If I had to guess what you think of if I say the name Campania, your initial thoughts might revolve around the prized mozzarella di bufala or margherita pizza, or the beauty and charm of Capri or the Amalfi Coast, maybe Mount Vesuvius or Pompeii. But just outside of those areas, a rough countryside sharply contrasts the aforementioned beauty of the region - and for those willing to risk a bit, the chance to be shockingly taken by surprise by some special gems nestled like needles in a haystack awaits you.
The road out of Rome will lead you into some beautiful bucolic scenes, but at some point, I noticed that we had departed from the picturesque scenes of Under the Tuscan Sun and My House in Umbria. I have my issues with the garbage problem in Rome, but this was another world, and not just relating to trash. The canvas here, painted and tainted by the infamous Camorra is depicted by houses reminiscent of those on 5 and 6-mile in Detroit that make 8-mile look like Santa Barbara, and these dilapidated, impoverished areas had me questioning if I'd be the victim of a car theft or a witness to a drive-by shooting. Some of it was just plain depressing, destitute of any historical charm and resembling really cheap and poor imitations of the American culture.
A stark contrast lies in what was named in Ancient Rome as 'Campania felix', translating to 'fertile or happy countryside' and the issues that have marred and stained this paradoxical land. The highly destructive eruptions of Vesuvius, yet ironically productive in terms of fertility, have paved the way for centuries for what should be a prosperous and bountiful land. To my utter disappointment, I learned that just slightly to the west of our travels south, you'll find what's known as the infamous 'Triangle of Death' or the 'Land of Fires' - composed of the municipalities of Acerra, Nola and Marigliano - which is known to contain the largest illegal waste dump in all of Europe, containing everything from nuclear waste, dioxins, and hazardous materials, and all of which is exposed in Roberto Saviano's book and movie Gomorrah for those who haven't seen it. This illegal dumping has yielded billions for the mafia at the cost of health and lives. Animals in the area have been diagnosed with lethal cancers, dioxins have been discovered in the mozzarella di bufala, and children's lives have been lost to everything from leukemia to brain cancers. It's a known fact that the life expectancy in this area is 2 years less than the rest of Italy, and this area is sharply higher in mortality rates from a plethora of cancers and health issues relating to the pollution released by fires set to the hazardous materials and for that which has seeped into the local farmland and water sources.
Basta! - enough doom and gloom. Let's focus on the gems that we're discovered amidst this notoriously corrupted area, which opened my mind to the possibilities of what can be for those few willing to put centuries of heritage over the notorious corruption.
They call him Nanni Copè
Our first stop with Giovanni Ascione, behind a gated entrance, had me saying thanks up above (ok, it's not that bad, but it's not great either). Nanni Copè, a childhood nickname, was given to the winery he acquired in 2007, and his vineyard Vigna Sopra il Bosco has become a true labor of love and passion. Maximum respect is given to the 30-year old plants of Pallagrello Nero, Aglianico and Casavecchia here - biodynamic treatments are used, pesticides and herbicides are strictly prohibited, plants are registered one by one, and grapes harvested over several weeks to ensure proper maturation. A few steps over to Vigna Scarrupata, and you'll be shocked to see the girth of these near 150-year old Casavecchia vines, which also find there way into the blends of Nanni Cope.
Giovanni recently has added a white to his portfolio which was our first barrel sampling, made from local varietals Pallagrello Bianco and Asprinio. It was unbelievable how sapid and delicious these wines were right out of the barrel - mouth-puckering, refreshing acidity gives way to a nice balance of lemon and fruit. The reds, no difference in terms of excellence - full and deep without being concentrated and a perfect equilibrium of velvety tannins and fruit. Production is a mere 7,500 bottles, but this is one you want to get your hands on. Deluxe Wine Club members will be the lucky recipient of a bottle in this summer's shipment. Tasting in this garagiste's cellar, the world seemed bright and bountiful, as one should expect from this area.
