Monday, June 27, 2016

The King of Aglianico – Piero at Mastroberardino Winery

I first met Piero Mastroberardino at Vinitaly several years ago.  As a fellow professor, we immediately had something in common.  He invited me to join a vertical tasting of his Taurasi Aglianico, which featured four wines from each decade of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s.  It couldn’t have been a better introduction to aglianico, because it made me fall in love with the grape and wine.  The complex black plum, tar and earth notes, with the piercing acidity and structured tannins of the wine allows it to last for decades, and grow in complexity. Rightly called the “Barolo of the South,” aglianico from the famous Taurasi region of Campania is an icon of the wine world.

Famous Taurasi Aglianico Wines from Mastroberardino

We had a 10:30 appointment at the Mastroberardino Winery in the small town of Atripalda, so we departed Rome around 7am and arrived by 10:20. Since Piero was out of town, he had arranged for us to be met by Virgina in hospitality and Daniela in winemaking.  They were both ultimate professionals, providing us with a tour of the winemaking facilities, the ancient cellar with a treasure trove of old Taurasi wines, a video overview, and then a sit down tasting.

Mastroberardino Wine Production Facility in Campania

Overview of Mastroberardino Winery

Established in 1878, Mastroberardino is the oldest continually operating winery in Campania. Piero’s great grandfather, Angelo, started the winery with a vision to save the ancient indigenous grapes of the region from extinction – mainly aglianico, fiano, greco, and falanghina.

In the beginning they had a hard time getting anyone to purchase wines made from such unusual grapes, so Angelo traveled to South America where he was successful in selling his wines to the many Italians who had immigrated there.  Eventually the high quality and unique style of the wines gained global recognition, and he was able to begin exporting to the US and other countries.  Today 35% of Mastroberardino’s production is exported around the world.

In the Winemaking Cellars of Mastroberardino

Currently they have 200 hectares of vineyards that are farmed sustainably, with many of the vineyards at higher altitudes.  They also purchase grapes from other growers, so that in total they produce around 2 million bottles annually. As a member of the Instituto Grandi Marchi, they are considered to be one of the top 20 most famous wine brands of Italy, along with other such famous names of Gaja and Sassicaia.

Ceiling of Mastroberardino Cellar

A Tasting of Two Distinctive Wines

Daniela led us through a technical tasting of two wines, including in-depth explanations of vineyard specifics and winemaking processes.

2015 Radici Fiano de Avellino Mastroberardino –Nose of white flowers and minerality.  On the palate, more minerality with pear and hazelnuts. Medium textured body with crisp acid. Long complex finish. Grapes are from a single vineyard at 500 meters on the hillsides. Stainless steel fermentation at 10-12 C, followed by 3 to 4 months aging in bottle before release.  Though tasting fine at such a young age, we were told this fiano can easily last for 20 to 25 years in the bottle, taking on more complex and nutty notes over time.

Tasting of Mastroberardino Wines

2011 Radici Taurasi Aglianico Mastroberardino – Nose of black plum and earthy notes, followed through on palate with the addition of tar, tobacco and dried cherry. Very high acid and massive tannins, with long finish. Fermented in stainless steel at 18-19 C; with a gentle pump over once a day. Daniela stressed that, similar to nebbiolo, aglianco should not have too much extraction due to the huge tannin structure. Aged for 24 months in French barrique and Slovonian casks, and then for another 24 months in bottle before release 4 years after harvest.

Daniela and Virginia Leading Technical Tasting at Mastroberardino

After the tasting, we purchased many bottles/cases of wine in the wine shop, including a rose made from aglianico grapes, as well as some lacyrma christi in both the white and red varietals.  The red turned out to be extremely delicious with jammy berry notes and soft creamy tannins.  I also bought the Historia, which is an aglianico made with grapes from very old vines and comes in a beautifully engraved bottle with a bull motif.  In addition, we were shown the 100 euro wine made from an ancient vineyard in the ruins of Pompeii.

All in all, a very educational and enjoyable visit to Mastroberardino.

Mosaic in Mastroberardino Ancient Cellars

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Campania Wine Region: Climate, Major Grapes and Four DOCGs

Located about two hours south of Rome, the wine region of Campania is a magical and romantic place. The word “Campania” means “Happy Land”, and the locals told us that the landscape is similar to that of Piedmont.  I would have to agree because Campania is beautiful with rolling hills, vineyards, olive groves, red poppies, and rocky mountain cliffs. The vineyards are also at higher elevations, ranging from 300 to 800 meters above sea level.

The Beautiful Vineyard Landscape of Campania

The climate is obviously Mediterranean, being close to the sea. It has hot dry summers and cool wet winters, with afternoon sea breezes to keep grape acid levels high and grape skins thick.  The soil is a mixture of clay and volcanic rock, with some areas having the famous “tufo” stone, which is similar to a chalky white ash.

Campania is also home to some amazing cultural sites, such as the ancient city of Pompeii, destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius volcano. They still make wine at an old vineyards site in Pompeii using the Aglianico grape.

