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"Nero's Baths, the ruins of Baiae, the Temple of Serapis; Cumae, where the Cumaen Sybil interpreted the oracles, the Lake Agnano, with its ancient submerged city still visible far down in its depths--these and a hundred other points of interest we examined with critical imbecility, but the Grotto of the Dog claimed our chief attention, because we had heard and read so much about it. Every body has written about the Grotto del Cane and its poisonous vapors, from Pliny down to Smith, and every tourist has held a dog over its floor by the legs to test the capabilities of the place. The dog dies in a minute and a half--a chicken instantly." Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad.
You'll be happy to know that Twain never had the opportunity to torture a canine at the Grotto del Cane, one of the many attractions that led this American writer, along with troops of foreigners, through Campi Flegrei on what was known as the "Grand Tour." This land of natural trenches, smoke, rough hills and ruins fascinated visitors with its treasures of geographical, human, and mythical history. The whole area is a super volcano, not too much unlike Yellowstone Park in the US. The lake, Lago di Agnano, that Twain mentions, had formed in the medeival times, though I'm not certain of how. It was drained in the 1870s, though I'm not certain of why. I do know, however, that the intriguing story of this piece of Campania, just outside the city of Naples, is still being written.
Today, Campi Flegrei hosts some of the most passionate winegrowers in Italy, though there are only a handful of producers still working these hills due to the difficult conditions. The ground is sandy and the incline is steep. Machine harvesting, for instance, is an impossibility. Raffaele Moccia works his 16 to 200 year old vines on the border of a protected forest along the slopes dividing the Astroni and the Agnano crater, overlooking what used to be Lago Agnano - now dominated by a large racetrack. The business, started by his father, Gennaro, in 1960, focuses on Campi Flegrei's favorite grapes, Piedirosso and Falanghina. In reference to his location, Raffaele releases wine under the name Agnanum - and his wines are some of the finest that I've tasted from this special piece of smoking earth. Today we're offering two nearly perfect wines from Raffaele. So good, and at prices you can't say no to.
The 2019 Sabbia Rosso from Agnanum is a delicious encore to the stunning 2018. The nose shows more floral character than the previous vintage, but has retained the same aroma of fresh cut plums - Piedirosso's trademark. Smells of salt and ground coffee add intriguing depth. The palate is a mix of earth and sparky dark fruits - cherry, small plums, and a dash of refreshing graphite. Structurally, it is deceptively grand, though the mineral tones and acidity are acute, powerful, and refreshing. This is your new pizza wine, but it is also your new wild boar ragu wine.
As authentic as they come, the Agnanum 2019 Falanghina Sabbia, a bold white - with diced pears and apples on the nose, lemongrass and green tea. Flavors of savory, orange citrus, spicy orchard fruit, and flashy white stones on the tongue. A satisfying mouthfeel, with density and swish. Acidity is bright. Day two, the wine develops a golden color, and the wine takes on added salinity, with notes of small, ripe stone fruits.
I'm also excited to share another great wine from the coast of Campania, brought to us by Cantine Astroni. Although the estate neighbors Agnanum on the rim of the Astroni crater in Campi Flegrei, having been started there in 1999 by the Varchetta family, they also produce bottles from other areas in the region. Everything we've tasted by this producer has been a hit, and like the Agnanum items, the price point of the Astroni wines makes them even more tempting. The bottle I'm offering today comes from under the world's most famous volcano - Vesuvius. Influenced by the sea, the winters here are mild and the summers are hot but breezy. Obviously, the soil here volcanic, with broken lava rocks, ash, and sand.
Astroni's 2018 'Cratere Rosso' Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio has scents of muddle blackberry, cherry, crushed dark stones, and hints of cigar smoke. On the palate, the wine has lean red fruits, showing tart Piedirosso plum, and savory herbs. A very pleasant flavor of fresh red apple pushes through for a long but relaxed finish. Great structure, with just a dash of tannic body and a medium level of acidity.
