Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Best Wines in the World You've Never Heard Of

This is wine country

After our delightful giro at Santomiele, we were lucky enough, thanks to our friend Andrea, to visit two more pioneers, in this case pioneers in winemaking. “Now, wait a minute, Dave,” you may be saying, “pioneers in the country which consistently produces more wine than any other country in the world?”  Yep.  Sadly, here in the South, for almost three millennia that wine has been cheap plonk, much of it barely potable.  And these two gentlemen have the audacity to pit their wines against some of the finest, not just in Italy, but in the world.  And they have invested the money and the passion to make that happen.

Our first stop was at the Azienda Vitivinicola De Conciliis, also in Prignano.  I’ve wanted to see this winery for several years, ever since Fernando and I shared a bottle of their Donnaluna Aglianico at a restaurant in Paestum.  I’ve enjoyed wines from this archetypal red Campanian grape for several years in the states, most of it from the Avellino province.  But this one from the Cilento was a revelation:  huge structure, intense color, wonderful aromas of dark berry fruit and tobacco.

De Conciliis Aglianico

Then last fall I was perusing a great book by American Carla Capalbo, The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania, and ran across an article about De Conciliis in which Ms. Capalbo praises the winery for producing some of the most innovative wines in all of southern Italy.  I happened to mention this to our daughter Amy, a sommelier at Leuca, a very fancy restaurant in Brooklyn which specializes in the foods and wines of the Mezzogiorno, and she quickly informed me that not only do they serve De Conciliis wines, but that she had met Bruno De Conciliis and thought he was wonderful.  

Then, two weeks ago, a nice young man named Domeni, who helps the Astones with heavy farm work here, was introduced to me by Rolando as another wine lover, and we had a nice, geeky conversation about Cilentan wines.  A week later, as we returned home from pizza, Domeni and Rolando met us in the driveway and Domeni proudly presented me with a bottle of…Donnaluna!  And the guy hardly knows me!  But that’s wine lovers for you.  Well, we had the wine with a delicious dish of fresh tagliatelli with funghi porcini, a spectacular pairing.  OK, we gotta go.

The azienda is actually a cooperativo, the Italian version of a partnership, in this case of three De Conciliis brothers along with various members of the next two generations.  But Bruno is the public face of the wines and travels extensively to promote them.  Sadly, (for us, luckily for Bruno) he was on just such a promotional trip to Prague when we visited, but nephew Alessan’ was kind enough to give us the tour.  The vineyard is in fact a set of plots scattered around a twenty mile radius.  De Conciliis specializes in only two grapes, red Aglianico and white Fiano, the prototypical white grape of the region.  From the ridge where the winery perches, Giovanni Canu, a son-in-law, pointed out three Aglianico plots close to Agropoli and explained that all their Aglianico plots face westward (afternoon sun) and have a view of the sea (great diurnal temperature variation).  Meanwhile, the Fiano plots are inland and face eastward to shield them from the intense afternoon sun here and maintain their crisp acidity and fruity flavanoids.

Aglianico vineyards facing the sea

The winery itself is completely modern, actually three separate buildings, one a showroom and business office, a second for the cantina with a large bladder press, a series of huge stainless, temperature controlled fermentation vats, and a range of French barriques and Italian botti for aging the Aglianico.  A third building contains the automatic bottling/labeling apparatus and the warehouse and shipping dock.  Clean, well organized, state of the art.  Any decent vigneron will tell you that 90% of a great wine is made in the vineyard, not in the cantina, but the best grapes in the world will produce a mediocre wine or worse unless there is good equipment and compulsive attention to detail at the winery.  De Conciliis has its act together.

