Ancient grape soars
Ancient Roman grape makes superlative wine
Aglianico, a grape of the Romans, makes superlative wine in modern times.
Falerno was the greatest wine of its era, the two centuries before the birth of Jesus when Rome was in its ascendance. It was the ancients' "first growth," prized by Martial, the Roman epigrammatist, who said during a dinner in his honor, "Please, boy, fill again my cup, because I have spilled my immortal Falerno." Horace, the poet, was succinct: "For my cups, nothing but Falerno." The great Cicero said, "I always find Falerno the most robust of wines."
Virgil the poet pronounced it "the top of all the other wines of our time" and, in a pass at early wine criticism, compared it with another favored wine of the day, Rhaetica, saying, "With which verse can I sing to you Rhaetica? For I cannot find words to compare you to Falerno."
Today, Italy produces but rivulets of Falerno, a wine no one presently sings about. The British wine writer Hugh Johnson calls it "an unexceptional light amber wine."
But the Romans made Falerno of an ancient grape that endures throughout the south of Italy, first planted by the Greeks in the 8th century B.C. and the basis of some of Italy's greatest contemporary wine.
That grape is aglianico, its name a corruption of "Hellinico," our word "Hellenic," via Latin and Spanish, for things Greek.
Aglianico becomes a superlative wine in the several appellations that claim it, such as Campania's Taurasi or Basilicata's Aglianico del Vulture.
Modern-day aglianico has proven to be both versatile with food and long-lived. Its wines are rich and complex, full of aromas and tastes of ripe berries and dried cherries. With age come notes of chocolate and earth. Its tannins are robust, often gently grating, though they silken with age.
"It does best on volcanic soils," says Leonardo LoCascio, for 40 years an importer into the U.S. of several aglianico-based Italian wines, "and that is where you find its best wine. For example, grown on or near the slopes of Vesuvius."
Volcanic soils assist aglianico (or any red grape) to retain acidity, not common in ripe red wine grapes but essential to a wine's affinity for food and for long aging.
Such soil also stresses vines, consequently lowering yields and concentrating flavors.
"Aglianico has one of the lowest juice-to-skin ratios of any red wine grape," LoCascio says. "In these volcanic soils — actually, you no longer have soil, just strata of ash and lava — the vines send their roots down 40 to 60 feet for water. All the vine's energy is taken up in developing a root system."
That correlates to less energy spent making grapes, hence lower yields and deeper flavors.
"In technical terms," says LoCascio, "aglianico is the most exciting grape that we have in Italy."
Aglianico made into wine in Campania garners the most notice, especially when grown in the region of Irpinia, some 35 miles east of Naples. There it makes Taurasi, which benefits from the poor soils and lack of moisture by returning a wine intense in flavor and fat with fruit.
A bit further south, in Basilicata, aglianico is the basis for the sometimes deliciously rustic Aglianico del Vulture, the vines pitched on the slopes of the ancient volcano Vulture, high enough to temper the often-torrid heat of the lowlands.
Along with volcanic soils, cooling high-altitude vineyards or proximity to breezes off the Adriatic, Mediterranean or Ionian seas are the keys to successful aglianico anywhere in the south.
Aglianico's natively high acidity suits it particularly well for the table.
Any red meat is a fine match, as are sausages or cured meats, especially fatty ones. It also tastes delicious with mature hard cheeses.
Here are some recommended Italian reds made of aglianico from the Taurasi appellation, elsewhere in Campania and one from the slopes of Vulture.
2006 De Falco Taurasi Campania: Aglianico in Taurasi often boasts the scent of turned moist, dark earth as the undergirding for full-on aromas of dried cherry tinged with licorice; that's what's here, with ripe, round tannins and fine acidity; also a cool price for Taurasi. $30
2006 Mastroberardino Taurasi Radici Campania: Hard to believe that this 7-year-old is just coming into its better years, at the cusp of developing tertiary aromas such as wet autumn leaves; gorgeously elegant and fine. $50-$60
2011 Feudi di San Gregorio Aglianico Rubrato Irpinia Campania: A popular aglianico because of its ample, roundly expressed fruit and moderate, chalky, cleansing tannins — and price. $19
2009 Fattoria Galardi Terra di Lavoro Roccamonfina Campania: One of aglianico's most profound expressions (with support from the ancillary grape, piedirosso); a sip shoots to the front of the mouth with gripping, fat-cleansing tannin and buckets of ripe, rich fruit; great acidity. $75-$100
2008 Terre degli Svevi Re Manfredi Aglianico del Vulture Basilicata: This is "mountain" aglianico, the way Napa sports "mountain" cabernet; the wine pumps intense black-red fruit flavors, tied together with in-your-face tannin and beautiful scents of mineral and earth. $35-$40
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.