Ditch the famous Eat, Pray, Love pizzeria
No winemaker visit is complete without a convivial lunch involved, but instead of your typical charcuterie spread at the property, Giovanni insisted that we travel about 25 minutes away to Caserta for the 'best pizza he's ever had in his life'. How do you say no? Back through the Camorra ravaged roughness to find ourselves at I Masanielli Pizzeria of Francesco Martucci. God bless the fact that you can eat an entire pizza in Italy without shame, and this is mainly because quality and delicateness is favored to the bulk and quantity you often find in the pizza in the US. La Margherita, light as a feather, was shamelessly devoured in seconds - this is an absolute MUST. We ordered 4 pizzas for the 3 of us and like magic, they were GONE. Superior in quality to the famous Pizzeria Da Michele in Naples (featured in Eat, Pray, Love), and for those willing to sacrifice scenery for flavor, you won't be let down.
Depths and Heights - I Borboni
Driving further south, about 20km north of Napoli, deeper in the Campania countryside, we were about to discover yet another gem - I Borboni. I'll be honest, this was a blind selection that we made for the wine club on the recommendation of Giovanni Ascione, but knowing now, Giovanni is batting 1000 with local recommendations. We were greeted by one of the owners, the 23-years young Nicola Numeroso, who escorted us on a 40-meter plunge into a cellar built into the local tuff that they discovered below their home a while back, which acts as the perfect womb for a balanced fermentation and vinification to bring these babies to life. The cellar was really quite a treat to see and to understand that it could be more or less a labyrinth making a sort of underground Naples - there are tons of these in the area and many closed off - but we were praying it wasn't all show, and a no-go on the wines. After, we tasted - and WOW - what a beautiful expression of this nearly forgotten grape Asprinio! Dry, nice fruit on the nose and palate and beautifully refreshing (as the name lends - aspro means sour in Italian - and this has a wonderful mouth-puckering freshness). A refreshing change to the conventional and obvious Italian sparkler, Prosecco.
And no winemaker video would be complete without a vineyard tour - this one was few kilometers down the road, and had you saying 'oooooh la Madonna'! I couldn't believe my eyes - 45' tall vineyard rows, 'married' between poplar trees! I had never seen something so massive before. But harvest?? How on earth is it done? This is the insane part.
Each year a few talented and brave souls risk their lives at harvest, as winds can be quite dangerous if not monitored well. For this, an ear is always kept on the ladder, as vibrations can be quickly sensed from wind picking up. Each ladder weighs in at nearly 100 kilos has to be custom created for its worker - one even dates back to 500 years old! This allows for maximum stability as the user braces their knee and foot between pegs. Grapes are collected with both hands-free, placed into chestnut baskets and lowered by rope to the ground.
Asprinio's origins could date to as far back as the Etruscans or Greeks. Regardless, this lesser-known, local grape runs the risk of extinction to the more common Falanghina, Fiano, and Greco di Tufo. I don't have enough experience to understand how it typically tastes, but it doesn't appear to have the greatest reputation - but in speaking for this wine, I can say that our Wine Club members are in for a new and palate-shocking experience with sparkling wines. If you aren't experiencing this wine in Campania, head straight to Eataly, or your local Italian market, and find some fresh-made mozzarella for the perfect territorial accompaniment to this brut spumante and drink in reverence while you contemplate the joy that derives from one of the most difficult harvests from vines 45 feet in the sky.
Better yet, if you want to understand this 'Toto, I don't think we're in Napa anymore' vineyard, just watch the video to see the full story of a family dedicated to preserving tradition and heritage.
This wine scouting trip was far from your stereotypical Italian Riviera, seaside holiday, but I left with a new found appreciation for those who have maintained a high level of integrity and heritage in a region where much is downright disparaged by the destruction of the Camorra. This led me to ponder - how many magical experiences we never have because were only willing to stay in the obvious and beautiful areas? How much do we miss out on staying on the safe and easy path? For those worried about Campania, don't be (perhaps don't plan a picnic in the 'Triangle of Death'). You're likely traveling to Naples or the Amalfi Coast and if you consider Houston, TX an acceptable city to visit, know that Naples ranks better on the crime index.