Italy’s Campania wine country parallels our own: Hargrave Column

Northforker file photo

Northforker file photo

As Long Island’s wines gain recognition in an expanding marketplace, wine critics often exclaim how much they have improved.

With about 60 vineyards on 3,000 acres producing 1,200,000 gallons of wine a year, perception of quality is supremely important to our vintners. For my taste, Long Island wines are indeed improving, especially those that don’t imitate California’s oak-aged chardonnay or over-extracted merlot.

The best wines from our region put the emphasis on pure fruit aromas with natural vibrancy. Many of these qualities existed in the early days of Long Island wine. In 1983, Bordeaux’s leading wine expert, Emile Peynaud, identified Long Island cabernet as a “great red wine.” And in 1984, Robert Parker wrote, “The 1981 cabernet sauvignon (produced from 13-year-old vines) is one of the most exciting domestic cabernets I have tasted in the last year … the expansive perfumed bouquet of cedar, spicy oak, subtle cabernet sauvignon weediness, the beautifully textured flavors and the clean, rich finish suggested the style of one of Bordeaux’s finest St. Juliens.”

While our wines were celebrated 30 years ago, as our region grew so did the jokes about “Chateau Buttafuoco” or “Clos Potato.” It hasn’t helped to be identified with the rest of New York State, where the reputation is for “foxy” native grape flavors, like those from Concord grapes.

Consumer ignorance notwithstanding, as influential sommeliers in Manhattan increasingly embrace Long Island wine, appreciating it for its quaffability and its happy affinity for fresh cuisine, Long Island’s reputation continues to rise. As for quality, Long Island has benefited from the same improvements in research and technology as other regions.

In fact, it’s a challenge for every region outside of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and Napa to overcome consumers’ reluctance to accept (or even try) other wines. On Long Island, we have little history to overcome, but imagine what it’s like for a region with a long and not-always-illustrious past. In Campania, Italy’s viticultural region surrounding Naples and Mount Vesuvius, wines were grown by Greeks, then Romans, in ancient times. In 268 B.C., when the Romans captured Campania’s leading city of Maleventum (“the site of bad events”), they changed its name to Beneventum (“good events”), demonstrating an early mastery of spin in the marketplace. The region then suffered depredations from invaders from Hannibal to Napoleon, with annihilating explosions of Pompeii and Vesuvius along the way.

By the end of World War II, the place was in chaos, dominated by the Mafia. Norman Lewis, a British intelligence officer stationed in Campania in 1944, wrote in his journal (Naples ’44), “I have come to the conclusion that the people of Naples know nothing — and care nothing — for the life of the countryside around them … 10 miles from the cafés of the Piazza Dante finds one deep in vendetta country — but [the town of] Afragola with its Bronze Age rituals might, for the Neapolitans, be 1,000 miles away.”

Today’s Neapolitans are taking a new look at their heritage and their countryside. On Oct. 1, I met four of the region’s most innovative winemakers at a comprehensive tasting for the Wine Media Guild. Livio Panebianco of Cantine Marisa Cuomo explained to me that the U.S. market for Campania was dominated for years by one producer, Mastroberardino, best known here for its Lacryma Christi (Christ’s Tears). Mastroberardino blended grapes from many growers for export. Within the past 20 years, some of these growers have broken away to make wines under their own brands, at the same time reviving ancient, nearly forgotten grapes.

Vintner Ferrante di Somma left Paris in 2009 to resuscitate his family estate, Cantine Di Marzo, where a fortune had been made, not in wine, but in mining the brimstone (tufo) soils that burst into flames there. Now, the greco di tufo grape forms the basis for his business.

Similarly, Peppe Mancini of Terre del Principe has revived casavecchio and pallagrillo grapes and the Donnachiara estate now bottles coda di volpe (“tail of the fox”) as a varietal wine.

Unlike New York’s “foxy” wines, coda di volpe allegedly refers to the cluster’s resemblance to a fox tail, rather than the wine’s aroma. Or does it have a more ancient meaning? Norman Lewis reported a Campania village fox cult: “Every year a fox is captured and burned to death, and its tail is hung, like a banner, from the pole at the village’s entrance.” Dionysius, god of wine and of those who don’t belong to conventional society, wore a fox skin.

Campania’s wines have come a long way from fox cults and Christ’s tears. And Long Islanders are happy to taste potatoes — not in our wine, but alongside it, on the plate. There’s always room for improvement.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.