Palates thunder at ‘Volcanic Wines of Southern Italy’ tasting seminar

Most American wine drinkers are unfamiliar with Falanghina, Coda di Volpe Bianca, Aglianico and Nero D’Avola, but

Students learned a lot about southern Italy’s volcanic wines and also had a good time.

in southern Italy these red and white grapes are revered for their historical and viticultural significance. What also makes these grapes special is their exclusive ability to grow in volcanic, mineral-rich soils.

A sip of Falanghina ( FAH-lan-ghee-na) wine would make any Chardonnay lover sit up and take notice. The same is true for a soothing glass of Lacryma Christi made from 100 percent Coda di Volpe (“tail of the fox”). Both are dry, full-bodied, white wines made in Campania, where ancient volcanoes – Raccamonfina (extinct), Vesuvio (active) – and the related western coastal complex of Campi Flegrei  (“fields of fire”) make their presence felt in every vintage.

Recently, these wines where among seven featured in “The Volcanic Wines of Southern Italy” seminar which I presented at Middlesex Community College’s elegant Nesmith House in Lowell. The adult education program attracted 22 enthusiastic students who got to “discover” wines from Abruzzo, Basilicata, Campania, Puglia and Sicily while pairing them with small plates of regional cuisine prepared by The Wine Goddess, my wife Mary Lee.

Much to my delight, the students were in a pioneering spirit –  ready and willing to explore new sights, smells and tastes of limited production Italian wines that are not always available on store shelves. Overall, they learned and had fun, which made me the happiest person in the room. What follows is the evening’s “course of action” menu, a summary of the wines tasted, and the participants’ general impressions.

The Volcanic Wines of Southern Italy

April 11, 2019

Part One

Corte di Giso Irpinia Falanghina 2017 DOC

Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco 2017 DOC

paired with warm goat cheese and sun-dried tomato spread, with Grissini breadsticks

  • Corte di Giso Irpinia Falanghina, $14.99, Andover Classic Wines) – Falanghina is a living history lesson. Ancient Roman scribes Cicero and Pliny the Elder praised the grape, whose known existence dates back to the 3rd century B.C. Falanghina’s DNA has been found in amphorae vessels and is believed to be a component of  Falernum, the greatest white wine – and most expensive – of Roman antiquity. A Falernum wine list was also uncovered in the volcanic ruins of Pompei, wiped out by Vesuvius in 79 A.D. But the fortunes of Falernum and Falanghina faded with the fall of the Roman Empire in 5 A.D. Rediscovered in the 1970s, Falanghina has become Campania’s most widely planted grape. The above wine is made in Irpinia, a quality wine district where vineyards are planted on the highest hillside slopes. Corte di Giso is pale yellow in color and features aromas of menthol, ripe apple and flowers. It has a rich, full-bodied texture with flavors of apple, pineapple, quince and pear. The finish is clean, dry and extended. Longer maceration in steel tanks (no oak) gives it ageability. The class rated this wine its third favorite of the seven sampled.
  • Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, $19.75, Andover Classic Wines – Coda di Volpe Bianca is another ancient grape exclusive to Campania. Vineyards grow on a band of slopes and in the foothills encircling Vesuvius. Viewed from the Tyrrhenian Sea or from the air above, the green vineyards stand out in sharp contrast to the black topsoil composed of volcanic ash and pulverized lava. The wine’s name, which means “Tears of Christ”, is born of local legend. The story goes that when Lucifer was banished from heaven a piece of paradise broke off and fell into the Gulf of Naples. Vesuvius erupted. Christ, saddened by the loss, wept. His tears put out the fires and miraculously created vines to spring forth. The wine tasted is produced by a master, Antonio Mastroberardino, who is considered the founding father of Campania’s modern wine industry. Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio sees no oak. It offers aromas of peach and pear and is complemented by a classic licorice undertone. On the palate, it is framed by strident stone minerality and tree-fruit flavors. It serves as a good food friendly wine or an aperitif. The winemaker suggests pairing it with shrimp cocktails, seafood risotto and calamari friti. The class loved the story about the wine, but was mixed on its dryness compared to the more expressive Falanghina.

