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History in a Bottle: Irpinia Wines

As it’s been told to me, the grapes that make the wines Irpinia is known for were originally brought to these lands by the Greeks thousands of years before. Through the long histories of the now native grapes, the unique soil compositions (this whole area used to be under the sea and you can find sea fossils in the sandy terrain at elevations around 2000 ft!), and the generations of care and attention handed down through centuries, these vineyards, the grapes they produce, and the wines that are crafted convey all of this complexity in every single bottle. The tastes and textures of the wines is what allows the wines to transport you here in Irpinia.

Since these wines are still mostly flying under the radar for even the most prolific wine connoisseurs, I thought it’d be helpful to have a little guide to the grapes and the wines they make.

History in a bottle: The grapes and wines of Irpinia:

  • Aglianico - A Red for the Ages This thin skinned grape loves the long maturation process that Irpinia’s warm summer days and cool summer nights offer. With the temperature dropping between 20-30 degrees on average, Irpinia has one of the latest harvests in the world (for both our red and white wine grapes) allowing the flavors and colors of this grape intensify right up until the moment they’re harvested. The wines that are produced from this grape are big and bold - a wine for people looking for something that packs a punch, but delivers that punch in the nicest possible way and won’t leave a mark. This was the red wine I never knew I’d been waiting for my whole life to drink. There are cherries and red forest fruits, and sometimes tobacco notes that will balance perfectly with the tannin and acidity combo of this wine. There are similarities to a Barolo, where winemakers have been fortifying their wines with Aglianico grapes from Irpinia since, well, maybe the beginning of time, or a big Napa Cab, or a Barbaresco. But I’d argue it’s even better. Terrific with a grilled steak, your favorite pasta, or your favorite charcuterie, this versatile wine will leave you wanting more.

  • Irpinia White Wines I was used to whites from Napa Valley, oftentimes over oaked, super buttery, and lacking any sort of pronounced structure when tasted, think Rombauer Chardonnay (ugh). I should probably at this point reiterate, drink drink what you like and don’t just listen to me or any other “expert.” If Rombauer Chardonnay is your thing, drink it with glee, just don’t ask me to join in on that party. I’ll bring my own bottle. Probably a Greco.

  • Greco Since the moment this grape was planted thousands of years ago, it’s been flourishing in these mineral clay soils. Greco di Tufo is only legally grown in just eight of the over 140 villages of Irpinia, making it the smallest growing region for a DOCG wine not just for Irpinia, but for all of Campania. And as you might guess, the terroirs across these eight villages and even within the villages, varies not just particella to particella (the name for a plot of land numbered by the Italian government), not just from vine to vine, but literally from step to step. (I mean, how can you not love Irpinia?) The defining characteristic of the volcanic clay soil where the tightly packed Greco grape bunches flourish is the highly concentrated amount of limestone and sulfur that exists in the ground where the vines grow. The actual village of Tufo, namesake for the wine, was the source of the limestone mine that supplied all of Italy until the 1970s when it shut its doors. Now, above the abandoned mine shafts, grow these beautiful vines that produce the Greco grapes that make white wines with a minerality unlike any other wine I’ve come across. There’s so much limestone in the soil it even results in wines with hints of green in the color. Greco di Tufo is highly structured, brings a ton of acidity, and has bright notes of fresh citrus fruits when you start to drink it. This is going to pair perfectly with fried anchovies and seafood as well as salumis and fresh to slightly aged cheeses.

  • Fiano Fiano flourishes in the mineral-rich volcanic clay soils, warm summer days and cool summer nights of Irpinia create perfect growing conditions for this grape. The well-made resulting wines are structured, high in minerality and acidity, but with a signature kiss of sweetness you won’t find in Grecos. By no means is this a sweet wine, but the touch of honey and/or white flowers you’ll note in most Fianos brings with it the sensation this wine is dancing in your mouth. Avellino is the flagship region for the growing of Fiano, hence the name, with Lapio coming in a close second in name recognition for where you’ll find the majority of Fiano vines. When you first pour a Fiano into your glass, you’ll immediately notice the pale to straw yellow color of the wine (depending on the winemaker and the year) and the fruity notes that seemingly dance out of your glass when you breathe in the first whiffs of this wine. Often you’ll get citrus and hints of hazelnut from the trees surrounding most Fiano growing areas. Hands down my favorite Fiano is from Cantina del Barone and you’ll want to drink this with anything from pasta with truffles and porcinis to pork chops or roasted lamb.

Okay - I know I know, you’re probably still thinking, but Sarah, I REALLY don’t like white wine and now you’re pushing another one on me? You’re dang right I am, because I can all but guarantee you’ll like one of the native Irpinia varieties of white wine. So onward!

  • Coda di Volpe Literally translated, this grape is called “tail of the foxes” because of how the grape bunches grow on the vine in a long cylindrical bunch. These grapes for white wine (and it’s very rare red version counterpart) are a literal representation of a fox’s tail Native like the cute foxes that roam this land. And like like Fiano and Greco Irpinia friends - this grape produces extremely age worthy wines showing off their signature structure. Coda di Volpe is rich in minerality, but less so than Greco di Tufo, and shows less notes of white flowers than Fiano di Avellino. When you take your first sip, you’re definitely going to pick up on notes of honey, apple and pear and a bold acidity that balances well with dried fruit that comes through in this wine. It’s anywhere from a straw yellow to golden yellow depending on the amount of grape skin contact the producer has decided to allow for in the first hours or days of the winemaking process. I love the Coda di Volpe varietal not just because it’s a delicious wine that pairs equally well with fresh cheeses, pastas, and even a steak, but for its storied history. Native to Irpinia, for many years the quality of the grape was discounted as many considered it second rate to the other native white wine grapes of Irpinia. Many producers used the grape to “cut” Fianos, Grecos and other Campania whites. But just like this undiscovered region I’m so in love with, the beauty, originality, and quality of the Coda di Volpe grape is now seeing a resurgence and is being celebrated by producers and wine critics alike. Afterall, who doesn’t love a comeback story?

  • Send me a note to try one or all of these Irpinia varietals and let me know what you think!

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