Campania’s powerhouse red grape Aglianico is often described as the “Barolo of southern Italy,” prompting winemaker Libero Rillo to take a qualified – and prideful – exception: “We, in Benevento, hear that often and politely correct it. ‘No’, we say, ‘Barolo is the Aglianico of the North.’ ”
Rillo’s point was well taken at a recent Sannio Wines Consortium tasting event at Mamma Maria’s restaurant in Boston’s North End, where elegant Aglianico (“alli-yawn-nico”) and Falanghina, an ancient white varietal, brought the table of exquisite food pairings to life and beyond.
The Sannio consortium, headed by Rillo, consists of 400 growers, producers and bottlers in Benevento, an inland province located east of Naples. It is here where ancient Greeks tended vines as far back as the 7th century and the Roman poet Virgil wrote about the “enchanting lands” and “magical wines”. Today, the noble Aglianico grape excels in elevated vineyards rich in volcanic, limestone marl, and clay soils.
“Aglianico and Falanghina are very important and interesting grapes in Italy, and yet many people have not experienced their beauty,” said Rillo, who also manages his family’s Fontanavecchia winery. “To tell the story of Sannio is to show how these grapes are made and the history of the region.”
Sannio’s Aglianico del Taburno appellation is one of Campania’s two production zones to receive Italy’s highest quality “DOCG” classification. The other is the Taurasi DOCG located south of Benevento near the city of Avellino. (A third top zone – Aglianico del Vulture – is found in Basilicata.) DNA research has shown the varietal to have evolved into different biotypes influenced by the local environment, providing the regional wines with unique characteristics. Aglianico “Amaro” is the Taburno biotype. Its wines traditionally exhibit complex wild berry, plum and violet notes accented by black pepper, clove, tobacco and licorice. High in alcohol, acidity and tannins, Aglianico is an ageworthy wine that benefits from extended cellaring. It is also a classic pairing with beef brisket, smoked pork, seared prime rib, osso buco, venison, beef and rabbit stew, barbecue beef and aged cheeses.
The Sannio region is also noted for Falanghina, an ancient white grape that oenologists believe was the basis for Roman antiquity’s most famous wine, Falernum, and dozens of indigenous grapes that have grown wild in rustic outcroppings for centuries.
What follows are my tasting notes on several special wines. According to Rillo, the Sannio consortium is negotiating contracts with U.S. importers and he expects the wines, ranging in price from $16 to $45, to be available here in the new year.
Facetus Falanghina Taburno 2012 – Rillo’s Fontanavecchia produces this 100 percent Falanghina that’s golden yellow, fragrant, crisp, fruity and high in alcohol (14.5%). A standout flavor of Cognac highlights a smooth finish.
Torre a Oriente Biancuzita Falanghina 2016 – A well-balanced, elegant white that rocks with nervy tension, strong minerality, bright citrus notes and a long bitter almond finish.
Vigna Cataratte Aglianico del Taburno DOCG Riserva 2010 – A big, bold, high alcohol (15.5%) beauty from Fontanavecchia that bursts forth in a purple ocean of deep flavors. Total time aged in barrels and bottle has reached nine years and mellowed the tannins to Charmin smoothness. Complex layers of tobacco, leather, violet and plum traits abound. The palate is luxurious.
Nifo Sarrapochiello Aglianico del Taburno DOCG 2015 – This small family-run winery has been bio-certified since 1998 yet it’s imbued with history and tradition: an original wine cellar dates back to 1770. The wine is young yet approachable, with dark berry and wild herb notes setting the stage for even a brighter future with some cellaring.
Masseria Vigne Vecchie Cinque Grani Sannio Aglianico – While this is not in the DOCG class, it’s no less representative of a quality wine that states the case for a powerful, spicy, dry, and drinkable Aglianico. Smooth as silk too.
Cantine Morone Benevento Neropiana Barbera 2017 – For nearly 100 years, Sannio’s barbera was mistakenly compared to the more attention-grabbing Piedmont version. While there’s no shame in the latter, there’s definitely room for greater recognition for this distinctly splendid “camaiola” vine barbera of ancient pedigree. Neropiana is medium bodied, aromatic, dark ruby colored, and richly attuned in plum, prune, and black cherry expressions.
COMING NEXT WEEK: Greater Boston’s wine experts make their Thanksgiving Day wine suggestions.