Part Two

Cantine Tollo Mo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2012 DOC

Grifalco Aglianico Del Vulture 2015 DOC

paired with antipasti of salami, prosciutto, olives, peppers and Asiago cheese

  • Mo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva, $16.99, Wine ConneXtion, North Andover) – The name of the grape and wine is the same and not to be confused with Tuscany’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano made from Sangiovese. Abruzzo’s workhorse grape is thick-skinned and late ripening, so it depends on a long growing season. The wine tasted was deep ruby in color, aromatic, and explosive in  bright cherry and plum flavors. The texture was plush and velvety texture. It was the students’ No. 2 pick for favorite wine. Riservas are aged a minimum two years, including eight months in oak, and have higher alcohol standards. This one was 13.8 percent.
  • Grifalco Aglianico Del Vulture DOC 2015, $17.99, Andover Classic Wines – Aglianico is one of Italy’s
    Basilicata’s claim to fame is Aglianico Del Vulture.

    noblered grapes and Aglianico wine – which is also produced in Campania – is referred to as the “Barolo of the South.” Aglianico Del Vulture is Basilicata’s claim to fame. The wine-growing region comprises 15 villages surrounding the extinct volcano Vulture in the province of Potenza. The lava ash and volcanic rocks help produce more refined and complex wines. This powerful, full-bodied, dark red was the night’s sensation and the students’ No. 1 choice. It boasted intense aromas of red cherry, plum and wild red berries, with secondary notes of licorice, leather, spice, and smoke. A mineral saline core was detectable, adding to the complexity. Famous winemaker Andrea Piccin owns Grifalco estate where he makes only Aglianico wines in his four vineyards. A total of 2,500 cases are produced annually. This is a high quality wine at a most reasonable price.

Part Three

Cusumano 2016 Nero D’Avola IGT 

Tenuta della Terre Nere Etna Rosso DOC 2016

Tormaresca Torcicoda Primitivo Salento 2014 IGT

paired with lasagna Bolognese

  • Cusumano Nero D’Avola, $12.99, Andover Classic Wine – Grown in Sicily since the 17th century, Nero D’Avola is the island’s predominant red grape. It flourishes in the southeast corner near sunny Siracusa where warm daytime temperatures give way to strong, cooling night-time North African winds that prevent the grapes from over-ripening and losing their acidity. To avoid the risk of wind damage, Nero D’Avola vines are trained close to the ground using the alberello method. The Cusumano Nero D’Avola was beautiful. It exhibited a deep purple color, silky tannins, soft texture, and balanced acidity, Mouthwatering cherry, plum, blackberry and Arabic spice flavors added to the pleasure. Two students picked this No. 1, and overall it got solid reviews for the best wine to drink at a pizza party.
  • Terre Nere Etna Rosso DOC 2016, $16.99, Gordon’s Fine Wine, Waltham – Nerello Mascalese is a noble red grape native to Etna where it grows exclusively on the slopes and in the foothills of the famous volcano. Along with Nerello Cappuccio, it makes up the famous Etna Rosso blend which is often compared to the elegance of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. The tasted wine was pale red in color and medium bodied. The strawberry red fruit came across as softer than other reds tasted, and with more influence from wild herb and spice nuances. Several tasters lamented a dry, bitter note on the finish while others lauded its lively minerality and smoothness. The mixed reaction prompted the instructor’s reminder to the class: Not every wine is going to appeal to each palate and vice versa.
  • Tormaresca 2014 Torcicoda Primitivo Salento IGT, $16, Vino Italiano, Waltham – Primitivo from Puglia is nearly identical in DNA to California’s Zinfandel, and yet many of the similarities end there. Constant winds buffet Puglia’s 200-mile long eastern coastline, requiring the low-bush vine method for growing and protecting Primitivo. It works. The vines produce more grape clusters of fewer and smaller berries. However, the berries are rich in anthocyanins that boost alcohol and color. The Salento Peninsula, where the above wine is crafted, is a large strip of land sandwiched between the Adriatic and Ionian seas. While mostly flat, the area is peppered with rugged “karst” topography (landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum). The Tormaresca winery is owned by the Antinori family of Tuscany. Its Torcicoda Primitivo is ruby red with a purple hue. The bottle opened with a musty aroma that is not indicative of this  wine. The smell diminished only slightly in the glass. While the wine rallied on the palate with jammy blackberry and cherry fruit flavors, the “watery basement cellar” smell continued to hinder the Primitivo’s secondary traits of vanilla and licorice from surfacing freely. The wine, though not “corked”,  was flawed to some degree.

Not to be deterred, we closed the evening on a brilliant note pairing Sogno di Sorrento “Blood Orange” Limoncello from the Amalfi Coast with Mary Lee’s homemade dried fig, honey and orange biscotti.




1 Comment

  1. Your class on “Volcanic Wines” gave me an opportunity to go out of my comfort zone in tasting wines. In fact all your classes have done that for me . The down side is that I must actually set aside a block of time when I go to buy wine. Now each aisle is an adventure and I fine myself not only buying wines you have introduced to us, but selecting similar new wines . Of course , not grasping the uniqueness of actually selecting the wine with specific foods is challenge .
    Thank you !

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