Wine notes

Saturday 20 September 2008

Contadini Metropolitani

In Naples' vineyards Falanghina still thrives on its own rootstocks resisting the concrete wave

One of Italy’s great strength, and still not properly appreciated by wine lovers in general, spoiled as they are with wines of high quality coming from this peninsula but often produced from international grape varieties, is its treasure trove of indigenous vines. It must be said, that some are quite obscure and produced in such low quantities, that they will never reach international markets, but more often these amazing wines struggle to find an appreciative palate especially over here, due to the unfamiliarity with their taste. Still, indigenous grape varieties may catch the wave anytime, as there seems to be consensus in the UK wine trade on a general fatigue with Chardonnay & Co. as well as the fact that, arguably, the notion of terroir is far better expressed by vines, which have adapted themselves over hundreds of years to the soils of a given region.

To catch that wave, however, there must be at least as much awareness from the side of the producers of these local grapes to promote them in the market, destined as they are to be the best ambassadors with their knowledge and experience. And it is exactly here were part of the problem lies too: many Italian wine producing regions may have consorzios in which producers and growers are organised, but many of them are too torn by politics and philosophical difference to find time to design a marketing strategy, let alone an international one. It is therefore that many Italian producers who want to enter the international market do so on their own account, which inevitably leads to promoting their own brand only, and in which grape variety and origin inevitably play a second fiddle.
There are some hopeful signs though: the younger generation of winemakers and proprietors, especially those who have absolved parts of their viticultural education abroad, is more familiar with the idea of marketing, whereas previous generations relied on their commercial relation with importers only who would then face the task of selling the wine. This no longer, at least according to me, suffices, and a point in case is that there is almost not a single week one cannot attend a regional generic tasting with wines coming from every corner of the wine world in London. These tastings are the ideal occasion to introduce the vinous strengths of a region and support the product with educational seminars. As only few Italian consorzios are able to fulfil this role, it is therefore that smaller associations of young winemakers should bundle their strength to put a stamp on the market.

One very energetic young man who seems well up for this task, strengthened by a strong belief in the indigenous grape varieties of his home, the Campi Flegrei region in Campania, is Gerardo Vernazzaro from Cantine Astroni. In the family’s vineyards you won’t find a single vine not planted here literally ages ago. This DOC, of which its flag bearers are the white Falanghina and the red Piedirosso is right in the middle of Naples’ urban sprawl fighting a lost cause against speculation and real estate, making the vineyards of Chateau Haut Brion in the suburbs of Bordeaux look distinctively rural. The DOC zones spreads itself through the towns of Pozzuoli, Bacoli and Quarto, all of which are now more or less part of Naples proper, and on to the tiny island of Procida, switched in between the bay of Naples and Ischia.

Gerardo’s main vineyard clings to a slope of one of the many craters surrounding the Etna, of which this particular one is called Astroni. The Astroni, which were used by the Romans as thermal baths, are now declared officially a WWF reserve, which must have helped in halting any further developments threatening the vineyard’s survival.
Together with Gerardo, whose family are our generous hosts for the next few days, and whom I had met at last April’s Vinitaly, Italy’s most important wine fair, we climb up the slope to the top where a low wall separates the Astroni estate from the crater, now fully covered with trees, and teeming with wildlife. While looking down the crater it’s hard to believe we are in Naples.
We turn around, now facing the city while Gerardo points out another stretch of land of about 8 ha of quite steep vineyards, literally squeezed in between houses and which the family is in the process of buying. As land is at a premium here, for a brief moment I wonder aloud if buying the land wouldn’t be a great investment, to sell it off when prices have reached their peak, which, judging from the density of houses and highways, can only be a matter of years. Gerardo looks at me incredulously replying that the family has the longterm plan of growing their total surface of vineyards. Gerardo mentions the many generations that have tended vines in his family and they are incapable of doing anything else. The only issue, at least to me, seems the fact that they are trying to do this in the middle of a huge city. For Gerardo, however, it is not just a question of wine, it also a question of trying to keep surfaces devoid of concrete and roads. When one views down from the winery’s courtyard, one looks straight into a dynamic landscape of houses, vineyards, and highways, which is almost like a movie, especially when the sun sets.

