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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Adventures of Aglianico - A Complete History of an Ancient Wine

My Nana and Me
Last fall I was just starting an all-out-crazy-study-campaign to get my CSW. I knew my stuff but I didn't know my stuff if I did not sell it. During Thanksgiving dinner my dad asked if I knew of any wines from Avellino. His father's father came over from Sicily and his father's mother came over from Ireland, while his mother's side was from Avellino, Italy. I don't know where you live but here on Cape Cod Sicilian wine is readily available but Avellonian wine is not. So I started looking into the wines of Campania, the Italian region that includes Avellino. I found that most of what I could get from Campania was bulk and jug wine. Then I came across a wine called Taurasi. It turned out Taurasi is a town that makes wine from a grape called Aglianico, and it's the most famous fine wine of Campania. And guess where Taurasi is? It's in the province of Avellino. Well, eff me running. I ordered a bottle and gave it to him for Christmas. Myself, being both a wine geek and history geek, couldn't let it end there. I've got blood ties to this wine. I had to know more about Taurasi and Aglianico. PICTURED: My Nana and me.

Aglianico is an old-ass grape. It's been with us since the early days of civilization so it's seen some things. Moscato may be the oldest around (and some say it could be the origin of all vitis vinifera) but that doesn't interest me so screw that. This is the biography of Aglianico, one of the most ancient wine grapes we have the pleasure of knowing, people who cared for it and drank its wine, the places it's been, and the historical events it witnessed around its vineyards.

One of the disadvantages about living in early civilization was the water. It became contaminated from both ourselves and the animals we kept around. So although countless good things came out of people living in densely populated areas (such as sharing ideas, defining cultures, creating cuisine, and safety from enemies), disease was kind of having an awesome time. The harmful bacteria that thrived in water was killed off by the alcohol in wine or beer. This was quickly discovered by ancient people. It was actually safer to drink booze all day than to drink the water. Everybody was drunk, all the time. That explains a lot of the poor decisions made throughout history, no? Wine and beer was very important for this one simple reason: It kept us alive. So viticulture and grain farming progressed, better skills and techniques were discovered and better equipment and styles were developed.

Greek amphorae
The early Aegean cultures were heavily into barley beer and wine didn't become popular in Greece until the middle of the first millenium BCE. The ancient Greeks would almost always water down their wine, understanding that the wine would kill all the baddies in the water. Those who didn't do this were considered lowlife drunkards and disrespected by society. A safety necessity had found a way to become part of their culture, and became an easy way of distinguishing who was civilized and who wasn't. The tradition of adding water to wine continued in Greece for a very long time even after the introduction of safe, accessible water. 

Ancient Greece is where the story of Aglianico begins. Well, Turkey if you want to get technical about it. That's right: Turkey. The city of Phocaea (now Foca) was a Greek city on the Aegean coast of modern-day Turkey, and the Phocaean's were the ones to first cultivate Aglianico. The name of the grape, what we call it now, comes from "Ellenico", the Italian word for Hellenic (AKA: Greek).

Phocaean coin
The Phocaeans sprung up around the 9th century BCE and were among the first to start coining their money. They were also the first skilled sailors of Greece, jetting around on long sea voyages and getting their trade on with the other people of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. They traveled as far as Egypt in the south, the Crimea to the north, and Spain in the west. These guys were the original hustlers.

It is likely that the Phocaeans made their wine the same way their fellow Greeks did on the mainland and islands. Wine couldn't just be made on demand because grapes are only harvested once a year and the technology for wine storage back then simply sucked ass. By the time the wine was made and transported to wherever you were it was already spoiled and was pretty much vinegar. You can imagine how bad it was if it was almost a year old. To mask the awfulness of spoilage the Greeks loaded the hell out of their wine with spices and they would coat the inside of their containers, called amphorae, with an Aleppo pine resin to prevent oxygen from creeping in. Of course, the flavor of the resin would seep into the flavor of the wine. Even today you can purchase Retsina, a Greek white wine aged in contact with pine resin. It's not good but it's tradition, and tradition is good.

In 546 BCE the Persians invaded and the Phocaeans got in their boats, abandoned the city and headed west. They brought grapevines with them wherever they settled, including Catalonia (Spain), Marseille (France) and Campania (Italy). Later they attempted to take back Phocaea by joining other Ionian Greeks in the Battle of Lade in 494 BCE, only to be defeated. The city remained intact and continued to be ruled by subsequent empires, the Selucid, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman.

