Campania: the leading region for white wines in Southern Italy

Wherever you’ll go in Campania, you’ll always find witnesses of a millennium-old viticultural tradition. It could come in the shape of a fresco depicting Bacchus, a bunch of buried doliae (clay vessels) marking the location of an ancient cellar or a hundred year-old vineyard that’s taller than a tree, evoking a time when mixing different crops was the norm. Wine production in Campania has been widely documented by historians from the imperial age of the Roman Empire to the late 18th century, and we all know that  Falernum from Northern Campania was one of the most sought-after wines in ancient times.

 So how come does Campania still lag behind many other regions in terms of recognition and prestige? Why is it still considered an “up-and-coming” destination for wine lovers?

Buried doliae in an archeological site on the flanks of Mount Vesuvius

The answer is that wine production in Campania has stood still for about fifty years. After centuries of prosperity linked to the export of blending wines to northern Italy and foreign countries, speculative building in coastal areas and the depopulation of inland territories in the aftermath of World War has caused the rapid decline of viticulture. The number of total hectares under vine plummeted, and by 1980 you could count on one hand the commercial wineries in the region: there were almost no signs of the big revolution that was taking place in other parts of the peninsula. The earthquake that devastated Irpinia , one of the key wine-growing areas of the region, marked a turning point: it may have dealt a lethal stroke but some producers seized this opportunity to restart from scratch.

The Capaldo and Ercolino families, Antonio Mastroberardino, Silvia Imparato, Antonio Caggiano, Luigi Moio, Antonio and Raffaele Troisi and Leonardo Mustilli are just some of the key figures that relaunched Campanian wine in the early 1990s. By modernizing production, rescuing native varieties and conducting thorough studies, they triggered one of the fastest transformations in the history of Italian wine.

Between those years and the early 2000s, the number of active wineries grew tenfold, and it keeps rising steadily to this date. Although Campania still accounts for around 1% of the national production, it enjoys a lofty reputation as one of the go-to regions for high quality white wine. Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo and Falanghina del Sannio are globally renowned and appreciated for their zippiness and aromatic brightness. Minor varieties such as Pallagrello Bianco, Coda di Volpe and Biancollela are also emerging in the limelight, and the reds are improving as well – if at a slightly slower pace. 

Steep vineyards in the township of Tufo, the cradle of Greco di Tufo

Starting from inland Campania: Sannio and Irpinia

Think Campania and your mind is likely to drift to the Gulf of Naples, the Amalfi coast and the Sorrentino peninsula, the islands of Capri and Ischia, and maybe the archeological sites of Paestum and Pompeii. While these coastal sites are famous all over the world and attract  millions of tourists every year, inland Campania remains off the beaten track. Yet the largest share of regional wine originates from there. Squeezed between the Apennines, the verdant Sannio region accounts for more than 50% of the total production. The neighboring Irpinia area is also mostly mountainous, with elevations ranging between 400 and 700 meters. Irpinia has a smaller output than Sannio but has earned a reputation as the cradle of quality Campanian wine, housing dozens of boutique wineries. 

Campania Stories, the annual event dedicated to the wines of the region, gave us a broad overview of new releases from all over the region, and as always, the Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo appellations in Irpinia yielded the greatest quantity of noteworthy wines – fresh, lively and deceptively easy-drinking but also possessing lovely concentration and balance. 

Although coming from neighboring appellations, the two wines are totally different  – as are the two grapes. The descendant of the ancient vitis apianae, Fiano has a thick skin and performs well in rainier or cooler sites (and in colder vintages, too).  A combination of concentration and upbringing minerally and citrine tension is the main calling card of the best expression of Fiano di Avellino. 

Greco, instead, is more fragile, thin-skinned, and requires more sunshine to reach full maturity – in fact the hills in the seven townships of the Tufo area are characterized by steeper slopes facing west or south-west that benefit from intense solar radiation while still offering a relatively cool growing environment. Greco di Tufo can be a bit less consistent than Fiano di Avellino yet the best examples prove its uncommon ability to be transparent terroir: depending on where it’s planted it can be fruity, floral, slim and delicate or darker, bolder and earthier. The most successful examples from the town of Tufo, the whole economy of which used to rely on the extraction of sulphur, leave detractors of the concept of “minerality” in awe, showcasing a mind-boggling savory and smoky quality.

Both grapes excel with aging, and while Greco starts developing a deeper color and tertiary aromas earlier on – only to remain on a drinking plateau for many years – Fiano retains its freshness and fruity exuberance for a longer time. Nobody does a better job at displaying the aging potential of both grapes than Roberto Di Meo, who lets his top shelf Fiano and Greco rest on the lees for over ten years (check the tasting report for the notes).

