Don’t let the romantic archaeological sites, coastal lakes, beaches, thermal springs, and nature reserves fool you. This is one of the most dangerous places on earth make to wine. Paul Caputo tastes through some of the Campi Flegrei’s best white wines and discovers an appellation growing in confidence, producing wines with charm and personality that are impossible to replace elsewhere. We’re embarking on a golden age for Falanghina Flegrea.
Just north of Naples lies a region shaped by ancient geological forces. The Campi Flegrei is one of Italy’s most exciting viticultural areas and an appellation respected equally for its red and white wines. Known in English as the Phlegraean Fields, the area is home to a complex network of calderas, craters and fumaroles that combine to create a natural but deeply hostile territory of volcanic activity.
Over the centuries humans have been drawn to the area for its rich fertility and farming potential, developing an intimate understanding of the landscape and its unpredictable nature. In Pozzuoli, locals need only faint reminder of the area’s underground activity. The maritime town rises and falls up to a meter in a single year as the ground beneath shifts in a tectonic phenomenon known as Bradyseism. There is evidently a consensus that the risk is worthwhile.
In many ways little has changed. Despite the seemingly relentless encroachment of urbanisation into the Campi Flegrei’s agricultural heartlands, growers here continue to utilise their environment to produce wines of personality and distinctive identity. The red skinned Piedirosso (and sometimes Aglianico) is responsible for red wines, but it is the white Falanghina Flegrea which represents the best medium for showcasing the volcanic origins of wines produced in this tumultuous territory.
Although winemaking style differs between individual producers, it can be helpful to see the appellation as two separate styles. Those wines produced at lower altitude and closer to the water’s edge generally brood with heavier orchard fruit aromas and intense salinity. Higher up, in the hills where evening ventilation aerates the fruit after a day’s ripening, the wines are slightly more fragrant and lifted, while maintaining their streak of acidity and tangy sapidity.
The most accessible producer of Falanghina’s briny style is the boutique operation of La Sibilla. Located in the small fishing village of Baccoli, and overseen now by Vincenzo di Meo and family, the winery has become associated with outstanding wines. The brilliant ‘Cruna de Lago’ exudes all the hallmarks of Campi Flegrei produced at such close proximity to the sea. Much harder to find are the wines of Cantine del Mare, made from picturesque terraced vineyards overlooking Capo Miseno. Both the entry level Falanghina and the Sorbo Bianco (produced from 60 year old vines) deliver the distinctive mix of stone fruit and mineral complexity. No doubt, the porous, water retaining tuff-rich soil helps ensure the wines diffuse their oceanic scents.
Just above Pozzuoli, Giuseppe Fortunato and his wife Sandra, produce a slightly brighter expression of Falanghina. Cultivated amidst the biodiversity of his 2.7 hectare plot, the variety is worked organically on un-grafted vines. In the winery Falanghina sees only stainless steel before bottling. His intention is to preserve the natural aromas and flavours of Falanghina, and importantly, to relay the origins of his wines. At 200m altitude, on the sand and basalt slopes of the Astroni nature reserve, close to the crater of Agnano, Raffaele Moccia tends his terraced vineyards by hand. His Falanghina gently ebbs from notes of orchard fruit to coastal herb, depositing its brackish finish with each sip.
For many people these are gastronomic wines. Undoubtedly there will be those that enjoy the saline nature of coastal Falanghina and appreciate their more meditative qualities, particularly those produced with extended skin contact; their moorish traits make them very drinkable by themselves. Some will need a food accompaniment to soak up the strong flavour though and this where fabulous opportunities to pair them with the local seafood flood in. Dishes such as Baccalà alla Napoletana, Zeppole di Mare and Calamari ripieni compliment and amplify the fruit flavours while Falanghina’s prominent acidity cults through the olive oil.
Volcanic wines are often capable of ageing well and Campi Flegrei Falanghina is no different. Older vintages from Cantina del Mare, Cantine Astroni and Agnanum all revealed bottling with beautiful evolution that remained fresh, complex and full of character. The equilibrium between the natural fruit characteristics of the variety and its tendency to take on aspects from the soil, climate and proximity to the sea is what makes these wines special.
Wine has been made here for thousands of years, yet the Campi Flegrei appellation was only established in 1994. As such, it is still young and still finding its place in the world. The six communes that cultivate wine - Procida, Pozzuoli, Bacoli, Monte di Procida, Quarto and Marano di Napoli - offer plenty of commercial opportunities beyond winemaking but there is hope for those that commit to highlighting this unique terrain. Volcanic wines are in huge demand and the wines of Campi Flegrei, particularly from Falanghina, offer up both character and versatility. The best are made in such tiny quantities that it is surely only a matter of time before word gets out and they transition from local food product to fine wine collectable.