Campania on Italy map
The Phocaeans founded the city of Velia in southern Campania around 540 BCE. Campania is on the west coast of the southern part of the Italian boot, just above the foot. The Greeks called southern Italy Oenotria, meaning "land of wine" and for good reason. Vines were everywhere and the climate was perfect for producing massive amounts of wine.

Campania already had plenty of Greeks living there. It was part of the Magna Graecia (AKA Greater Greece), consisting of a butt-load of Hellenic colonies in southern Italy. You may recognize some of their cities such as Naples (Neopolis, Greek for “new city”) in Campania and Syracuse (Syracusa) in Sicily. Some of these settlers had been there since the 900's so Greek culture and Greek viticulture was already present, but it was the Phocaeans that introduced Aglianico to the peninsula. The grape would travel all over southern continental Italy but it made its true home north of Velia, around Mount Vesuvius. Mount Vesuvius still to this day is an active volcano, and Aglianico has a fetish for volcanic soil and high altitudes. A few places nearby, like Avellino and Taurasi, had both those things in spades. Taurasi's tradition of winemaking goes back to the 800's but Aglianico was a natural fit and became its one true love after its arrival.

Campanian Aglianico locations
In 509 BCE the Roman Republic popped up from the city of Rome to the north and it started picking fights with everybody around them. They took on the Etruscans, the Gauls and all their neighboring Latin tribes. In 280 BCE, when a naval treaty was broken, it set off the crazy complicated five year Pyrrhic War between the Romans and the Greek warlord Pyrrhus of Epirus, with an alliance plot that must have been scripted by General Hospital and the WWE. In the end the Romans won and Magna Graecia became the property of the Roman Republic.

John Belushi in Animal House
Under the Romans the common wine still spoiled quickly, so it was still usually spiced. Tar coating remained in use for the inexpensive stuff but not as widely as the time of the Greeks. The first pressings, like today, were considered of the highest quality and the harshly tannic final pressings made low quality swill called Iora. The must would be fermented in an enormous clay jug called a dolium and then put into the old, familiar friend amphorae for storing. The Romans even let their white wines sit on the lees for awhile to enhance the flavor. They also had a tremendous sweet tooth so sweet white wines made from raisinated grapes were the most popular among the general public. To enhance the flavor the Romans would often add honey... and lead. The Romans weren't stupid; they knew the dangers of lead, but they still insisted on using it to make pipes for their water lines, drinking cups and adding it in liquid form to their beverages. WTF, Romans. WTF.

The fine wines of Avellino were considered among the best of the best and Aglianico surely was involved. Of course, the best of the best was only available to the aristocrats but wine was consumed A LOT by everyone: slaves, peasants and the wealthy alike. Some Romans considered wine to be a democratizing element in their culture, and well representative of their republic. At the height of the Roman empire, the average daily consumption of wine per person was about one bottle per day. Because of the large slave population though, it's reasonable to conclude that the average John Q. Publicus Roman citizen was chugging down 3-4 bottles of wine per day, with the upper class consuming even more.

Those that could afford it got the best quality wine that was well protected from oxygen and could go unspoiled for years. The rich were now enjoying different vintages and becoming the worlds first wine snobs. For a night of drinking and mischief the lower class would go to a pompina, a wine bar that also served olives, bread and stews. Lots of crazy, immoral shit went down in pompinas like gambling, prostitution, stabbings, and conspiring. They weren't too different from today's shady bars.

Pompeii was also a very important center for the wines of Campania, the Romans and the ancient world. The city was founded by the Osci some 200 years before the Phocaeans founded Velia. The people here worshipped Bacchus, the god of wine, and they shipped their juice all over the place. Amphorae from Pompeii have been found in Bordeaux, the Languedoc, and in Spain.

Victim of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii
In 27 BCE the Romans made the jump from Republic to Empire when the senate appointed Augustus/Octavian as Emperor. In 79 CE Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii along with the cities of Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis. Time forgot its exact location until it was rediscovered in the 1700's CE, and over 100 years later it was realized that pockets of air in the form of human beings were in the layers of ashes. This was where the fully decomposed and phantom bodies of the victims had died. These pockets were filled with plaster, and you can now see hundreds of eerie plaster moldings of ancient people in sheer terror, dying, in Pompeii.

