From Campania’s Volcanic Soils, Whites in Multiple Colors

Posted June 5, 2018 7:54 p.m. EDT

The greatest wines of Italy have always been red. Yet in the last 20 years, the whites of Italy have gotten better and better.

This is a far cry from the situation in the late 20th century, when Italian white wines were dismissed as inoffensive, innocuous or worse. That opinion was not without reason, as so many bottles of Soave, Frascati, Est! Est! Est! and the rest were dry, crisp and characterless, meant to be consumed ice-cold so at least they could be refreshing.

It was as if all Italian whites were the mass-market pinot grigios of today, which do an excellent job of carrying on the tradition of banality. Now, for those who are willing to explore, an entire world of fascinating Italian whites awaits.

These include familiar names like Soave, where dedicated producers are now demonstrating the potential of the garganega grape. Many of Italy’s vast array of grapes remain relatively new to the world’s wine lists, despite their ancient origins.

You may already be familiar with vermentino, verdicchio and vernaccia. But how about vespaiola, vespolina and vitovska? From good producers, all are verifiably delicious. Beyond the v’s, consider carricante, grillo and erbaluce, just to name a few.

Here at Wine School, exploration is our pleasure. Each unfamiliar wine we open holds the potential not only for joy, but also for adding context to our own mental wine map. Every new impression provides one additional component leading toward confident judgment and discernment — in a word, experience, which, more than classes or books, is the essential element in attaining a comfortable relationship with wine.

For the last month we have been drinking fianos, wines from an excellent white grape that thrives in Campania, with origins that in some opinions extend back to ancient Roman times. Fiano had virtually disappeared by the mid-20th century, only to be resurrected and celebrated by the dawn of the 21st. I recommended three bottles: Luigi Maffini Cilento Fiano Kratos 2016, Ciro Picariello Irpinia Fiano 2015 and Cantina Giardino Campania Fiano I.G.P. Gaia 2016.

These wines all have the fiano grape and the volcanic soils of Campania in common. Still, they are a mixed bag. The Maffini comes from Cilento, in the southwestern coastal section of the region. The Picariello comes from Irpinia, in the eastern, inland area. The Gaia, too, is from Irpinia, but is shaped by some other variables.

Now, a confession: Often, but not always, I suggest wines that I am familiar with and that I know will be good or at least representative examples of the genre we are examining. Sometimes, however, I suggest a wine that I have not tried, but that I have good reason to believe will be interesting.

In the case of the fianos, one of these three wines was very much not like the other two. It was the Cantina Giardino Gaia, a bottle I had not sampled before. While the Maffini and the Picariello were both classic examples of modern white wines — clear, bright and clean — the Gaia was something else entirely: hazy and amber colored.

It was, unexpectedly, a perfect example of what are today often referred to as “orange wines,” white wines produced using the techniques for making reds. Had I known it would be so radically different from the others, I might have suggested another wine. But in the end, I’m happy to have included it, as it was both excellent and a superb contrast to the others.

Most white wines today are made in a roughly similar manner. After the grapes are harvested, they are de-stemmed and crushed. Most of the time, the juice is quickly whisked away from the skins and seeds, which contain pigments and tannins that can add color and astringency. At most, the juice may stay in contact with the skins for a few hours.

Occasionally, though, as with traditionally made white wines from the country of Georgia, the juice is fermented with the skins, just as red wines are made. The resulting wines are amber colored — some indeed look orange — and tannic.

And so, the Cantina Giardino Gaia was pure, brisk and herbal, bright and alive in the glass. The wine was energetic and zesty, with citrus and mineral flavors. In the mouth, it had a pleasant rasp of astringency. As fianos go, it was very much atypical, but delicious nonetheless.

By contrast, the Maffini and Picariello followed the playbook for moderately priced, entry-level modern white wines. They were fermented at cool temperatures and aged in steel tanks, a method that enhances freshness, clarity and aromas, producing wines that are lively, clear and, texturally, at least, relatively simple.

The Maffini was broad and herbal, with flavors of nuts and citrus. It had length and heft, meaning substance and character rather than heaviness. The Picariello tasted of citrus and herbs, too, though with more minerality and linearity than the rounder Maffini. It was lively and substantial, with real personality. Both were admirable and enjoyable.

Aside from the differences in production, the Gaia was aged in barrels rather than steel tanks, and for a year rather than months. The barrels were old, and made of chestnut and acacia rather than oak, woods that were traditionally used in the area.

I can’t say that the winemaking techniques did not overshadow the expression of place in the Gaia. It would have been impossible for them not to, given how different it was. Elements of Campania shone through, though, in particular the herbal, citrus and mineral flavors that typify fianos.

One other contrast worth mentioning: Both the Maffini and Picariello bottles were made in what’s often termed a reductive style of winemaking, in which the juice and wine are protected from oxygen as much as possible throughout the process, which contributes to the sense of liveliness and clean aromatics.

The Gaia was produced oxidatively, exposing the wine to small amounts of air, whether during fermentation or simply though the micro-oxygenation that takes place in barrels. This can often add complexity to aromas, flavors and textures. Readers who were able to find the Gaia remarked on its strangeness. Tom Sasser and George Erdle of Charlotte, North Carolina, noted its “cloudy haze,” which they contrasted with the Picariello’s “focused simplicity.” Dan Barron of New York tentatively identified it as an orange wine, and found many elements that he liked, though he began and ended with its abnormality.

Ferguson of Princeton, New Jersey, said it was her family’s particular favorite, while Martin Schappeit of Forest, Virginia, conjectured that the Gaia might have been what wine tasted like back when the ancient Greeks colonized the region.

Well, this discussion of an orange wine was an unexpected turn this month, and for those who did not drink the Gaia, I am sorry for dwelling on it. The other two wines left plenty to talk about. I was particularly interested in how they compared with the Etna Biancos that we tasted recently, which also came from volcanic soils, though in Sicily.

“Unlike Etna Biancos, which are (at times) grown on much younger soils of an active volcano, these fianos from Campania have a much more ancient flavor,” Martina Zuccarello of New York wrote. “They taste of the wisdom of a dormant volcano, the kind of depth that you find in Campania, where it seems the Greek roots never dissipated.”

I love the poetry of her description, even if my own observations were more prosaic. The fianos had a clear sense of minerality, but nothing like the salinity of the carricantes. The fianos seemed richer as well, with more nutlike flavors. Obviously, they are different grapes and places, but it’s interesting to wonder whether the more general consistencies of minerality are related at all to the volcanic soils.

If you find the fianos intriguing, I recommend moving up a step, to those labeled Fiano di Avellino, which come from vineyard areas considered to have greater potential. Keep in mind that we have only begun to explore the potential of Italian white wines.