. While most entries were promising of decent quality and variable nuance, most indicated the best-known brand to stick to as Mastroberardino, whose ‘Radici’ bottling I ALSO experimented with while in Naples and it, too, displayed the kind of dull, safe normal-ness and un-inspiring fruit the Feudi did. An interesting aside here is this is almost IDENTICAL to the VERY BRIEF wiki-page on Taurasi, which indicates in its scant dozen-sentences the appellation was relatively unknown until early this century, where it has exploded to over 200 labels BUT–as if tearing a page directly from Karen McNeil’s book–lists solely the afore-mentioned Mastro as the only “wine-of-interest”.

Well then. I’m here to change your mind about that.

Loyal readers will know I am not one to allow *the story* to over-shadow the stuff under the cork, but one of the beauties of spending an entire week on a winery is the ability to really get to know the proprietors, their ideals, and their goals. Keep in mind this was not a week on a region, or on a variety, not even within a consorzio of producers, but an entire week on a single winery. Oh, but there are way MORE benefits. Completely immersing oneself in the dining and sources of dining in a very tight area sheds light on the symbiotic relationship between the wine and local cuisine. And in gastronomic cultures this old, the association is obvious. Not to be ignored are the local sights and sounds, and spending an entire week nearly one-on-one with the proprietors of a local business which depends on regional intricacies allows ample time to *stop and smell the roses* as it were, with plentiful side-trips to sights both adapted-to naturally and created as part of societal history. From the rocky switchbacks overlooking the colorful Amalfi coast to narrow hillside villages in the shadow of Vesuvius–castles and churches and palaces and museums in between–all proudly reflecting their stitches in the fabric of a region, and all benefiting from the bounty–and climate–of the Mediterranean. Because we’re here to talk about food & wine, remember?

wp-1578362598731..jpgTenuta Del Meriggio is a winery born from a life-long interest in wine by a family dedicated to–and still fully immersed in–the on-the-street healthcare industry. Both Bruno and Nunzio Pizza dreamed of making wine themselves one day and this rocky little hillside above Avellino is the fruition of their physical–and financial–dedication to this goal. No expense has been spared in this state-of-the-art winery, and it shares many complements with its dug-deep hillside location. The sticky volcanic clay holds moisture indefinitely, translating to wet natural cellar walls producing near-100% humidity and shiver-inducing year-round temperatures, but also hampering off-season cultivation of the stony slopes and contributing constantly to vine-concern–especially in springtime. Unlike some wine-production facilities I have been inside of in Italy, this place is near-sterile in cleanliness, the equipment computer-controlled and several of the pieces geeky enough to have a function outside the grasp of someone fairly familiar with winery-processes.

wp-1578366559790..jpgI won’t go into a whole lot of detail about the winery. It’s brand new; It’s beautiful; The inside of almost all wineries is identical–the age and layout and whether the floor-drains work the only variables. Two or three things did pique my interest enough to bear mentioning though. They have a water-reclamation system installed downhill of the crush-pad. If you’ve ever worked in a winery, you KNOW the incredible amount of water used–not consumed, used–in keeping everything flowing. This water all has to go somewhere and it doesn’t really have anything WRONG with it. So a series of ponds and sumps and a selection of plants and gravels produce not only water which can be used as irrigation on the rare occasion, but re-used in the winery for cleaning. Another wish-list item I will mention is their own cold-room. Probably 2000-2500 sqft–not to mention the 20′ high ceilings–it is capable of (at least) 0° Celsius and is used in both pre-production fruit and post-production bottle stability. Lastly, I loved the Austrian-oak (not variable top) upright fermenters where the Aglianico spends upwards of 45 days in primary. They are big though–I mean what the hell even IS 100hl??? But they are very pretty and I kinda want one.

wp-1578361899233.jpgAre the wines organic or the property biodynamic? No. But here’s the thing you have to realize about European wineries: EVERYTHING is automatically far more “organic” than American agriculture–even without the badge–and EVERYONE is striving to both grow grapes and produce wines with as little chemical sleight-of-hand as possible. Americans have this weird black-and-white on-off switch when it comes to “organic”, and I’ve seen their faces when they ask and get the simple answer, “No.” If you stick around long enough for the FULL answer–and a complete understanding of wine-making approach in Europe–apparent is the fact the vineyard manager and winemaker are doing their best to minimize applications and additives, but a healthy vineyard is more important than an organic one and a healthy fermentation is more important than a natural one. This is the same argument I proffer constantly to the ‘Natural Wine’ crowd: There are no Natural Wines, only NATURALER wines. Being certified organic cuts hard into a wineries ability to compete in Italy, and honestly, the natives are just not as concerned about that word *officially* appearing on a label. Make sure your wines are being thoughtfully made, and vague titles won’t matter.

