Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Wines of Antiquity

In the early years of the 8th Century B.C.E., Greek colonists were plying the western Mediterranean seeking new land for expansion. Phoenician explorers had gone before them and the Greeks followed the Phoenician routes to a fertile land they named Oenotria.

As settlements grew in Oentria, agriculture flourished and with it an ancient form of viticulture. The colonists saw potential in the rich volcanic soil, deposited along the slopes of an active volcano that towered over a natural bay. Vineyards thrived and expanded, eventually moving northward on the peninsula. 

As civilization moved further north, the Etruscans, who were influenced by the Greeks, established their luxurious lifestyle, in an area known today as Tuscany. 

By the time of the Roman era, vineyards and wine were firmly established and every wealthy Roman had his own vineyard. Falernian was valued as the best Roman vineyard, but it was one of a dozen top vineyards planted between Rome and Pompeii. It is believed that Falernian was made from Falanghina, one of ancient Rome's most valued grapes.

South of Rome, the region of Campania became known as the site of what Antonio Mastroberardino called "The Wines of Antiquity." The Mastroberardino winery is in Avellino, a small city inland amidst layers of Italy's history and some of its scenic gems: the bustling port city of Naples, the scenic coastal town of Positano, the romantic Isle of Capri and the historic ruins of Pompeii. Towering over it all is Mt. Vesuvius, on whose slopes are many of Campania's best vineyards, the source of modern versions of ancient Greek and Roman wines.                                                            
For Antonio Mastroberardino, making modern versions of ancient wines was a passion matched only by his interest in restoring grapes that were planted in Campania in the days before Christ. For his work, Mastroberardino has been called "The Grape Archaeologist."

 And that reminds me of my first visit with Antonio Mastroberardino...

                                                   Image result for free photo of Antonio Mastroberardino

When I drove up to the Mastroberardino winery on a narrow street in Avellino the first thing I noticed, besides the absence of street parking, was the wall, in the front of the winery, that was still showing signs of damage from an earthquake a few years ago. Antonio shrugged in that way that Italians have as a silent comment about the slow-moving bureaucracy that affects everyday Italian life. 

Before we visited the winery and tasted the wines, Antonio led me into his study to see the collection of books, some quite old, about local grapes and wines. He was especially proud of a large illuminated book with numerous watercolors of ancient grapes and Latin descriptions. "These," he said, "are the grapes of antiquity."  We drove out to the back slopes of Vesuvius in his dark blue Lancia (Italian vintners then either drove dark blue Lancias or Fiats) to see some of his vineyards, planted in the same spots as the ancient vines were, or as close as archaeologists tells him they were.  

Back in the winery, we tasted through a line of seven wines from the seven grapes of antiquity: one of Greek origin, one purported to be from Greece; the other six traced to the Romans that are grown in Campania by a small number of wineries, with Mastroberardino the most recognizable brand.  

The Greek grapes are Greco di Tufo, a white grape that grows well in the local Campanian zone around the village of Tufo. Contrary to popular belief, Greco di Tufo does not take its name from a type of soil known as tufa. Greco bianco is dry, with a forward aroma and full body. 

Campania's most important red grape is Aglianco, purported to be of Greek origin (Ellenico is the corruption of the Italian word from Hellanic). Aglianco is the grape of Taurasi, Campania's best red wine. It has a deep color, choco-berry aroma and flavors and bracing acidity.  

Piedirosso, is not quite the quality of Aglianco and doesn't enjoy the same popularity. But along with Aglianico, Piedirosso is one of Campania's few red grapes. Piedirosso makes fruity wines with firm tannins.  

A trio of classic white grapes believed to be of Roman origin are: Fiano di Avellino, with an assertive honied aroma that attracts bees; Coda di Volpe, or "tail of the fox," another full-bodied classic white with lots of character; and Falanghina, one of Campania's most a valued white grapes.  

Finally, there is the common but popular Lacryma Christi, made from the Coda di Volpe
and Verdeca grapes and is thought to be the closest equivalent to the wine drunk by the ancient Romans. The story behind the name Lacryma Christi, is an example of Italy's many wines with fanciful names and background stories that, while they may not be true, are charming. 

In Italian, Lacryma Christi means "tears of Christ." The story goes that Christ cried over the fallen saint Lucifer, casting him out of heaven. Where Christ's tears fell on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, vines grew. The extension of that tale is that when Lucifer's body hit the earth, the impact formed the Bay of Naples. The tale of Lacryma Christi and the wine  captured the imagination of literary figures from Voltaire to Ray Bradbury.

Image result for free photos of Mt. Vesuvius vineyards
Vineyards on Mt. Vesuvius slopes

Prices and supplies of Campanian wines vary, with the average price for most wines below $50. Taurasi averages about $26, with the Mastroberardino "Radici" Taurasi priced at $40. Other prices: Fiano di Avellino, $26; Falanghina, $15; varietal Aglianico, $13 and Piedirosso, $19.                            

Antonio Mastroberardino passed away in Jan 2014, but his legacy of promoting ancient grapes continues to focus attention on the wines of Campania as valuable additions to the range of Italy's other great wines. 

To read more about the wines of antiquity, look for Hugh Johnson's excellent "Vintage: The Story of Wine," from Simon & Schuster. 


Next Blog: From the first issue of Gerald D Boyd On Wine in July 2019, a popular feature with readers has been my personal remembrances that relate to the blog topic. Beginning April 4, 2020, "My Life in Wine" will become a regular monthly feature. 

Comments?  Suggestions?  Email me at boydvino707@gmail.com

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