Sannio, Campania Southern Italy

Another day another wine district, but this time a relatively unknown one nestling at the base of the Apennine mountain range in Campania in Southern Italy.

It was a warm October day; I arrived in the town of Benevento situated around an hour to the west of Naples. This is an area that is steeped in history and culture and just waiting to be discovered. My hosts were the Sannio Wine Consortium - a body dedicated to the wine making, culture and well-being of the grapes, co-operatives and people of this unique district. The atmosphere of this inland district is best described as dominated by the microclimates, soils and mountains. In other words it is rural and spectacular.

The regulatory body (Sannio Consortium) have attained the exclusive DOP (Denominazone di Origine Protetta) as a regulatory EU alliance designed to protect the grape varieties indigenous to the district.

The grapes and the wines are also awarded (mainly) the DOC (Denominazone di Origine Controllata) which guarantee the original status and authenticity of the wines origins - something the Sannio Consortium have worked very hard on, to try and simplify the regulations for the consumers’ benefit. Having worked on this DOP after being set up in 1999, it now has an interest in over 400 members, subdivided into Vine growers, wine-makers and bottlers.

With this firmly in place the farmers can continue growing grapes and making wine with the knowledge that the Sannio Consortium have the very best interests of the community as paramount.

So onto the districts we visited and the wines we tasted.

Onward to Salopaca and the Cantina di Salopaca situated on the banks of the river Calore. Just a few days prior to our visit, a torrential rain storm depositing a month’s rain in just three hours. It appeared the mountains had come into the rivers and burst their banks along it’s course. The deposits of pink silt were everywhere including the Cantina (Winery) where they were still clearing up the debris.

Grand traditional wooden boxes of wine, filled with bottles that were waiting labelling, to sell on their famous forecourt, were covered with pink, chalky silt. Quite unable to sell them, they lay scattered in the autumn sunshine. The famous wine fillers however were busy dispensing their wines from the tanks via what appeared to be a petrol pump dispenser into whatever the client wished. Prices were commensurate with quality from around 3 to 10 Euros per litre.

We ventured forth and started to taste the regional grapes in Salopaca DOP as a sub-region in Sannio. The whites enjoying the DOP were Fiano, Greco and Coda di Volpe. We tasted these wines not from the dispenser at the Cantina, but bottled ready for the market prior to the storms. These grapes and wines might be new to you, but with Italy producing so many grape varietals it’s not surprising.

The Fiano and Greco have made their way onto the supermarket and wine merchants’ shelves in the UK and are worth checking out as quality grapes making wines of distinction and character.

The style of Fiano is charming with a bright often barley sugar note. Light white fruit and zippy acid base make it suitable for many styles of food. We enjoyed it simply with local fish and fresh herb pasta.

Greco can be a tad more complex with a lime scent over a dryer finish, often with an excellent weighty note, proving the wine a different volume to the overall taste and mouthfeel. Go find!

Coda di Volpe is an ancient varietal used as a singular grape or as part of a blend. I found it cheery and a very easy quaffer with gentle fruit and a low acidic finish. I suspect many wine-makers are trying to coax definitive notes from this lovely grape – we await their results.

Now more wine tasting on our tour of Sannio, the province approximately 50km east of Naples. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to taste the red wines of the Salopaca region.

Like the whites, the best reds from Salopaca and nearby regions are grown on the hillside where less humidity and chance of mould occur, as opposed to the grapes grown on the valley basin. Red grapes like Aglianico, Barbera and Piedirossa vie for prominence elaborated as either solo or as a blended wine.

But its Aglianico I came to taste - this is a fearsome wine when young, as it has searing acidity over a bold red fruit note. It is a great backbone grape in a blend but as a single varietal I feel it needs some time in bottle to show how it can really fare; and it does!

Barbera is next and is better known as a grape/wine from Piemonte near the Alps. Here in Campania it is charming and very gluggable. Notes of gentle red spicy fruit with a distinctive floral scent of violets ease into the palate.

Lastly a new grape for me, Piedirossa, that again is great as a blending agent but on its own I feel is rather quirky with a sour (balsamic) note of cherries and herbs. It needs strong Garlic, Olive oil, freshly torn herbs and tomato – based Pasta or Pizza to coax its charm forth. In the best hands, I am sure it is a grape to watch.  

One of our eagerly awaited vineyard visits was at a vineyard that at first seemed rather ramshackle, unkempt or unloved. But with further viewing and simply “getting amongst the vines” we realised this vineyard was ancient. The vine bases were as thick as a man’s leg! Propped up with staves, layered and trailed to support their extraordinary weight and sprawling length, this vineyard has been in the hands of the same family for five generations. Translate that to around 220 years old! This vineyard was over twice the age of any I have seen before. The grape on the vine was Aglianico and the vigneron humbly stated its low yields made a single vineyard wine. I tried a grape or two that were left after harvesting that tasted of thick skins with a deeply concentrated blue/black fruit of distinction. This was a true highlight for all of us – it left us speechless as we knew of no other vineyard this old anywhere in the world.

And so to taste the wines. The 2011 vintage was fearsome on the nose, breezing into a tight balsamic note over a very fruity core! Young by five years plus I say, then onto the 1986, a bronze glistening wine with swirls of gold. Plums and raisins abound this had softened into a wine of elegance. Truly lovely and only one of 2000 bottles made annually – a privilege to taste.  

So you can see the visit was full of surprises and uniqueness, vines and wines of note and stature. Hopefully they will be better known to the wine enthusiast or for a great match with some serious dishes of lovely food.

First the Fiano, it can be found at The Co-operative – Truly Irresistible Fiano from Benevento 2015 at £6.99 will offer a gentle wine with a balanced fruit profile suitable for everyday sipping.

I also found a Tesco’s Finest Fananghina del Sannio 2016 at just £9 for 75cl, offering a subtle Pear/Lime/Orange bouquet going into a light citrus and fennel note unique to Falanhina. Try it with smoked Chicken?

Lastly go to Ben’s Farm Shop at Yealmpton and search out the Vesevo Benoventano Aglianico 2015 £12.99 showing youth and vitality, cherry fruit and pear drops. In other words do eat something spicy and fulfilling to get the best from this wine. Try Ox Tail or Beef Cheek Casserole and Polenta with plenty of seasoning for a good match.

I hope this snap review of the wines from Campania will tempt you to taste them or better still visit this rural bliss!

NOTES

Stephen Barrett Wine Writer and Educator – www.stephenbarrett.com   www.vinelives.com