De Conciliis lab

Huge stainless fermentation tanks

French oak barriques for aging reds

Italian botto (butt) with its fermentation lock

Aglianico ready to be shipped

We have not yet had Bruno’s Fiano, also Donnaluna, though I hope to try it soon.  But chilling in our frigo is perhaps Bruno’s most audacious entry, a sparkler called ‘Selim’.  Bruno is a music aficionado (Amy says he’s a friend of Robert Plant), especially of jazz, and the name Selim is the name Miles written backwards.  As in Miles Davis.  Alessan’ explains that the wine is roughly 80% Fiano, 20% Aglianico, not a rosé, as some might think, but a true Champagne-style sparkler where the must from the Aglianico is taken from the skins immediately after crush to prevent it from picking up the color.  Most Champagnes are a combination of Chardonnay and the red grape Pinot Noir.  Can’t wait to try this one.

Cantina Barone. "All your ailments cured"

Our next stop took us to Cantina Barone in little Rutino.  Again, we were highly motivated because we had drunk a stellar Fiano called Vignolella from this winery two weeks before at an agriturismo in Rutino.  And again, Andrea was kind enough to make the arrangements and accompany us on the tour.  The cantina and vineyards are the brainchild of Francesco Barone, an absolute dynamo, who started in the business almost 20 years ago and also specializes in the Cilento’s standard grapes.

First Francesco had us hop into his little SUV and off we went to a nearby Aglianico vineyard, on a steep slope with a beautiful aspect.  Francesco’s passion for viticulture was evident.  He showed us the flysch soil, so typical of the western Cilento, and explained that the combination of minerals and the soil structure as the flysch degrades is what elevates Cilentan Aglianico and Fiano above those of other parts of Campania.  I have to agree; I’ve had a couple of Fianos from Avellino, most prominently Feudi di San Gregorio, and they were excellent.  But these Cilentan wines are a step above.  Francesco showed us his Guyot training system and explained how he rigorously limits cluster numbers to concentrate flavors, how he allows the vines to struggle to defend themselves against oidium and insect predators and intervenes only when they are in serious trouble and then only with approved organic (what the Italians call biologico) controls, how maintenance and harvest of the vines is strictly by hand—more expensive, but the only way to produce the best grapes on this incline.  Francesco explained that he has a degree in agronomy, but that it was of very limited utility because the local terroir is so idiosyncratic.  Francesco has been tending vines here in Rutino for well over twenty years, and at this point his understanding of the local terroir is so deep it is almost intuitive.
One of Barone's Aglianico vineyards

Vines love to look at water.  But who wouldn't here?

Francesco shows the Guyot training system

Perfect aspect

We returned to the cantina, the second of Barone’s wineries, this one purchased in 2004 and razed to the basement level and completely rebuilt with state-of-the-art equipment.  Easily a half-million euro investment.  Can you imagine the courage it takes to make that leap of faith in this economically deprived area?  Again, upstairs are the crushing and pressing equipment as well as the bottling and warehouse, downstairs the fermentation rooms and the cellars with the barriques and botti.  But in this case with a twist.  The barrels were arranged in a series of square rooms on either side of a central corridor.  Each room was about 10’ on a side.  In the original cantina, must from the crush and/or press operations on the upper floor was simply dumped through a chute into one of these rooms, which of course at the time had no doors, and was left to ferment in these huge vats, probably a thousand gallons per vat!  No refrigeration, and complete exposure to oxygen at the top! Francesco explained that the only way to keep the wine from acetifying was to periodically dump in more sulphur.  It must have been hideous stuff.  He showed us the little outlets at the bottom of each vat which could be unplugged to drain the dregs and explained that the only way to clean them was with a ladder lowered from above, an extremely dangerous proposition since CO2 from fermentation of course built up in the vats and floated there, being so much heavier than air.  Cleaners would gingerly climb down a few steps holding a burning candle, and if it was extinguished they’d skitter back up the ladder to save their own lives!
Crusher-destemmer in Barone's ultramodern cantina

The key to fermentation in the South:  refrigerated stainless steel.