TdMThe winery itself sits up at about 1500 feet elevation on a fairly steep south-facing slope with various exposures of varying degrees for various small blocks of fruit. The exact town is Montemiletto, near the town of and in the province of Avellino, in the district of Irpinia–which is also the appellation? in the region of Campania. Sorry, the Irpinia part I never was quite able to get a handle on in terms of specific geographical boundaries, although it IS the appellation. Got that all straight? The Taurasi and Tufo DOCG’s are nearby at slightly lower elevations. The winery runs just shy of 10,000 cases per year–making it a fairly small operation–everything is bottled without additional sulphites, and only the Taurasi sees extended macerations and oak. And even then, the *oak* is massive, varnished barriques. The pecking order at this winery (and similar to others I have witnessed) is an “agronomist” (basically: vineyard manager)–and at Meriggio, Mr. Bruno Pizza is also an agronomist–who works year-round almost equally with the “oenologist” (they don’t really ever say ‘winemaker’), who here, is a rather famous Carmine Valentino and CLEARLY performing the duties which stateside would be called ‘Consulting Winemaker’ (the consulting part doesn’t translate, believe me I tried). Then there is the full-time on-site winemaker they also call an oenologist or sometimes ‘Technician’ who clearly is performing in the function we would call Assistant Winemaker. After that, it’s just a bunch of pruners, pickers and hose-draggers, the daily minutia of management I got to witness first-hand and let me tell you it differs NOT ONE SPECK from here in California. Tenuta Del Meriggio also has at the helm a Communicazione Commerciale or something something–a marketing director–by the name of Paolo Sibillo, a very focused but gregarious former boxer who speaks perfect English and naturally has his finger on everything from production and pricing to packaging and distribution. It’s quite a team, but we all know Nunzia runs the whole thing.

wp-1578363216468.jpgBut how are the wines? I know you’re here for the wines. Let’s talk about the whites first. How beautiful these things were. Perfect with all the seafood we ate all over town at numerous restaurants. Everywhere, the Greco and Fiano came out. The latter far richer and rounder than the former, and naturally a favorite with the Chardonnay-drinkers in the crowd. The Greco is angular and lean, more akin to Riesling to me and was my favorite whenever the two were presented. A couple of notes about my notes which later proved themselves factually: First, I kept noting KMBS in the Greco. Turns out ‘Tufo” is the rock they quarry in the region to make the cobblestones and it has a very high sulfur content. There’s one. Secondly, I insisted the Greco was tannic. Turns out it has a very thin, delicate skin which actually GOES THROUGH the press mesh, creating a bit of skin-contact in the fermenters and with it, tannin. Lastly, I kept getting oak in the Fiano, even though it sees no oak (the reserve does). You would SWEAR there’s oak in it. In reality, this is a by-product of them freezing the grapes for 48 hrs before pressing. (remember that cold-room?) It creates a nutty, oaky, full mouthfeel while preserving the fruit. So I’m not crazy, after all.

