One issue I have with a lot of wine lists in otherwise serious and even exciting restaurants today is how obscure virtually all of the selections are, as though someone is trying to make a statement and show how creative they can be in scouring the earth for undiscovered gems. Personality and individuality in a wine list are to be admired but, as a Master of Wine, if virtually all of the regions or varietals or producers listed are unknown to me (as has been the case perusing wine lists several times in the last few years), I’m guessing that the restaurant’s average guest is going to be drawing blanks too.
Disorientation is not my idea of hospitality. At Legal, we focus on selecting the best examples we can find (through our blind tasting discipline) in classic categories, accented by a smaller number of discoveries from less familiar origins that I feel are particularly worthy of inclusion. This balance is not formulaic, but always shifts depending on what’s compelling that we taste, and an analysis of what our guests are choosing to order.
Among the less trumpeted regions atop my radar screen for the last number of years is Campania in Southern Italy. Hardly a newcomer (its wines, including those made near Pompeii, were celebrated as Imperial Rome’s finest), Campania remains neglected by many wine lovers because most of its production until recently was over-cropped bulk wine consumed locally. There are, however, three distinctive and highly worthy white grape varieties grown around the town of Avellino that have ancient roots and had almost gone extinct until being revived and re-propagated in the past thirty years: Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, and Fiano di Avellino. In addition, there is one magnificent Campania red grape that stands alongside Nebbiolo and Sangiovese in the pantheon of most monumental, age-worthy and complex of all Italian wines: the noble Aglianico.
Falanghina is the wine with which we’ve had the greatest success. First planted north of Naples by Greek colonists as early as the 7th century B.C. (the entire area was known as Magna Graecia), this grape thrives on porous, mineral-rich volcanic soils. It makes an early-drinking un-oaked white that’s attained the status of my all-purpose “go to” choice in Italian restaurants, always reliable for its mineral purity, texture, heady ripeness and flavor persistence. The one we currently feature by the glass at our Legal C Bar locations from Feudi di San Gregorio, provides an intriguing lees-influenced mix of nutmeg, dried apricot, nectarine, honey, pear and citrus qualities that match it beautifully with shellfish and lighter seafood dishes. Compared to Falanghina, which is fresh, dry and creamy soft, Fiano is a touch fuller, making a lush dry white with stronger spice, peach notes and underlying acidity. Fiano also dates back over 2,000 years, and was renowned throughout the Middle Ages before fading into near oblivion. Greco di Tufo’s name indicates its ancient Greek origins as well; of the three it’s the most tart and edgy, often with a savory, assertive, prominently saline note.
Aglianico’s finest expression is Taurasi Riserva, an intensely full-bodied red with terrific aging potential that must be matured a minimum of four years prior to sale. Sometimes called “the Barolo of the South,” the wine is opaque (unlike Barolo!) with aromatic notes of tobacco, black and red plums, pepper, cocoa and leather. Enriched with strong acidity and tannin, it’s the furthest red you’d consider for most fish, but it actually pairs extremely well with a tuna steak. There’s nothing subtle about Taurasi Riserva, but for those who love full-bodied wines with layers of black fruit, this is not to be missed.
And for those of you who’d like to experience Campania up close, in all its varied expressions, there is an extraordinary dinner we’re hosting on September 25th at Legal Harborside with Andrea Fabiano of Feudi di San Gregorio. The Feudi estate is a standard-bearer for all of Southern Italy and one of Campania’s signature properties, dedicated to restoring the ancient varietals to their rightful reputation among the world’s finest wines. The dinner will provide an opportunity to enjoy seven wines, including a Rosé, Falanghina, Fiano, three delicious 2011 vintage Aglianico-based wines (rated 91, 92 and 93 points by Robert Parker), and a rich, lusciously smooth Merlot (rated 96 points by Robert Parker), the Pàtrimo 2013. If you’re interested in attending please drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will reserve a table for you.
As bullish as we are about Campania, and about the wines of Feudi di San Gregorio in particular, until they become more mainstream they will remain the spice that livens up our lists, gems to be discovered by those among you who are looking to expand your flavor horizons. If you’re not able to attend the dinner, we hope you’ll visit one of our Legal C Bar locations and enjoy a glass of Falanghina with some shrimp or scallops.
Sandy Block, Master of Wine