Falanghina is a radically different animal. Although widely planted in Irpinia, it is in the Sannio area that it really shines. The region itself is one of the most densely planted in Italy, and for many years cooperatives and big bottlers have almost monopolized Falanghina production, making light and refreshing wines for immediate consumption.  As a result, Falanghina mainly enjoys success in the lower segment of the market. But Falanghina could be more than just that and a few producers in Sannio are trying to defy stereotypes by exploiting its innate versatility, making anything from rich and creamy Vendemmia Tardiva (late harvest) to gold-tinged versions with a little skin contact.

The reds of inland Campania are often deemed consistent than the whites. One of Italy’s latest ripening varieties, Aglianico is by no means the easiest grape to grow. The wines can taste very gritty and unbalanced if the grapes aren’t fully ripe or extraction is poorly managed. Unfortunately, many Aglianico producers still lack proper winemaking expertise, and they try to make up for the lack of ripeness by smothering the wines with sweet oak or extending the aging until the fruit starts to fade. When tasting them, you are left scratching your head and wondering where did Campanian Aglianico’s nickname, Barolo del Sud, came from. You have to resort to the best Taurasi or Aglianico del Taburno producers to understand that – try anything from Mastroberardino, Quintodecimo, Tenuta Cavalier Pepe, Fattoria La Rivolta and Perillo and you’ll really understand the world-class potential of Aglianico. Layered, complex and very Barolo-esque in terms of tannin-fruit-acid balance, these wines are virtually immortal. 

Aglianico, however, isn’t the only red grape worth mentioning. If I were to pick a red variety from inland Campania that has really has a huge potential, that would be Camaiola, formerly known as Barbera del Sannio. An aromatic grape that shall not be confused with Piedmontese Barbera, Camaiola gives light-bodied and perfumed reds with almost no tannins. It epitomizes the kind of lightness and elegance younger consumers are drawn to. 

The rise of volcanic wines

Some of Campania’s most important vineyards insist in areas celebrated by Romantic poets in the 19th century – places of sublime beauty, the charm of which is heightened by the imminent danger of an eruption or earthquake.

I refer to Vesuvius, where wine production is also a bulwark against the advance of concrete in one of the most densely populated areas in Europe, and to Campi Flegrei, a system of mesmerizingly beautiful hills overlooking the sea that insist on one of the largest active supervolcanoes in the world. Tending vineyards in the latter area is an heroic act: not only does the earth tremble very often – and you’ll frequently spot fumaroles appearing in the middle of the ground! – but the sandy soils means producers have to grow vineyards on terraced slopes that need proper care to avoid collapsing. But the efforts are well repaid by the quality of the wines,  which still fetch far lower prices than they deserve. Falanghina is totally different from the namesake grape from the Sannio – the Flegrei biotype of the variety is slightly lower-acid and more neutral in character, allowing the whites from this area to shine for their minerally-spicy energy and smoky chiaroscuro.

Piedirosso from Campi Flegrei or Vesuvio is the go-to wine for estimators of light reds. Its slightly astringent tannins and hard-to-ripen phenolic means it performs best when macerations are short, fermentation is carried out at low temperatures, and aging occurs in stainless steel. The resulting wines are almost Gamay-like, with a slightly herbal edge and some smoky nuances from the volcanic terroir. They are perfect summer reds, drinking well slightly chilled with tuna or oily fish. 

The slopes of Vesuvius also house minor white varieties like Caprettone and Catalanesca, all of which offer a slightly different take on the terroir the volcano, while displaying tangy volcanic salinity as a common point. 

The other Campania 

Beyond Irpinia, Sannio and the up-and-coming volcanic areas in the outskirts of Naples, there are dozens of little-known wines and territories that deserve to be discovered. 

In the north of the region, the Terra di Lavoro area is still little traveled but offers dozens of hidden gems. On the fothills of Monte Massico, Falerno del Massico Bianco (made with Falanghina) and Falerno del Massico Rosso (either Aglianico or Primitivo) are the descendants of the mythological Roman wine, but they still have a long way to go to match its reputation. A little further south, over 3 meters tall alberata vineyards planted to Asprinio near the town of Aversa testify an archaic winemaking tradition. This is also an area that has had severe issues with organized crime over the years, and one of the most intriguing new projects, Vitematta, farms land that used to be owned by Gomorra clans. 

But the winemaking scene of Campania is immensely more diversified, and it would take far longer to discuss everything that deserves being pinned down – from Pallagrello Bianco, the Bourbon kings’ favorite variety, to Mediterranean-scented Fiano and Greco from the coast of Cilento in the south of the region, and refreshing field blends from old vineyards on terraces along the Amalfi Coast. Unfortunately one article is not enough, and while promising to delve deeper into specific appellations in the future, we recommend you check out the full tasting report to read the notes for some of these hidden gems! 

Check out the full report with the best wines from Campania to try