wp-1578363216468.jpg2018 irpinia coda di volpe DOC  Big citrus and austerity but it kind of turned into a bit of sweetness, candy pie or something. Kinda dusty floral really really dusty… It’s a great standalone grape they only make a little bit of it most of it goes in the blend but it’s really sharp, acidic and has an interesting floral but yet teary softness to it that belies its intensity.
2018 fiano di avellino (T1) Creamy round vanilla nutty oak. Old worldy and full of applesauce, melon and kiwi. Green cleanness reverberates throughout the cellar funk.
2018 fiano di avellino (T2) I’m getting so much richness here, more than I got last night. It’s all cream soda in the nose nice Twinkie icing but not cream cheese frosting, no citrus, all chubby roundness. … Big round old world funk in the mouth, gritty soggy soil but a granular brightness.
2017 fiano di avellino Nice and clean, none of the barnyard funk I get off the 18. Nice apple and peach little bit of spice, little cardamon… In the mouth full and rich again. I could sell endcaps of this to Chard drinker and convert them. It has all the full mouth feel that Chardonnay drinker, chablis drinker and sancerre drinker needs but also the acidity and the minerality doesn’t take a break. Mouthfeel goes on and on.
wp-1578362716557.jpg2018 greco di tufo (T1) Interesting funky nose, nice reduction and stewed fruit, good earthiness and body in nose, good mineral edgy sharp in nose: cream soda and sprite notes with KMBS? … In the mouth, full and rich, 13.5 guess: 14. Full and round, almost a seedy strawberry Sierra-berry goodness. Citrus rind edge sharp and cutting. Mid palate a lil thin then comes crashing back to almost tannic bitterness. A brilliant white wine. Absolutely world-class stuff. I love this wine.
2018 greco di tufo (T2) I thought I got a touch of potassium metabisulfite off the front this morning and it’s still here. I’m getting a lot more baking spice off of this one really interesting cinnamon and nutmeg and a pastry pastry cheese note… Ridiculous mouthfeel but not a California sort of atmosphere, a raspy and honest bitter and there’s no way to argue there is not tannin in this wine. This is a winter-time wine–it won’t keep you warm but it will keep you alive.
2014 greco di tufo Bad vintage? A lot creamier nose… full mouthfeel, good pomplamousse and more applesauce, all your dreams are alive here, boys & girls, ridiculous acidity, crazy mineral. Solid mouthfeel for decades. This is not made as well as the 18 and I would love to taste the 18 at this age.
wp-1578363282741.jpg2018 fiano di avellino selectione A little oak on this one but really not noticeable in the nose. I was expecting something more. Solid but it actually has come and gone the other direction from the non selection it’s really really light… Rich and full in the mouth but it doesn’t let you get too far down the road before all that mineral kicks in… all the Chardonnay drinkers in the room def prefer the non-selection. Bottled 2 months ago and the feel like it’s a little awkward at this moment. Still it’s brilliant brilliant stuff.
2018 greco di tufo selectione This is clean and mellow in the nose I feel like some of the lovely stuff I like about the stainless steel has been eroded. I’m getting more potassium metabisulfite I feel like it might be really recently bottled? Tomato stem and water down honey in the mouth. Very mellow and smoothed out but you’ve got tannin still there. I’m sorry I’m just not the biggest fan of these selections which is pretty much par for the course with me. The regular bottlings have more fruit. To their credit although they are both very freshly bottled and and perhaps will settle down a little bit in 6-months.
2015 irpania aglianico DOC Nice dense formidable Ruby with a barely faded edge staining with good legs… Beautiful & nails all the way through. Smooth down into a nice cherry reduction pomegranate where the chocolate tobacco is just pouring out of it even though it’s only 5. Nice green-briar but it’s a polished sort of briar. Acid is going to be there it’s just a breath in the background underneath all that cinnamon. In the mouth you can definitely taste the age. It has a crazy fruit to it but also a little bit of imbalance because the the tannins and the acidity are so huge, there’s a wall of dark fruit that lingers slightly behind it and is it saving grace. This needs about 4 hours in a decanter then you possibly could approach it. So much going on in the nose and in the finish that I feel sorry for the entry and middle. There is a really nice herb or herbaceous sort of rosemary oil thing going on in the finish that I could really get addicted to. A stupidly delicious wine.
2014 taurasi aglianico DOCG Plain and elegant in the nose. Subdued at first. Dull briar fruit so huge, massive cherry luxardo finally blows up. So elegant in the mouth, mouth-wrackingly dry and acidic, I could literally drink this wine all day long I’m not going to fall into the crutch of comparing it to another region it’s just not fair. This is stupidly good, perfect barrel, good fruit. I will be a little bit concerned that maybe the fruit will not out live with the tannin but there’s gobs of it back there so it’s not really my place to say.
2012 taurasi aglianico DOCG Showing a bit more garnet in the glass. Just a hint of brick at the edge. A little bit oxidized in the nose to be honest, creamy buttery big bread popcorn sort of nuances borderline on banana but not quite going there. Through all this nutty and reduced fruit shine calamata and Herbs de Provence notes. Ridiculous fruit, honestly more fruit than the 14 which would bode well for my question as to whether the fruit can outlive the tannin.
2010 taurasi Aglianico DOCG Really starting to smooth there. Still all there but really starting to smooth out and the reduction on fruit is just absolutely gorgeous. Lithe and bitter and green, fruit a glorious bystander in the tertiary theme.

I know I was supposed to rant and rave about the Taurasi’s–and I did, to a point–but that little 2015 “regular” Irpinia DOC Aglianico was my wine of the day several times. I kept coming back to it as a benchmark for what the variety could do. I know it has zero barrique aging and was actually released LONG before it had this much bottle-age, but it is straight-up gorgeous. Funny thing is: later on in the week we attended a big formal dinner with local celebrities and notables. They served one red. I couldn’t believe it: My WINE OF THE WEEK: the 2015 Irpinia Aglianico. Good things come to those who wait.

And what the world needs now is more Greco and Aglianiaco.

These wines are available thru Siena Imports on the West Coast.