Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
photo of Ben Ryé courtesy of Donnafugata Wines
Having a live volcano where you live is a curse and a blessing. When the volcano explodes and destroys everything in the wake of the lava, it’s the curse. The volcanic soil formed after the eruption that is incredibly fertile; that’s the blessing.
A very good examples is, three European volcanic areas that produce some of the best white wines in the world: Santorini in Greece and Campania and Pantelleria in Italy.
A cataclysmic eruption over 3600 ago destroyed the civilization based on Thera/Santorini Island, giving rise to the story of Atlantis; it was a mercantile civilization anchored by a Bronze-age port with business connections – according to archaeological finds -- to the major cities of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, all the way east to Anatolia and all the way South to present day Sudan and West, to the Atlas Mountains.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD was the second of the most catastrophic volcanic eruptions in European history. We have learned about the eruption from the eyewitness letters of Pliny the Younger and the reports of Seneca the Younger, both seasoned Roman writers. Several Roman settlements were obliterated and buried underneath massive amounts of volcanic ash deposits, the most well known being Pompeii and Herculaneum.
When Pantellertia emerged from the Strait of Sicily it was uninhabited though, later on, it became the focus point of invaders from Carthage, the Roman Empire, Arabs, Maltese and Spanish setlers from Aragon. Two large Pleistocene calderas dominate the island, the older formed about 114,000 years ago and the younger, about 45,000 years ago.
All three areas are now famous for the exceptional quality of their white wines.
Campania, in the Italian south, is well known for good red wines but also has two top-quality appellations for dry white wines. Excellent southern white wines are surprising to most, since southern climates are usually too hot to produce white wines with the required acidity to keep them lively. But Campania's unique geology explains why its white wines are so exciting. The mountainous topography means that vineyards have been planted at high elevations where cooler temperatures allow grapes to fully ripen without losing acidity. Couple that with the region's extremely fertile volcanic soil and the result is the stunning white wines made from local cultivars Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo.
Similarly, high quality wines are made in Santorini, where indigenous Greek varietals Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri thrive on the volcanic soil and create wines richly perfumed with a distinct mineral character, similar in excellence to the better Campania whites.
Invited to a wine tasting at Il Gattopardo, a New York City eatery that champions the cuisine of Naples and Campania, I was privileged to sample five white wines that were paired with the appetizers, antipasti and primo piatto created by Vito Gnazzo, the restaurant’s exceptional chef who has his roots in Salerno, Italy.
The fact that Chef Gnazzo comes from the area where the wines are grown is, in my experience, a major advantage. The best wines are created by local farmers to accompany food grown locally and cooked according to local recipes – some considered family treasures passed down through generations. The wines are made to accompany the food. Having in charge of the kitchen someone that knows what a particular dish should taste and which dish would pair well with a particular wine style, makes the entire tasting experience much more valid. What we had was traditional Southern Italian comfort food that accompanied modern wines made from very traditional grapes.
The white wines we tasted were: Anni Venti Greco di Tufo Spumante from Cantina di Marzo, Silvio Aura Pallagrello Bianco Terre del Volturno 2013, Oi Ni Campania Fiano 2011 from Tenuta Scuotto, Greco di Tufo 2013 from Contea de Altavilla, and La Tre Rose di Gio Falanghina 2014 from Tenute Bianchino. Additionally, there were four very nice reds based on the Aglianico grape, a cultivar brought over from Greece around 800 BCE, but here we will be talking exclusively about the exceptional whites.
The Anni Venti Spumante is a sparkling wine made from 100% Greco di Tufo grapes in the traditional “méthode champenoise”. The small production sparkler (only 3,000 bottles are made per year) is an elegant wine that spends 18 to 36 months on the lees in the bottle, depending on the harvest. The first vintage of this wine was produced in 1926. The current product is designated as a non-vintage brut; it is gently herbal with hints of lime and orange peel, intense minerality and a long toasty finish with a stone fruit touch.
Cantine Rao’s Silva Aura Pallagrello Bianco Terre del Volturno 2013. The Pallagrello grape was one of the “lost” Southern Italian varietals that was not extensively re-cultivated until the mid-1990s. In the 18th century when it was first used in winemaking, it was thought of only as a blending grape because the initial acidity is very low. New cultivation and vinification techniques have allowed winemakers to make 100% Pallagrello wine with considerable character that pairs well with foods. It is a very pale straw colored wine, with white flowers and a nice touch of citrus on the nose. The palate is quite full, a bit austere but long, and decidedly savory.
2011 Oini Campania Fiano from Tenuta Scuotto. Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo are the two most cultivated varietals in Campania. The Fiano of Tenuta Scuotto is a light gold colored wine with slight green highlights. Full bodied, decidedly off dry, it paired very well with the Paccheri alla Genovese, the primo piatto of large tubular pasta with a veal ragout made with white wine. The grapes are hand-harvested and subject to a special soft pressing with nitrogen to avoid contact with the air, therefore avoid oxydation. The must is transferred to 25 hectoliter Alsatian oak foudres for low temperature fermentation, as long as 12 months. After that, the wine spends a short time in steel to stabilize and then a further six months of aging in bottle before release. It is a very idiosyncratic wine, but it would be a revelation for the epicurean willing to spend the money for an exceptional product.
The Contea de Altavilla estate has old vines that can be traced back to the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia. The vineyards are located in one of the oldest Roman settlements between Irpina and Sannio. Greco di Tufo, Fiano and Falanghina are planted and vinified both as monovarietal wines and as blends. The 2013 100% Greco di Tufo we tasted is straw colored with a clean nose, showing aromas of peach, bitter almonds, and citrus fruits. Fresh acidity dominates the palate that also shows remarkable minerality. This ancient wine would pair well with shellfish and fish but could be also used as a pre-meal aperitivo.
Finally, the 2014 Tenute Bianchino Le Tre Rose di Gió Falanghina. Falanghina is a light, refreshingly bright wine that is especially good in hot weather to accompany light white meat dishes, grilled fish and summer salads. This particular bottle was mildly aromatic, herbal with hints of green apple, lime, grapefruit, pineapple and bitter almond. The palate is considerably dry, fresh and fruity, with some minerality, full bodied, with vegetable and fruity aftertaste notes.
Pantelleria is one of Italy’s southernmost points in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily and about 37 miles east of Tunisia. It has a rocky terrain, sheer cliffs, and tiny roads that make exploring a real challenge. But Pantelleria is world famous for its passito wines, and one of Sicily’s best wineries, Donnafugata of Sicily, produces there one of my most favorite wines Ben Ryé, a sweet wine made from 100% Zibbibo grape in an ancient method that entails drying of the grapes in the sun, until they acheive a raisin-like quality. Zibbibo is the name of an Italian clone of Muscat d’ Alexandria. The wine is known locally as “the drink of the gods” and I can understand why it was named that way. Ben Ryé is only one of the exceptional wines that Donnafugata produces; but it’s the most remarkable.
For a story about Santorini (including some restaurants and wines), please see Santorini in Destinations.
To your health!
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