You walk into your local wine shop in the late April heat. You want a fresh white wine with some complexity. But still has to drink easily. This is for the warm afternoons on the patio. It should go with spring and summer fare but also stand on its own.
As usual, you end up in the California white aisle. Your hand grabs for something familiar. Is it a Sauvignon Blanc from the massive North Coast AVA? Or perhaps a Chardonnay from the Russian River valley? Either way, you ring up with the friendly associate and pay your 20 bucks plus tax.
Let’s try the whole thing again. At the start you missed a turn. Instead head over to Italian aisle. If you are in a very good wine shop there will be a section just for Southern Italy, Sardinia, and Sicily. Whites are often overlooked there but they have just what you seek. The southern region of Campania includes Naples and the hills to inland from the sea. This region offers three unique wines for the adventurous April porch pounder.
So why go to Campania for value in fresh white wine? Start with the soil as always. The looming Mt. Vesuvius, of Pompeii-destroying fame, means there is a mix of volcanic soils everywhere. Those soils, a unique Mediterranean meets continental climate, and the ancient history of viticulture makes these native grapes into delicious values.
It also helps that Campania is not yet internationally known for luxury wines. It has no Brunello, Barolo, or Super Tuscan fetching triple digits. The local indigenous red Aglianico does make great age-worthy red wine. However, it has yet to drive up prices stoke year-round tourism like in Tuscany or Piedmont.
Allow me orient you to this region and set you off on your journey. There are three famous whites. All are known for their bright acidity and rarely see oak. Yet the first two have their own DOCG status and can age surprisingly well:
Fiano: Fiano is the classic story of a native grape almost forgotten in these modern times. According to Ian D’Agata, the foremost expert on Italy’s native varietals, as recently as the 1970s the grape was heading for extinction. However a few dedicated winemakers in the region, notably Antonion Mastroberardino, saw its potential and replanted it. Today it is known as one of Italy’s truly noble white grapes.
Fiano can make wines ranging from light to medium-bodied, leaning toward the lighter side. The best Fiano wines strike the taster with their mineral texture and slightly bitter finish. Some also pick up a distinct note of ash or smoke in Fiano, while the best aged examples have a pleasant nuttiness to the finish. Overall, these can be remarkably complex and interesting white wines for the price.
This is a relatively small production wine. Fiano di Avellino DOCG can only come from 30 small townships near the city of Avellino. The grape is grown on only 3,400 of Italy’s 1.7 million acres under vine as of 2016. While Fiano is primarily grown in Campania, a few good examples can also be found from Puglia further south. I recently found a Puglian Fiano on the menu at an airport (pre-crisis) VinoVolo that impressed me.
Greco di Tufo: Greco is confusing because it’s part of a family of loosely related grapes. They get their pedigree from the Greek colonists who brought viticulture to Italy. The Greco di Tufo DOCG wine is made from the varietal known simply as Greco, as opposed to others like Greco Bianco or Greco Giallo. This is the wine for those shoppers who otherwise end up with the French or California Chardonnay, but are willing to explore.
Like Fiano, Greco thrives in the volcanic soils around Benevento and Avellino. The Tufo in the name references that volcanic rock. Greco has notably thicker skins and ripens later than Fiano. This means the wines are bigger with more peach, tropical fruits, and creamy notes, but still underpinned by a texture coming from the mix of volcanic soil. It’s a full bodied wine but it is still meant to be drunk young and fresh.
Many of the Greco grapes are grown at or above 500 meters, making this a mix of both continental mountain and Mediterranean viticulture. Greco is also drought tolerant which is becoming increasingly important in these times. While Fiano is the big star of southern Italy right now, Greco may have a future just as bright as its classical past.
Falanghina: I cannot leave out the third famous white from Campania. Greeks also brought Falanghina, thought to be the most ancient grape in an ancient region. It is grown more widely than Fiano and Greco and is not tied to a specific geographical DOCG. Wines will be labeled Falaghina DOC with a broad geographic location, like Sannio or Benevento. Falanghina makes the lightest and freshest wine of the three grapes. It’s known for being very good with seafood.
Of the three, you may find Falaghina is the easiest to source. It has experience a run of commercial success in the US and Europe, no doubt stemming in part from its fun to say name and easy recognition. It’s also the least expensive of the three. A quick Wine-Searcher scan will give you a sense of what to pay. I see only a couple Falanghinas above $20 which to me is the sign of a good cheap wine.
A note of caution on Falanghina: In his Native Grapes of Italy, D’Agata wryly points out that the sheer volume of wines produced with the Falanghina label does not match up with his experience in the region and looking at the vines. Draw what conclusions you will from that.
So to summarize:
- Fiano: an interesting and unique food white that benefits from 3-5 years of age
- Greco: makes rounder and fuller wines with peachy tropical notes underpinned by volcanic soils
- Falanghina: the cheapest and most variability in quality, but can be a steal
Where to Find Them and What to Pay: You can find good examples of these in wine shops with good Italy sections for $15-$20. Large retailers, like TotalWine, should also have multiple examples. The producers you might see in order of their relative fame are:
- Feudi di San Gregorio
- Terradora di Paolo
- Rocca del Principe
My advice to new drinkers would be to start with these big brands. These are the heavyweight producers of Southern Italy and will be the easiest to find. Volume does not always mean lower quality in Italy. Once you try a few of them you can seek out smaller producers or even single vineyard examples of Greco and Fiano. Be warned, that’s where things start to get pricey.
When I write about wines, I cannot help but also promote travel off the tourist track. The hills and countryside where these wines are grown are stunning and quite separate from the sprawl of Naples. A large number of Italian Americans like myself, along with Tony Soprano, have their roots around Benevento and Avellino. Drinking near your roots is always an interesting experience.
The famous A16 highway also runs through the wine region out toward the Adriatic. The six hour drive is worth the effort rather than flying from Rome to Bari. If you do so, you’ll get to stop for lunch in Benevento. It has a delightful central district. You can sample all three local whites as well as sparkling and rose versions at the Dionisio wine bar.