In Calabria and Puglia, Campania, Sicily and Sardinia winemakers are following the trend, started in Tuscany and Piedmont a generation ago, of switching from quantity to quality. They are moving away from the bulk, peasant wine their forefathers produced for millennia, and are now making the sort of polished, modern wine that today’s consumers in London, Amsterdam and New York actually want to drink.
And much of it is being made not with international varietals like Merlot and Chardonnay, but indigenous grapes that are showing remarkable elegance when grown and vinified employing a level of care, attention and scientific knowledge that was unheard of 30 years ago.
A fine example are the DonnaChiara wines from Campania. For five generations the family have been growing grapes on the same land. For five generations that land has been passed from woman to woman, and today is managed by the fifth generation female, Illaria Petitto.
For 200 years they have grown grapes, but the only wine they made was for the family. The rest was sold to Mastroberardino, a big local producer. This was the normal practice throughout Italy.
But Illaria is doing things differently than her antecedents – in Avellino just east of Naples, she is now bottling and selling the wine under her own name, or rather, her grandmother’s name, DonnaChiara. And they are beautiful wines, quality wines that are emblematic of the whole change that is rippling through southern Italian winemaking.
Recently Illaria talked to me about how this transformation came about. She trained as a lawyer, and worked in Rome for a while.
But then….“I took a break from Rome, I came back to Avellino, and my mother, she asked me to help her…..asked me some suggestions…..I started going to the property very often and I got my sommelier diploma, I started to be very curious and at the end I started to ….said I don’t like the labels, I want to change the labels, I think we should do this and we should do that, I put myself in everything. Also, because my mother didn’t have a marketing background, and in the wine it’s also very important to market the product and to pay attention to many, many details.
“I fell completely in love with this. Step by step I got so many satisfaction in what I am doing that we are now like a team, my mother and I. I’m happy…..it’s a beautiful field. I feel I am doing something good.”
And her wines are indeed “something good”.
She makes several different cuvées, all of them interesting, full of personality, but the standout is her Taurasi Riserva 2007 ($50), from the indigenous Campania grape, Aglianico. Impeccable made, smooth and rich, but still managing to retain that dirt-under-the-fingernails, wine of the earth, quality that marks all DonnaChiara wines. It reminds me a bit of the wines of the southern Rhone, especially Gigondas.
It has huge aging potential, and will reward keeping for at least ten years. This is not something one said about wines from Campania in the past, if one even noticed them, except when one was on vacation there. And as such is fine example of the exciting changes that are happening in that region.
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