In many ways, Campania is one of Italy’s most blessed regions, boasting an incomparable natural beauty (just think, for example, of the islands of Capri and Ischia or the Amalfi and Sorrento coasts), myriad archaeological treasures (Pompeii, for one) and a plethora of what are some of Italy’s best food ingredients and dishes (I probably don’t need to sing the praises of, say, Neapolitan pizza or mozzarella di bufala campana to the high heavens, given how world-famous they are). But all of that, and more, I’m sure you already know: but what you might not know is just how amazingly good Campania’s wines have become in a relatively short span. Really, the improvement in this region’s wines, many of which were always just great, has been nothing short of amazing. Well done Campania!
And while the region has always made Italy’s largest number of great white wines (along with Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia), it is the reds that have improved remarkably over a relatively short time span. In short, they have never been better. To be crystal-clear, the best reds from Campania’s recent vintages are every bit as good as most of the Barolo and Barbarescos made in recent vintages such as 2017 and 2018. And that is something I would have never written only five years ago. In thirty years that I have been following Italy’s wines very closely, I can safely say I have NEVER had so many truly outstanding wines from Campania: the list of fantastic wines worth buying you’ll find described in this report is just nothing short of amazing. To give you some numbers to back up that statement, this tasting report includes:
one 100-point wine (my first ever 100 point score to a wine from Campania); one 98 point wine; one 97 point wine; three 96 point wines; eleven 95 point wines; thirteen 94 point wines; nineteen 93 point wines; twenty-four 92 point wines; and fifteen 91 point wines. Any way you slice it, that’s really quite a haul, and though I’ve scored some of Campania’s wines very highly before, this time around it’s like nothing like I have ever done before. So, once again, well done Campania… tanto di cappello!
Campania, a place of stellar grape varieties and terroirs
Campania is Italy’s third most populous region (the second by population density) and at roughly 13,671 square kilometers, is also the country’s twelfth-largest region (funny, it actually seems bigger to me than that). Located between the Thyrrhenian Sea to the southwest (a coastline dotted with the presence of four of Italy’s most beautiful gulfs and world-famous vacation spots: the Gulfs of Gaeta, Napoli [where you’ll find the even more famous gulf of Sorrento), Policastro and Salerno (where you’ll find the indescribably beautiful Amalfi coast)] and the Apennine mountain range to the northeast, the region is characterized by myriad different geologies, topographies, altitudes, macro-, meso- and microclimates that combine to create a medium that is absolutely ideal for grape growing and winemaking. Then add to this already halcyon situation a plethora of ultra-qualitative native wine grapes the likes of which, and the numbers of which, are not easily found elsewhere, and you begin to understand the incredible potential Campania’s wines.
Campania is one of Italy’s richest regions in terms of native wine grapes and one of the least, probably the least in fact, populated by international grapes: finding a Campanian Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon wine is really a tall order (and frankly speaking, why would you even bother?). What makes the Campanian wine scene really tick is its high-quality native grapes, especially the white ones but there are some very good red grapes too. Fiano and Greco are the Laurel and Hardy or the yin and yang of Campanian wine grapes, with the former giving refined, floral-mineral and very piercing wines (but that changes when it is grown in warmer zones, as the wines become somewhat riper and creamier) while the latter is the poster-chiled for big-bodied, tropical fruit-infused wines that are downright oily and tannic in mouthfeel (yes, tannic, and I mean that in absence of oak: Greco is a tannic white grape variety).
But as good as those two grapes are (easily Campania’s most famous along with the red Aglianico) the truth is that the region boasts many more noteworthy varieties including the two Falanghina varieties, Coda di Volpe Bianca, Roviello (also known as Grecomusc’), Caprettone, Pallagrello Bianco, Biancolella, Forastera, Ripoli, Ginestra, Coda di Pecora, Catalanesca, and many more still. The Falanghina varieties are perhaps just as famous as Fiano and Greco, but beware there are two distinct similarly-named grapes: Falanghina Flegrea, that grows along the seacoast, and Falanghina Beneventana that grows more inland. While the first one tends to give minty/floral/mineral wines, the latter gives fruitier, riper, bigger wines. Many producers have tried planting both in their vineyards, but that’s really not a good idea, given that the two have different ripening curves and times, never mind different soil and climate requirements. Of course, the most important thing to know about Falanghina wines is that, with only about ten-twelve exceptions or so, most of the wines really aren’t that good, given that the Falanghina grapes have become, Pinot Grigio-like, victims of their own success. Over the years, the two grapes have been used to turn out oceans of essentially mediocre, insipid and ultimately inoffensive wines that easily please non-discerning palates. Not that there is anything wrong in making easily approachable, uncomplicated quaffers for the masses; but complex world-class wines are another matter entirely (it’s also not for me to say whether or not it is all Falanghina that you are really drinking in many cases). Clearly, given that Falanghina plantings have increased over the last decade or so (human nature being what it is, everybody likes to jump on a winning bandwagon), those are not things you will hear or read much anywhere else (nobody wants to rock the boat and many others have an agenda, so wouldn’t you know it, Falanghina wines are just swell). That said, Falanghina wines by wineries like Contrada Salandra, Cantine Astroni, La Sibilla and Mustilli are absolutely, 100%, world-class wines and I urge you to try them. Perhaps the best white grape of Campania, or at least one the true full potential of has not yet been reached, is Coda di Volpe Bianca (though I myself am guilty of not always doing so, I point out it is more correct to add the “Bianca” descriptor because there exists a much rarer Coda di Volpe Rossa too). Coda di Volpe Bianca can give at once amazingly mineral wines and very ripe tropical fruit bombs, depending on where the grapes are grown. As you will see from the high scores of many of the wines in this report, it can give superlative wines. For more information on Campania’s many outstanding white grapes I refer you to one of my two benchmark books on the subject, either Native Wine Grapes of Italy (University of California Press) or The Grapes and Wines of Italy: The Definitive Compendium Region by Region (Amazon press).
