Several weeks ago I attended a tasting that featured the wines of Mustilli, a seminal winery in the revitalization of Campania's wine fortunes. At the tasting, Paola Mustilli gave us a copy of a little book that was published in 2005, entitled Falanghina. Translated into English, it was written by three principal authors: Anna Chiara Mustilli, who runs the family's winemaking operation, Antonella Monaco, who wrote the main narrative of the volume; and Luciano Pignataro, who wrote an introductory essay "The Secrets of a Success." (The Introduction proper was written by Leonardo Mustilli, who was a protagonist in the "resurrection" of the high-quality Falanghina grape variety, which in 20 years has proved to be one of the region's--and Italy's--best white wine grapes.)
While the entire volume is interesting and instructive, I'd like to focus on the insights of Mr. Pignataro, whose historical perspective highlights just how recent the "autoctono" or indigenous grape movement is in Italy.
Luciano Pignataro is a well-known wine journalist in Italy. Based in Naples and long a fixture at that city's major daily, Il Mattino, he has a deep understanding of the Southern Italian wine scene. I have to add that it is a pity his web site is not available in English, because it contains a wealth of intelligent information on wines and restaurants from all of the Southern mainland, from Rome on down.
Back to the matter at hand...
At the very outset of his essay, he paints a bleak and picture of the wine scene in his home region just 20-25 years ago:
Falanghina, surely more than Aglianico, is the wine ... that can best embody the 'genius loci' of the Neapolitan pleasure of the table. ... Its success was sudden and overwhelming. Until the second half of the 80s, the worst decade in Neapolitan history [due to earthquakes and organized crime's control of government]...in pizzerias and restaurants ... no local wines were offered to the customers. Pinot, Merlot, and the other wines the great wine-making industry of the North and Sicily were promoting triumphed over all. The elite drank Champagne and some Brunello di Montalcino. The viticulture of the region was totally ignored by the local market and survived in small niches made up of connoisseurs and farmers who still cultivated the old grapevines.
For this dire state of affairs he blames the leveling, homogenizing effects of advertising, TV and other mass media.
Still, there were people who believed in the quality of the local varieties, and in their perfect matching with the seafood and fresh produce that characterize the best of Neapolitan cuisine. Mastroberardino and several other regional wineries spearheaded the revival of local grapes, grapes which had for centuries been cultivated haphazardly in a promiscuous "system" that blended all varieties together to make mostly very bad wine. Leonardo Mustilli, in the very small Sant'Agata de' Goti DOC, played a huge role in the revival and acceptance of Falanghina and other native varieties, fomenting a quality revolution that enabled Campanian wines to find their first "serious" markets since Roman times, when the region's wines were renowned all over the Empire.
In his essay, Pignataro goes on to recount the outline of viticultural history of his home region in the Medieval and early modern periods. Not a pretty story. But here's an interesting historical point that has obvious resonances today:
The wine is so fruity and rich in minerals that the grapevine seems to be spontaneously generated by Mt. Vesuvius. Neapolitan taste at the table runs to quickly consumed wines, a taste born of necessity because the great market in Naples (a great European metropolis second only to Paris in the XVIII century...) has always quickly absorbed the produce of the countryside. ... Hence Falanghina, a cool wine always appreciated in the heat of the town and the coast. ... We still have to explore the potential of this wine, for example as to aging, but those who have tried to work in the long time range have been gratified by the results: the alcohol content and the acidity allow for an interesting evolution as years go by. After all, modern Italian wines have no more than fifteen, twenty harvests behind them...
The emphases are mine. As I read this passage, I was struck by the radically new approach to winemaking that Mustilli and his ilk represent. I had indeed forgotten that, 30 years ago, most Italian wine was anonymous, inferior stuff of obscure provenance (often from co-ops of low quality). You never knew what was in it. The idea of "varietal" wines from Italy was outlandish.
And we really don't know how well these wines will age, since Naples, like the entire world today, has always wanted its wine ASAP, with none of this aging folderol.
Before we get too cocky, though, Pignataro adds, almost mischievously:
Better not get too excited, a single generation isn't enough to overcome a three hundred year lag, even with state-of-the-art technology in the wineries and modern techniques in the vineyards.
A healthy skepticism remains. As he expresses it in another passage,
The viticultural Middle Ages, begun with the fall of the Roman Empire, ended only a few years ago in Italy.
You have to be grateful to Pignataro for not succumbing to a Wine Council boosterism. All the more reason, then, to trust his very well-informed judgments on wines and wineries.