By Jim Campanini
Campania’s Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco is one of my favorite Italian wines, even though I drink it mostly during the 40-day period of Lent observed by Catholics and other Christian faiths.
It’s an excellent pairing for fish dishes during the Lenten season, especially on Fridays when Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat.
The name of the Lacryma Christi wine translates to “Tears of Christ” and there are several enchanting legends attached to this “archeological” gem.
Archeological, you ask?
Yes, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco is made from the rare coda di volpe grape that grows exclusively on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, Italy’s most famous active volcano that wiped out the ancient city of Pompei in 78 A.D.
Coda di volpe means “white foxtail” which refers to the shape of the grape cluster which looks quite similar to the tail of a fox.
There is a red version too – Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso that is made from another rare, ancient grape, piedirosso (red foot of the pigeon).
If not for the Mastroberardino wine family, which hired archeologists to rescue DNA from seeds buried in volcanic ash around Vesuvius, coda di volpe and other indigenous varietals, including red aglianico and whites fiano and greco – might never have been replanted in this historic zone. Today, aglianico is recognized as Campania’s most noble red grape and its wines are prestigiously called “Barolo of the South.”
The Mastroberardino project is recounted in Karen MacNeil’s excellent book, The Wine Bible, now in its 3rd edition.
As to the legends surrounding Lacryma Christi, MacNeil offers three interesting stories:
First, when Jesus Christ ascended to heaven he marveled at the beauty of the Bay of Naples and he cried. His tears landed on the ashen slopes of Vesuvius and vines miraculously appeared.
Second, when the angel Lucifer fell from heaven in disgrace, Christ cried tears of sadness that fell on Vesuvius and produced the vines.
Third, local monks passed the wine through canvas – they had no modern filtration equipment – causing it to fall in drops that looked like tears.
MacNeil’s got me hooked on No. 1. Plus, if you’ve ever seen the amazing landscape of the Bay of Naples, Amalfi Coast and Isle of Capri, you’d cry your own tears and thank the Lord for his handiwork.
So what’s the taste of Lacryma Christi DOC wine(s)?
The bianco is based on coda di volpe with small (optional) additions of native verdeca, falanghina and greco. The wine features a golden hue and flavors of ripe pear, exotic fruit, stone and spices. The texture is soft and easy-drinking.
With its moderate acidity, Lacryma Christi is a versatile wine to accompany most seafood pasta dishes, especially with scallops, prawn, cuttlefish, clams and mussels.
I can recommend both the Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi ($21) and Sorrentino Lacryma Christi ($17). The former is slightly more austere in style and the latter is a spicier version made from 100 percent organic grapes. They are both fresh wines that finish with a dry, mineral edge.
Which brings me to Lacryma Christi’s rosso version made from piedirosso. In the past, piedirosso was used as a minor blending partner with aglianico to add aromatics and soften the wine’s texture. In the 21st century, winemakers are crafting more of the varietal in the dominant role – a nod to its improved quality as well as its historical and cultural roots. Under Vesuvio DOC appellation rules, piedirosso is combined with small amounts of aglianico and sciasinoso.
Lacryma Christi Rosso del Vesuvio Rosso is never going to be confused with its more powerful and complex Aglianico Taurasi, but it’s worth trying. It has an enticing, honest taste that represents a distinctive Italian environment. The best versions are ruby-colored and fragrant and deliver a delightful mix of red berry fruit, rustic herbs and marine minerality. The finish is dry.
Sorrentino’s Lacryma Christi Rosso del Vesuvio ($17) makes for an appealing introduction to this grape. It can be purchased online or in store at Boston-Bottle on Commercial Avenue in the North End (www.boston-bottle.com). Vino Italiano (781-894-4488) on Main Street in Waltham carries the Mastroberardino brand but call ahead to see if it is in stock.
Other Italian white wines I enjoy with Lenten meals include:
Pieropan Soave Classico DOC ($19.99) from the Veneto region, a dynamic wine offering fresh, citrusy fruit and almond notes and dynamic; Villa Sparina Gavi DOCG ($15.99), a bone dry wine from the Piedmont; and Pala “Soprasole” (Above the Sun) Vermentino di Sardegna ($15), a spicy wine filled with exotic fruit flavors from the Mediterranean island.
Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco
Greco di Tufo
Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso
Super Tuscan (Cabernet-Merlot blend)