Among the red grapes, two rule the (Campania wine) roost: Aglianico and Piedirosso. The former is a world-class red grape the exact fine wine potential of which has largely gone unnoticed because of far too many poorly-made, overly tannic, too oaky (an often very bad oak), overripe, jammy wines that were often nothing to write home about. But make no mistake about it: when well made, these are mineral, refined, powerful red wines which rank with Italy’s and the world’s best, and age very well too (finely cellared bottles from the 1960s, though very rare, are excellent). Piedirosso is an ideal complement to Aglianico, as it usually serves to soften tannins and provide greater drinkability (much like Canaiolo Nero does with Sangiovese in Tuscany), though because the variety has a tough time reaching full physiologic ripeness in more years than not, the addition of Piedirosso to a good Aglianico wine sometimes brings about an undesired effect. The good news for wine lovers is that, much like with Aglianico, Piedirosso wines of real class and quality are becoming more and more common and it is truly heartwarming for someone like me to see that, given that I have devoted my entire life to Italy’s native grapes. Easygoing and relatively light- to medium-bodied, Piedirosso wines offer a bright, brambly juicy alternative to Aglianico’s fuller-bodied age-worthier wines. In this article, you will find my biggest list of outstanding, high-scoring Campanian wines yet made with these two grapes.
A matter of vintages
When it comes to wine, vintage plays an all-important role. That much is obvious to any serious wine drinker and especially collectors, and it is never so true when analyzing Campania’s wines of 2022 and 2021, for example. Normally, the region’s white wines literally beat the tar out of the region’s reds, a battle between world-class heavyweights (Campania’s white wines) and flyweight’s (the reds: “flyweights” in terms of quality, not in texture and size clearly). In other words, you could have always bet that in almost any vintage, the white wines from Campania were always heads and shoulders above the reds in quality (save for a few exceptions). But with the very warm, even downright hot, triad of 2020, 2021 and 2022, that easy-going, even lazy, assumption is completely subverted. While there are Campanian white wines from those three vintages that are exceptionally good and must-buys, their overall generally high temperatures brought us slightly less perfumed wines (when not downright aromatically compressed) that lack the verve and precision of the best vintages. This is very obvious when you taste the Fiano wines, be it the more famous Fiano di Avellino wines or others too from the territories of the Cilento and the Sannio, all of which lack the lift and multilayered complexity typical of the greatest Fiano wines, bringing in exchange very ripe fruit and creamier than usual textures. The red wines on the other hand, have never been better: the well-made Campanian red wines of the 2021 and 2020 vintages, boast expressive fruit, smooth tannins, juicy and fleshy textures and plenty of freshness. Clearly, these are simpler reds released earlier in their life span, but even bigger-bodied, age-worthy wines from earlier vintages stuck me as being less marked by overipeness, questionable hygiene and truly lousy oak, the three banes of Campania’s red wines that did so much damage in the past in limiting, or at the very least slowing down, the world-wide emergence of the region’s red wines. Not so this time around: in my long series of tastings of Campania’s best wineries that I carried out this year, time and again I came away thoroughly impressed by the bright crisp, pure fruit aromas and flavours of the reds. It was truly an epiphany of sorts, and I can safely say that I have never, and I mean never, tasted so many great red wines from Campania as I did this year. Once again, well done Campania!
The wines in this tasting report
All the wines in this tasting report were tasted either in Rome during the four months I spent in Italy this year visiting wineries or in my office in Shanghai, where I live and work. A big thanks to Diana Cataldo of Miriade& Partners and their staff who work with an association of Campanian wineries who helped me source many, but not all, of the wines included in this report. You will find a few important names from Campania missing: the wines either did not get to me in time before my departure to go home or the email requests went lost in cyberspace or unattended. I am especially sorry outstanding wineries of Ischia I did not manage to get to, such as Cenatiempo and Nicola Mazzella, but I shall do my best to write about these excellent wineries and their wines in the very near future. Other wineries not included here that I did not get to are always welcome to contact me (or their importers) for future inclusion.
The wines in this report were all tasted in July, August and September 2023.