Ranks of aging rooms with barriques and botti

An experiment with champagne method hand riddling

This is what passed for a fermentation vat in the old days

Francesco took us to the tasting room, with a beautiful vista out over the Alento River Valley with Monte Soprano and the Monti Alburni in the background.  We sampled the Vignolella again:  heavily extracted (carbonic maceration), with luscious mouth feel (the legs on the sides of the glass were a revelation for a white wine), intense over-ripe pear and honey aromas which suggested a cloyingly sweet wine.  But then a sip and a blast of crisp acid and bone-dry flavors.  Every bit as spectacular as we remembered.  
Barone's sleek tasting room

The dynamic Francesco Barone

A stellar Fiano, Vignolella

Francesco's asnwer to pizza beer

Che Fico!

Then an experiment, a clone of Fiano called Santa Sofia, in this case macerated on the stems to extract more tannins.  Definitely a charmer with great potential; it will be interesting to see where Francesco goes with it.  Then the big, powerful 2012 Miles Aglianico (is Francesco another jazz fan?):  tremendous structure, intense berry flavors, tobacco, licorice, huge tannins that are still rollicking like a teenage boy and probably won’t begin to settle down for another 5 years.  Then something playful: a low-alcohol sparkling rosé called ‘Wine Not’ which Francesco carbonates in Grolsch-style beer bottles (the ones with the swing stopper) and markets as a good pizza quaff.  Sadly, young Italians are deserting their vinous heritage in droves and opting for beer; I hope Francesco’s experiment is successful.

Finally, something to round out our day’s excursion, a little digestivo made from an infusion of grappa and figs, called ‘Che Ficho!’.  Sweet, intensely ‘figgy’, and powerfully alcoholic.  And what better way to celebrate this part of the Cilento than with the other archetypal product of the zone, the white fig?

Friday, June 23, 2017


A tasting on the terrace of Santomiele

I suppose all Americans think of themselves as somehow heirs to the tradition of pioneering.  You know, we’re adventurous, daring, ever looking for new things, and just a bit suspicious of settled society and ‘the way it’s always been done’.  So it is refreshing to get to know three pioneers here in the Cilento who’ve decided to do their pioneering right where God planted them.  And we have tremendous admiration for the guts it must have taken them to do so.  And to persevere.  And to succeed.

Actually, Cilentans have a history of pioneering in the New World as well.  I won’t depress you with a litany of all the forces, both natural and societal, which have conspired against these people for so many centuries. But a top 10 would surely include wars, piracy, famines, plagues, endemic malaria, grinding poverty, starvation, and rapacious overlords, including, sadly, many in the church.  Small wonder that, beginning in the 1870s, hundreds and then thousands of young men and women who saw no hope of redemption here boarded ships for the New World, especially the US, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia.  At one point the total population of the Cilento, which now stands at roughly 300,000, was down to less than 8,000.  Understand, the Cilento is about the size of Delaware! The unification of Italy in 1861 was presented to the people of the Italian South as a chance to rebalance the scales.  Sadly, the scales were simply rebalanced to the advantage of rapacious Savoyard aristocrats at the expense of rapacious Bourbon ones.  And the floodgates opened.

Some measure of the extent to which the suffering of the locals was a function of their straitened circumstances and not laziness and backwardness, as so many northern Italians thought (and continue to think) is the incredible number of Cilentans who’ve achieved dramatic success in the New World when given the chance to use their initiative and talent.  Francesco Mattarazzo, for example, emigrated from little Castellabate nearby to Brazil in the 1890s, became a hugely successful industrialist, and bequeathed his beloved birthplace piazzas, churches, a chapel, and numerous other benefactions.

The sleek showroom

Displays of the products

Francesco demonstrates white figs

But, if anything, we admire our local pioneers even more, because they have dared to start new worlds right here where all the cards are seemingly stacked against them and there are so many disincentives to innovate.  Yesterday we visited Azienda Santomiele in nearby Prignano, where local boy Antonio Longo has elevated the humble little fig to gourmet status.  Fig trees adore this microclimate, especially a local variety which is especially large and delicious.  But figs have been for millennia a food of the poor.  Fig trees are incredibly hardy, growing almost anywhere they can access direct sunlight, and they bear bumper crops year after year.  Actually, they bear two crops per year.  In mid-June, fig trees produce a modest first crop of especially large beauties which the locals call fiori di fichi, ‘flowers of the figs’.  We are lucky enough to have several fig trees here on the farm and free rein to eat as many as we can.  If there’s a more delicious dish than a fiore di fico sliced in half and draped with a thin slice of local prosciutto, I can’t imagine what it would be.

