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Age shall not wither them: 150-year-old Aglianico vines and a vertical tasting

Antonio Capaldi, president of Feudi di San Gregorio (left) with agronomist and CEO Pierpaolo Sirch;

I wasn't the only one to photograph the 17-vintage line-up (right)

I was in Campania recently for a vertical and horizontal tasting of Aglianico, “the Barolo of the south”, but no less fascinating than the tasting were some of the vines I encountered. The wines were from the Capaldo family’s Feudi di San Gregorio estate and the tasting was held in the winery designed for them by Japanese architect Hikaru Mori. It has twice been displayed at the Venice Biennale and also has a Michelin-starred restaurant, where I’m happy to say we dined. The vertical element was 17 vintages of DOCG Taurasi, 1997 to 2013 (there’s no stock of the first four vintages). The horizontal element was two single-vineyard Aglianicos, Piane Monte Vergine and Serpico, tasted in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages. So 23 Aglianicos in all.

It was quite something. I’ve always liked Aglianico, dubbed the Barolo of the south for its high quality, tannic, long-lived red wines and its difficult nature (early budding, late-ripening, susceptible to mildew and rot). And there’s an extra fascination in grape varieties that have barely travelled. Aglianico plantings are still almost entirely confined to southern Italy, largely to just two regions, Campania and Basilicata.

The fact that the there had been changes in direction in the winemaking added to the interest. From 1997–2007 there had been first one then another consultant, the second (2002–2007) being the celebrated Riccardo Cotarella. From 2008 the internal team took over, led by Pierpaolo Sirch, agronomist and from the following year also CEO. Under Cotarella they had been making bigger and bigger wines. Under Pierpaolo – and, from 2009, a youthful new president, Antonio Capaldo – they’ve reduced maceration and extraction and have gradually decreased the amount of oak, not so much the time spent in oak but using fewer barriques and using more larger barrels such as Slavonian tonneaus. “What about concrete?” I asked. Yes, glass-lined concrete vats are on order. “We have too many barriques,” says Antonio Capaldo, “but it was the way it was.”

Back to the two single-vineyard wines. Piane Monte Vergine is a longer-matured Taurasi Riserva from a vineyard at 360m where the vines have always been planted alongside hazelnut and olive trees. Serpico, an Irpinia Aglianico DOC, is from Storico Dal Re, a parcel of 200 Aglianico vines that are more than 150 years old. Known as I Patriarchi, they’re around 2.5m tall (see picture) and send out canes 4–5 metres long. They’re ungrafted, as vines of the time were, but have never been troubled by phylloxera, thanks to the sandy, volcanic soil in this area: it lies between Vesuvius and Monte Vulture. We had breakfast under the vines, as you can see below, which gave me a strange sense of familiarity with the three Serpico wines when I reached them in the tasting.

Breakfast under I Patriarchi, the enormous,150-year-old Aglianico vines, before the tasting which included Serpico, the wine they produce

Today, I Patriarchi are a hugely valued resource, not just for Serpico but for vine research and propagation. Yet only eight years ago, had Antonio Capaldo not spotted them and stepped in, they’d have been grubbed up and the vineyard replanted. Since then the best vines have been codified and reproduced for new plantings, part of Feudi’s collaboration with various Italian and international universities to undertake genetic studies and propagation of Irpinia’s old vines, some of them more than 200 years old.

Feudi di San Gregorio Taurasi 1997, then three vintages each of the single vineyard wines Piano di Monte Vergine Taurasi Riserva and Serpico

And so to the wines. I’m not going to give blow-by-blow tasting notes on 23 wines, not here anyway, but what I can say is that, typically, good Aglianico is deep coloured, intense in dark fruit flavour, tannic when young and relatively high in acidity. Most of my tasting notes included damson and dark berry fruits, a smoky, mineral, volcanic element and tannins that had been tamed but not emasculated. Other flavours that emerged regularly were bitter chocolate, peppery spice, liquorice, black tapenade, beef broth, leather and a balsamic note. No question these were good Aglianicos.

  • Among the first five vintages, I gave my highest scores to 1999 and 2001.

  • In the vintages from 2002 to 2007, my highest scores went to 2004 and 2006.

  • For the vintages from 2008 my marks were higher on average, the highest going to 2011 and 2013, then the three 2008s, topped by Piano di Monte Vergine, but with Serpico only a whisker behind.

  • The 2011 had a special purity, elegance and intensity of violet-scented black fruit, softened by gentle patisserie-vanilla flavours, and a palate of close-textured density with a long, mineral finish.

  • In the 2009 trio, I preferred Serpico.

  • In 2010, which I preferred overall, I scored Piano di Monte Vergine higher.

  • 2012 was a challenging year meteorologically, but the Feudi di San Gregorio Taurasi is a success. It doesn’t have quite the vibrancy, verve and lifted floral, black fruit of 2011, but it has the wherewithal to age gracefully.

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