Falanghina, or Falanghina Flegrea to be precise, is widespread throughout Campania, and one of its oldest grape varieties. It is suggested by many sources that the grape was originally brought over by the first Greek settlers in Italy’s South, and it is speculated that Falanghina may have been the main ingredient of the legendary Falernum, a wine which was highly prized by the Romans. The name comes from the Latin Falangae, meaning “pole”, referring to the stakes to which it was trained during ancient times. Compared to the then conventional system of planting vines near trees, which would function as the main support, this stake training system was much more sophisticated and betrays a systematic approach to viticulture not generally seen before. Falanghina features in almost any white DOC throughout Campania but arguably finds its finest expression in the Campi Flegrei.

The volcanic soils on which the Astroni vineyards are planted come with blessings and curses. It is normally considered rich, but here the soils are extremely sandy, which allows the vines to be planted on their own rootstocks, which, with very few exceptions, is very rare in Europe. High levels in potassium, required for a healthy growth, is counteracted by low levels of magnesium, which can reduce yield, and slow down fruit ripening. This is adjusted by grafting on selected Vitis Vinifera rootstocks. Irrigation is needed to prevent the vines from withering when it becomes too hot on the slopes, but this is only regarded as a last resort, and low cover crops and grass between the rows function as a moist retainer as well as a measure against erosion.

The vineyard shows a lowish density of vines, around 2500 per ha, but the yield per plant is kept at a modest 2 kilos. As Falanghina is not easy to keep in check (when left to its own devices it will produce abundance of fruit resulting in insipid bland wines, showing little acidity) intense vineyard management is therefore practiced. Fruit set can be irregular too, resulting in normal size berries and small ones at the same bunch. It is a late ripener compared to other varieties, as it cannot be harvested before the end of September and more often not until the beginning of October. Gerardo though, doesn’t consider this late at all, especially compared to the red Aglianico and Piedirosso, which continue to ripen well into November.
The trellising system in the Astroni vineyard, called spaliera, is very high due to old school vine growing, where parallel trained double branches would accommodate Falanghina’s profusion, but Gerardo has reduced them to a single cane, and I wonder how much resistance he must have met from the old guard when he introduced this novelty. Restricting abundance of fruit can come close to heresy in fiercely traditional agricultural communities.

The crater provides the winery, which is right underneath the Astroni vineyard, with yet another natural advantage: it allows for total gravitational flow, so highly regarded in Bordeaux’ finest chateaux, but there cannot be executed without the aid of technology. The cellar is the latest state of the art and comes complete with pneumatic presses and stainless steel tanks. Fermentation of Falanghina is normally excecuted at a low 18°c, to retain the gentle aromatics. However, as the fruit is harvested so late in the season (and, unsurprisingly with attention to detail I have now become to expect, in small crates) , and early in the morning, the grapes need not be chilled before processing.

The wines are divided in a four tier system: an entry level called Falangus, which is a pleasant wine showing white fruits and green apple on the nose, and is marked by highish acidity. If modest in its youth, it is capable of adding on more complexity as a sample of the 2002 showed: reminiscent of a mature Riesling, it didn’t fail to surprise me about its potential.
“Colle Imperatrice” from contracted fruits, of which the vineyards are strictly monitored by Gerardo, is a step up. After crushing the grapes the skins remain on the juice for about 10 hours followed by temperature controlled fermentation, of which about ¾ takes place in stainless steel and the balance in large acacia casks. Only 50% goes through malolactic fermentation.
The undisputed star, however, is the premium “Strione”, a Falanghina Campi Flegrei fermented on the skins for the whole period in tonneaux and acacia. Weekly batonnage, and partial malolactic fermentation add to its complexity showing a somewhat subdued, but sexy nose of sweet peach coulis and preserve, followed by quite a pure fruit palate, with integrated acidity.
The range is complemented by a sparkling version of Falanghina.

According to Gerardo Falanghina has a good chance to find an international market if it is produced in a fashion that highlights its minerality, acidity and focused fruit. Strione will undoubtedly be helpful in convincing even the most spoilt of palates about the inherent qualities of this particular white variety.