The late-August-to-mid-September crop is much larger but consists of smaller fruits.  And these are the ones that the locals have been sun-drying and storing for winter for well over 2,000 years.

So imagine the chutzpa it took for young Antonio, trained as a geologist, to establish a business where he processed and packaged lowly little figs as delicacies.  Azienda Santomiele was established in Ogliastro Cilento in 1999.  Antonio had his workers process the figs in one of two ways, either with the outer (green) skin attached, skin which eventually dries to a lovely, rich brown color which any child of the 50s will know from the stuffing in a Fig Newton.  Otherwise, local women laboriously peel off by hand the outer skin to reveal the beautiful tan skin beneath.  The taste is more refined and delicate and the figs dry to a beautiful ivory sheen.  Figs are most often split lengthwise to facilitate drying and stuffed with walnuts, almonds, lemon and orange zests, bay leaves, and other flavorings.

In 2010, Antonio bought a frantoio (olive processing plant) in nearby Prignano, razed it to the basement, and built a stunning new showroom/processing plant on the ridge overlooking the Testene River valley and the Tyrrhenian Sea beyond.  At street level is the gorgeous showroom, with displays of Santomiele products, a grand piano, seating before a bank of plate glass overlooking that gorgeous vista, and a display of the photos of Norman Parkinson, a famous fashion photographer.  On the upper floor are the test kitchen and a huge terrazza with the same vista. The terrazza is used as an open-air work space in the fall.   At the basement level are the main workrooms, one for triage and processing, the other for packaging for shipment all over Italy and the world.  The northern wall of the packaging room was left unfinished to expose the native rock, the flysch which is so common in the western Cilento.  Flysch is a sedimentary formation with alternating bands of clay, limestone and shale.  Flysch is loaded with minerals and degrades to a wonderful soil with perfect tilth for figs and grapes.  More about the latter later.  And of course it also reminds you that Antonio’s love of geology still lives.

The bomba

Fig syrup

Specialty products

In addition to the standard products, the plant creates a ‘bomba’, a hollow, hemispherical chocolate shell about 8” in diameter which is then carefully covered with thin slices of figs.  The process can only be done by hand and can take as long as 3 days.  Other specialties are fig syrup, with the deep intensity of a fine balsamico, figs dipped in chocolate, and little chocolate candies stuffed with fig jam mixed with limoncello.  Figs take about 2 months to fully desiccate and all these little delicacies are thus ready just in time for the Christmas season.
On the terrace 

Our degustazione

The processing room

The packaging room with its wall of flysch

The retail area


My favorite creation, however, are little ranks of white figs stuffed into lengths of our local canna, a cane related to sugarcane and sorghum.  These are split so that the figs can be extracted, but in ancient Rome the figs were trodden in a trough to create a dense jam and then stuffed into lengths of cane and sealed with beeswax.  During the dead of winter, the canes would be split open and this precious source of sugars eagerly devoured.  We’re told that such dried fig jam was the ultimate famine food and that many poor Roman peasants would typically have starved in winter were it not for the humble little fig.

So what would Antonio’s Roman ancestors think about his attempts to gussy up such peasant fare?  I think they would love it!  Like all true gourmands, the Romans recognized that often the simplest foods when perfect and lovingly prepared were the ultimate luxuries.  I’m thinking of Ovid’s famous description of ‘country’ fare that includes our exquisite local cherries preserved in red wine and honey.  If that doesn't make you salivate, better stick to McNuggets. Certainly, Ovid’s modern counterparts seem to approve of Antonio's efforts.  Santomiele has been written up in Gambero Rosso, the Italian version of the Michelin guide, as well as the nation’s leading journal, Corriere della Sera, and many other publications.  And the humble little white fig of the Cilento received D.O.C. status from the EU in 2013.

Bravo, Antonio!