One of the many souls lost to the eruption was Pliny the Elder, an author whose work Naturalis Historia included writings on viticulture and the fine wines of Campania. He suggested that when training your vines up trees you should hire somebody to do the pruning and harvesting because slaves were too valuable to risk falling. He even kinda came up with the concept of terroir. Pliny had asthma and he died of smoke inhalation on the naval ship he was commanding in the Bay of Naples, attempting to rescue his friend Rectina from the carnage.

Pliny the Elder

Among Pliny's writings he mentioned a wine called Falernian, perhaps the most renowned and legendary wines of ancient Rome. It was made from Aglianico, and possibly Greco, on the slopes of Mt. Falernus in northeast Campania near the border of Latium. The wine was actually white, so there was no skin contact after the pressings. It was late-harvested after the first frosts of winter and left to maderize for up to 20 years in clay amphorae. By then, of course, the wine had turned a dark brown from oxidation. Pliny was all like "There is now no wine known that ranks higher than the Falernian; it is the only one, too, among all the wines that takes fire on the application of flame." So were the Romans doing flaming shots? I like to think so.

In the ruins of Pompeii, on the price list of a pompina, Falernian is mentioned yet again:
For one "as" (a bronze coin) you can drink wine
For two you can drink the best
For four you can drink Falernian

United Vacations

In the 4th century Constantine became the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. This was an enormous move for wine. Sure, wine had always been the drink of religion and spirituality, the grapevine coming from the Earth and the Gods. The Romans had spread viticulture wherever they went because wine was included in the payment of their soldiers, but now wine was also a necessity for the worship of the Christian God. Thus, for most of the remainder of time it was the Catholic Church that made all the greatest discoveries and innovations in viticulture and winemaking. The town of Avellino was Christianized to become an episcopal seat in 500 CE. This wasn't just done when there was nothing but garbage wine around the area.

Norman takes arrow to the face
After the fall of the Roman Empire the Goths and Vandals stopped by. When the Lombards invaded Avellino, the town was actually abandoned and later relocated nearby on Terra hill, where modern day Avellino stands. The Normans eventually rolled in around 1017. These guys were Christian descendants of Vikings that had settled in Normandy, France, and here they were on a quest to completely unite Mezzagiorno (a name that was now used to refer to southern Italy). It took them awhile but they relentlessly Pac-man'd the boot inch by inch until they had created the County of Sicily in 1071, which contained the entire southern continental mainland and the island of Sicily. They introduced feudalism so now there were lords and vassals and shit running around all over the place throwing tantrums like three-year-old's in a grocery store.

The County of Sicily became the Kingdom of Sicily in 1130 and, after Sicily withdrew from the kingdom due to revolution, it became the Kingdom of Naples in 1282. In the 17th century the coal-burning furnace made glass bottles a much more viable option for storing wine. The Phoenicians had been the first to create glass bottles, and the Romans could make them too, but it just wasn't economical to mass produce them. Wine quality and storage across the world got a huge boost from this new process. In 1816 The Kingdom of Naples would reunite briefly with Sicily as The Kingdom of Two Sicilies until 1861when it became part of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. During this time Naples was the highest populated city in the kingdom, and then, country.

The bombed streets of Avellino, World War II
Naples was also, unfortunately, a stronghold for the rise and longevity of fascism in Italy. The rest of Campania, well, not so muchDuring Mussolini's rule Italian wine was forbidden to be exported to America. Phylloxera hit the vines of southern Italy in 1935 and at first Aglianico became a common blender in other wines to keep up with demand. Even with that valiant effort it fell victim to the louse and was almost completely wiped out. That could have easily been the end of the line for the ancient variety.

Then the second World War went down and all of Campania was eventually bombarded by the allies in 1943. They took an ass-kicking from the skies and they must have gotten sick of it because the people of Naples revolted against the Nazis and kicked them out just days before the allied ground forces arrived there. The rest of Campania followed suit, using guerrilla warfare against the German occupiers while the allies bombed their towns, until victory in June of 1944. Of course, wine quality across Italy during Mussolini's reign and the rest of the war was traded in for quantity, especially in the south. It's tough to regroup after that, and a recent phylloxera attack, but the fine wine of Mezzagiorno bounced back. The winemakers in the traditional Aglianico areas rallied around the grape and were able to take it off life support.

Today Avellino is the name of the province within Campania that contains the ancient town of Avellino that my grandmother's family came to the States from at the turn of the century. Avellino also has its own DOC wine region, Fiano di Avellino, for dry white wines made from the Fiano grape. This grape may have made the ancient Roman wine called Apianum, which was made in the hills of Avellino.