The wines from around Naples are special, but they are often not appreciated as they should be. Other, more well-known regions in the eastern stretches of Campania typically take all the limelight. The heavy history of this volcanic coast, with the exceptional layers of geographical complexity, deliver wines of astounding character and flavor. Producers are creating honest wines, with organically farmed fruit, fermented with native yeasts. They are some of my absolute favorite wines coming from Italy. I hope to soon visit these winegrowers on a Grand Tour of my own - though I will definitely not be going to the Grotto del Cane. David Hatzopoulos
Included below are also the delicious whites of Ciro Picariello - coming from Irpinia in Campania's center.
The 2018 Sabbia Rosso taught me how to love Campania. This '19 is just as delicious. So expressive - the nose is a dense bouquet of dark flowers, plums, and salt. There are bold, warm scents of espresso and baked cherries. Definitely more sultry than the rustic 2018, with a little less earth and a bit more perfume, but with an attractiveness so honestly displayed that it is just as humble of a wine. The palate shows the classic plummy flavor Piedirosso almost always carries. I can taste graphite and herbs that remind me of Cabernet Franc, and a brininess that reminds me of Rhone Syrah. Structure is perfect, with dry tannin on the gums and tongue, refreshed by a bolt of minerally acidity. Pair with anything that is full of anchovies, thick tomato sauce, and black olives. Or drink it while waiting to Zoom with your brothers on a Saturday night. That's what I'm doing. Anyway, Agnanum, I love you. David Hatzopoulos
Agnanum is absolutely one of my favorite producers in all of Italy. Farming without the use of commercial products or machinery, the Moccia family is one of the last to grow grapes on these incredible, volcanic slopes. Wines are fermented with native yeasts. As authentic as they come, the 2019 Falanghina Sabbia a bold white - with diced pears and apples on the nose, lemongrass and green tea. Flavors of savory, orange citrus, spicy orchard fruit, and flashy white stones on the tongue. A satisfying mouthfeel, with density and swish. Acidity is bright. Day two, the wine develops a golden color, and the wine takes on notes of small, ripe stone fruits and saline. David Hatzopoulos
Astroni is actually located in Campi Flegrei, north of the city of Naples, but they have branched out to other regions in Campania. This is 50% Piediroos/50% Aglianico blend from the soils around Vesuvius. It is farmed organically and naturally fermented. Astroni's 2018 'Cratere Rosso' Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio has scents of muddle blackberry, cherry, crushed dark stones, and hints of cigar smoke. On the palate, the wine has lean red fruits, showing tart Piedirosso plum, and savory herbs. A very pleasant flavor of fresh red apple pushes through for a long but relaxed finish. Great structure, with just a dash of tannic body and a medium-level of acidity. David Hatzopoulos
The 2019 Fiano Irpinia is declassified Fiano Avellino, from the estate's organically farmed younger vines. The soil composed of volcanic clay, loam, and silt. Fruit is picked by hand in late October. Low temperature natural fermentation is done in stainless, and aging for 6 months follows, also in stainless steel. No fining, no filtering, and aged in bottle 3 more months before release. The wine is a hearty yellow, with tints of green. On the nose, beautiful aromas of citrus and quince, with chopped herbs and salt. The palate has a touch of orange zest, with pear and firm, unripe stone fruit. Great acidity, with lapping texture. David Hatzopoulos
The 2019 Greco di Tufo is produced from 100% organically farmed Greco, vines planted in the 90s. Volcanic soils of clay, limestone and sandstone. Harvest takes place by hand in late October. Low temperature natural fermentation in stainless, before 8 additional months aging in stainless, on the lees. Bottle aging for an additional 3 months before release. No fining, no filtration. The wine is only slightly darker in the glass than the Fiano Irpinia is, but expression-wise it is much more savory. The wine displays aromas of newly peeled yellow and orange citrus skins, with accents of clove, white pepper, smoke and salt. On the palate, there are flavors of tangerine, garden herbs, and dried papaya. In my mind, this is the perfect cold weather white. A little spicy, with a little warmth in fruit, but bright with medium acidity and engaging with a whisper of tannin. David Hatzopoulos