The Ruins of Pompeii

The Amalfi Coast is also close by with its tall rock cliffs plunging to tiny white sand beaches. Lemon groves cling to the hillsides, and the region is famous for its DOCG Lemoncello di Amalfi. The drive along the coast past charming villages, including Positano, reminded me a bit of the Cinque Terra, but more flashy and accessible. Along the way you see many Ferraris as well as Sophia Loren’s home, and in every restaurant and bar you can buy lemoncello.

The Breathtakingly Beautiful Amalfi Coast

Three Major Grapes of Campania and Four DOCGs

Back in the hills away from the coast is where the abundant vineyards of Campania can be found. The three most famous grapes of the region and four DOCGS are described below.

Fiano an aromatic white grape with notes of pear and white flowers. It is made in two styles – one light and refreshing, and the other heavy and textured, with complex minerality and the ability to age for many years. A few fianos have an interesting sage note on the finish. The best fiano is said to come from the village of Avellino.  Therefore it has been granted its own DOCG: Fiano de Avellino

Greco an aromatic white grape with notes of peach and honey. It is a heavier bodied wine, and some compare it to Viognier. It often has a textured palate with some volcanic mineral notes. The word Greco means “Greek,” and most people believe the Greeks brought the grape to Campania. The best Greco is said to come from the town of Tufo, where the soil is filled with the white chalky ash that makes up tufo stone.  Therefore it has been granted its own DOCG: Greco di Tufo. There is also a red Greco, but it is rarely seen.

Aglianico – the famous red grape of Campania that is known as the “Barolo of the South.” It creates wines that have huge tannins, high acid, and notes of dried cherry, leather, tobacco, tar, black plum, and chocolate. Often lighter in color, but can be blended to make darker, with merlot, cab, syrah, or local grapes. It can age for decades, and is often not approachable until 3 to 4 years of aging, so most producers wait that long before releasing it to consumers.

Aglianico is so famous it has 2 DOCGs in Campania –Taurasi and Aglianico del Taburno, as well as one in the neighboring region of Basilicata: Aglianico del Vulture Superiore. In each of these DOCGs, the Aglianico that is produced is complex and ageworthy.

Campania's Famous Grape Varietals Made into Fine Wines by Mastroberardino

Other Campania Grapes

There are many other interesting Campania grapes.  Several that we enjoyed trying were:

Lacryma Christi – meaning “heavenly tears” this grape is grown on the hillsides of Mt. Vesuvius and is said to be named for the “tears of Christ.” It comes in both a red and white grape. The white produces a rather bland version of wine with citrus and straw, but the red grape creates a wine with a soft creamy texture with velvety tannins and notes of plum, red licourice and vanilla. Many people in our group fell in love with the red version.

Falaghina – an ancient white grape that produces heavy bodied wines with straw, nut and lemon notes. It is also used for sparkling, and we enjoyed several very refreshing brut versions.

Coda di Volpe – meaning “tail of the fox,” because the formation of the grape cluster is very long and looks like a fox tail. A white grape, it produces a mineral driven textured wine with citrus, nuts and straw.

Coda di Volpe Grapes at Cavalier Pepe Winery Where We Visited to Taste their Amazing Wine from this Grape

We visited two wineries in the Campania wine region - Mastroberardino and Tenuta Cavalier Pepe.  Descriptions of these visits are described in separate blog posts.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Wine Tour to Southern Italy – Exploring the Regions of Campania, Puglia and Sicily

(May 2016) We just finished a 12 day wine tour of Southern Italy, and it was truly amazing.  It started and finished in Rome, but focused on the three major regions of Campania, Puglia and Sicily. We also included some cultural stops along the way such as Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast in Campania, the ancient cities of Alberobello and Lecce in Puglia, and the amazing seaside village of Cefalu in Sicily.

Our Wine Delegation in Rome

The following blog posts describe the highlights of the trip and the nine wineries we visited.  There were 28 of us in total – all members of a California wine delegation.  Everyone either works in the wine industry, or was traveling with someone who did. Ten were Wine MBA and undergraduate candidates who went on the trip for class credit. See highlights of trip in short video here.

Italian Wine by the Numbers (in 2016)

We started the trip with a quick overview of the Italian wine industry:

  • #1 – Italy is currently the #1 largest wine producer in the world
  • 20 – number of major wine regions in Italy
  • 332 – number of DOC in Italy (now listed under DOP)
  • 74 – number of DOCG in Italy (now listed under DOP)
  • 118 – number of IGP in Italy
  • 370 – estimate of number of indigenous grapes in Italy

Southern Italy – Home of the First Cult Wine

Southern Italy has been producing wine for more than 4000 years.  Settled by the Greeks, southern Italy was known as Magna Graecia, or “Great Greece. “The Greeks brought some of their grapes to Italy, but the peninsula already had many indigenous grapes.

