An Ancient Grape Comes of Age
by Stan Biden
The moment I stepped into Salvatore Molettieri's Cinque Querce Vineyard high in the Campanian Hills, about 60 miles east of Naples, Italy, I knew I was in a special place. The slope is steep with a southeast exposure and the elevation is 550-600 meters. The soil is calcareous and clay with a core of volcanic rock that literally changes color from one part of the vineyard to another. It is mid-September and as I devour the ripe figs off a wild fig tree I admire the deeply hued purple grapes on the trellised vines. My first question is when will the harvest begin? The shocking answer from Salvatore's enologist son Giovanni, is mid to late November. "We have harvested in the midst of a snow storm," exclaims Giovanni.
The vineyard is home to an ancient variety, Aglianico [Ahl-ya-ni-co], an early budding, late ripening, dark-skinned Italian grape. Its origin is Greece and was brought over in the 7th century BC to Puglia on Italy's southeast coast. The Greeks, who controlled southern Italy at the time, quickly noticed the variety thrived at high altitudes in soil that drained well. The volcanic soils in the hills of Bascilicata, Campania and northern Puglia were perfect. The Romans called it Vitis Hellenica and made their most celebrated wine from it, Falernum. Today, the grape is responsible for making one of Italy's best wines, which is called Taurasi. Italy has a set of rules and regulations governing how a wine can be named called Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC. The best wines of Italy have a designation of DOCG (garantita), Taurasi is the only DOCG of southern Italy.
The Cinque Querce vineyard lies in the middle of the DOCG and many critics believe it is the quintessential Taurasi. In 2006, the 2001 Molettieri Taurasi Riserva was awarded the Gambero Rosso red wine of the year, the greatest accolade an Italian wine can receive. The amazing thing about this whole story is that this holy place of vineyards was abandoned until the early 1990's. Salvatore Molettieri and his father were poor grape farmers selling their product to the likes of Antonio Mastroberadino (whom many consider the godfather of the great wines of Campania), for very low prices. As luck would have it, Salvatore met Marco de Grazia, Italy's top exporter of high quality wines. I'm guessing that Salvatore walked Marco through the magical Cinque Querce vineyard and the angels pulled the wallet out of Marco's back pocket. The rest is history.
Much like Cabernet, Aglianico yields a wine of deep ruby color, rich aromas and intense flavors. It has a black fruit core and an affinity to new oak, which adds a spicy vanilla quality, and also has a lovely floral quality not found in Cabernet. Back in the early 1980's I was lucky enough to meet Mastroberadino. We tasted his 1977 Taurasi Riserva and I was mesmerized. I still have a 3-liter of that wine begging to be drunk in my cellar. The tannins and acid can be quite high in Taurasi, which means it requires extensive aging, but other areas of Campania, Bascilicata and even Sicily are producing wines that are much more approachable at a young age. Molettieri even produces a second wine from the great vineyard called Irpinia Aglianico for early consumption.
I salute Molettieri and Mastroberadino for saving this wonderful and ancient grape variety and am encouraged by the many small producers who have added new plantings.
Remember, In Vino Veritas...
Marianna Moro di Pietra Aglianico Campania 2007 Medium garnet color with a floral nose accented by nutmeg and red berries. Medium bodied with consistent flavors. --- $11.99
Cantina del Taburno Fidelis Aglianico del Taburno 2005 A bit more sophisticated and lush style that is deeply colored, round and soft on the palate ending with a long spicy finish. --- $15.99
De Angelis Lacrima Christi del Vesuvio 2007 Only 50% Aglianico with the balance Piedirosso. --- $17.99
Ercolino Vinosia Irpinia Aglianico 2005 Here's the one for you big Cab drinkers. A deep dark purple extracted wine with a nose of black fruits and spice. --- $17.99
Salvatore Molettieri Irpinia Aglianico Cinque Querce 2005 This mini Taurasi delivers in a very sophisticated old-world style. The nose of violets, black pepper, earth and cocoa is followed by similar flavors on a medium bodied palate with integrated tannins and long finish. --- $22.99
Salvatore Molettieri Taurasi Cinque Querce 2004 Dense and dark ruby red color with an intense and complex nose of violets, black pepper, liquorice and coffee. The palate is full and rich with ripe tannins and black fruit. Lay this baby away for about 5 years. --- $59.99
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