Antonio Mastroberardino's 1968 Taurasi
Taurasi is a town and a wine region within the province of Avellino, just to the east of the town of Avellino. Aglianico thrives in the high altitude here, starting at 1312 feet above sea level, and loves its volcanic, calcareous, and limestone soilAlthough the area has been making excellent wine for milenia, it wasn't until the 1970's that it became world-famous when winemaker Antonio Mastroberardino's 1968 Taurasi opened a can (err, bottle) of whoop ass on the world of wine.

Taurasi earned its DOC status in 1970 and DOCG in 1993. It's widely regarded as the most famous and finest red wine of Campania and sometimes referred to as "the Barolo of the south". To carry the Taurasi name the wine must be made from a minimum of 85% Aglianico from the Avellino province with Piederosso, Barbera and Sangiovese allowed to be blended in for the other 15%. It must be aged for three years before release, with at least one of those years spent in oak. Riservas need four years with 18 months in oak.

Aglianico del Taburno is a much lesser known winemaking region for fine wine made from Aglianico. It's a DOC in Campania but far north of Avellino in the province of Benevento (check the reference map, it's on there). The winters here are harsh but the growing season is long, its altitude is high, and its soil is volcanic.

In Campania IGT wines, Aglianico will sometimes be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I'll be damned if that doesn't sound pretty friggin awesome.

Basilicata on Italy map
Basilicata is the region that makes up the arch of the Italian boot, to the southeast of Campania. Tucked up right against the border on the Basilicata side, around the extinct volcano Monte Vulture, is the wine region called Aglianico del Vulture. It became Basilicata's only DOCG in 2011 and is considered by some to be making the world's most exciting wines right now. Vineyards range from 1000 to 1600 feet above sea level. It must be made from 100% Aglianico and it used to be aged in large chestnut casks but recently there's been a conversion to French oak barrels.

Other southern Italian regions like Molise and Puglia also make wine from Aglianico.

Elsewhere, Australia seems to be making a big push to make it work and plantings can also be found in California and Texas, but only time will tell if it can make it in the New World. There's a fair chance that it very well could because of climate change. Aglianico is a late ripener, to the point where sometimes it's not picked until November. Late ripening grapes are becoming more and more in demand as winter weather occurs later in, like, actual winter.

So what is Aglianico like? Well, it's red for one thing. I should probably apologize for not pointing that out earlier. It could be considered the "native" Italian version of Cabernet Sauvignon but it's more often compared to Nebbiolo. It's full-bodied, firm and absolutely hulking with tannin and acid, so aging is a good idea. In fact, some of these wines can age for 20 or more years before they're considered drinkable. Luckily I am poor and the ones I can afford are ready to drink now or only a few years down the road.

Terredora di Paolo 2008 Taurasi
The color can only be described as garnet. Plum, other black fruits, smoke, dark chocolate and iron are common descriptors in the varietal's flavor and aroma.

The Terredora di Paolo 2008 Taurasi, with a $34 retail price, has homemade cranberry sauce, lots of fine black table pepper, brushfire smoke, rusted metal, and blood iron like you've cut your finger and have to stop the bleeding by popping it in your mouth while you run for the first aid kit, or the run-off juice from a medium-rare steak.

To read my review on the Terredora di Paolo 2011 Campania Aglianico, a lower tier of their Taurasi, go here:

In closing, I recommend buying yourself a bottle of Taurasi. Think about everything the Aglianico grape in that glass has seen in the thousands of years it's been around. This is one of the great things about wine and why I love it so much - we've kept it so close to us and nourished it for so long that it is a piece of us, a big part of our history as a species. It connects us to all of those who came before us, enjoying the same explosive beverage under the same stars in different times. Toast to them before you join them in those stars. Salut.

- Joey Casco, CSW

Enormous special THANK YOU's to the proof-readers. You guys are awesome. Thank you so much for using your valuable time on correcting my dumb blog.

Graham Richardson - a man that knows his history, and for whom this blog would have been a grammatical mess if he didn't clean it up. He may as well be considered a co-writer with all the corrections, extra material, and ideas that he contributed.

Angela Busco - friend and mentor whom I owe tremendously. Her advice for this blog was very helpful but, when she suggested livening up the slow parts, she had the audacity to say that most people aren't interested in history like I am. I still don't understand how that is possible. :P

Robert Jacobus - always positive, always excited to learn new things, always willing to help a friend, and always ready to point out when there's an error in your English. Never change, Rob.
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