The first cult wine in the world is said to have come from this part of Italy. Pliny the Elder described Falernian wine as the most famous and expensive.  It came from the slopes of Mt. Falernus south of Rome and in the region of Campania.  It was supposedly a white wine of high alcohol level that was available in both a sweet and dry style.  Some reports state it was made of Aglianico, which is a red grape, whereas other state is was made of Greco (a white grape).

Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii Ruins

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Who Needs Chickens in the Vineyard When You Have California Quail?

May 2016 – One of the downsides of living in the country on the foothills of Sonoma Mountain is that you must haul your garbage bins up and down the hill once a week when the garbage truck comes.  It was about 7:30pm this evening when I remembered I had not yet hauled up the recycle bin because it is so much larger and heavier than the regular garbage can. Therefore as the sun was sinking below a fog bank rolling in from the Pacific Ocean, I decided I should force myself to walk down the hill and roll the bin back up to the house.

Sun Sinking into Fog Bank in Sonoma County, California

On the way out of the door, I thought it would be a good idea to turn on the drip irrigation for thirty minutes to bring a small amount of water to the 30 newly grafted pinot noir vines in my hobby vineyard of 120 vines. They had been grafted nearly a month ago from Dijon 777 clone to Pommard, because my neighbor convinced me I needed a little more clonal variety in my pinot noir vineyard.
I had already suckered the new vines several days ago, and they were just beginning to bud out, but the normally calm May weather had turned hot for the last two days, reaching up to 90 degrees. Therefore, I flipped the irrigation meter on the 30 vines, as well as the roses I had planted at the end of each row.

My Small Vineyard of 120 Vines 

Walking down the hill I couldn’t help but admire the lovely peach and mauve sunset, made more impressionist by the softly rolling fog. As I neared the vineyard, I could hear water spraying in the air, and knew that some of the irrigation nozzles must have been knocked off.  Sure enough, as I opened the vineyard gate, I could see water spraying in the air near two of the rose bushes.
Quickly reaching down I tried to connect the black irrigation hose to the lose piece, and was immediately sprayed in the face by cold water. Finally I gave up and used a rock to hold the hose in place so the white rose bush received some water for 30 minutes. Then I checked the rest of the irrigation nozzles and discovered that most were operating correctly.
Roses at the end of each vineyard row
As I stood there in the fading light, I suddenly heard the “buzz thrum, buzz thrum” of a ruby-throated humming bird. Glancing over, I saw the tiny sweet bird taking a bath in the spray of the water I had just created near the roses. I watched in awe as his emerald and ruby wings shimmered in the glistening water and setting light of the sun.

Ruby Throated Humming Bird. Photo Credit: S. Maslowski

Then I heard scratching in the dirt. Looking up towards the top of the vineyard, I saw at least twelve California quail emerge from the bushes to scratch and feed in the vineyard rows. As I watched them in delight, I realized they were all nesting pairs, each with a male with his signature cocked comb and a plump female, most likely ready to give birth to a covey of babies.

I had no idea there were so many California quail in my vineyard, and they seemed to be finding plenty of bugs and seeds to eat, because they scratched in the dirt and grasses like the chickens that organic and biodynamic vineyard owners use to till the soil. Who needs chickens, I thought, when I have a whole community of California quail?

California Quail. Photo Credit: Yathin sk
Then I noticed several brown sparrows pecking in the grass as well, and saw a pair of hawks float softly above in the evening breeze before they settled into a large California oak. All of the bird life immediately reminded me of my father, the ornithologist, and everything he taught me about wild birds as I was growing up. I knew he would greatly enjoy sitting in this vineyard tonight and watching all of the amazing wildlife slowly appear as long as you were still and quiet.

“Be still! Be quiet!” I remember him saying so many times as I was a small child in the backseat of the truck, while he looked through binoculars at birds on a pond in the middle of nowhere, for what seemed like hours.

So I stayed still and quiet in my vineyard, and the earth and her bounty rose up around me in a glorious symphony of bird, insect, and plant life – all encompassed by a peach colored sky and lavender fog.

And then, in that stillness, I smelled a very delicate scent. Rising to my feet, I walked to the nearest grapevine and gently pushed the large green leaves apart to see that my vines were in full bloom. Tiny white blossom graced all of the baby grape clusters in the rare few days that are “bloom in a vineyard.” Very few people realize that wine grape vines go through a period of flower, and that the scent is soft and delicate. I lowered by nose to the tiny flowers and inhaled the sweet, but illusive scent which reminds me of a pale version of White Shoulders perfume with a hint of citrus.

My Wine Grape Cluster in Bloom - With White Blossoms

So it was with a light heart that I left the vineyard and pulled the large blue recycle bin back up the hill to my house. As I crested the hill and looked back, slightly out of breath, I saw the sun sink below the horizon in a pale pink glow. It was the first time in many years that I was rather grateful to the garbage company for forcing me out on such an evening to retrieve my recycle bin.

Sunset in Sonoma County