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Ode to an Ancient Grape:  Fiano

Ode to an Ancient Grape: Fiano

Fiano, the Age-worthy One

The poet John Keats once wrote an ode to a Grecian urn and its painted figures frozen in time. I myself would rather ponder a kylix drinking vessel, preferably one decorated with pretty vine tendrils and a party-hearty Bacchus. But really, why stare at an old pot to dream about the past when you can experience it here and now?

Greco, Fiano, Falanghina, Coda di Volpe, Aglianico, Piedirosso…. The grape varieties that Pliny the Elder described and Julius Caesar drank are alive and well in Campania—or Campania felix, Latin for “fertile countryside.” Blessed with an agriculturally ideal climate, what was once the breadbasket and playground of ancient Rome today boasts over 100 grape varieties, many brought by Greek settlers. It was they who founded Naples in 600 BC and colonized the coast down past Vesuvius, which Roman emperors and epicures later gentrified with sprawling summer villas, whose airy porticoes extended out to sea.

Today some of Italy’s finest whites come from Campania’s vineyards. The big three are Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino, and Falanghina, which most people learn about in one fell swoop. Other than the DOCG status of Fiano di Avellino, wine educators present them as equal in stature, like the prongs of Nepture’s trident. It’s true they all possess a certain sea-breezy character, offering intriguing minerality and acidic high notes that are as zippy as a spritz of Meyer lemon, making them ideal companions to the cornucopia of seafood found on the coast. But in reality, there is a hierarchy. I first experienced it by chance. But it didn’t really sink in until I spent time with local winemakers and saw that for them, there’s no question: Fiano is king.

At 10 years of age, Colli di Lapio’s Fiano di Avellino shows its true colors.

At 10 years of age, Colli di Lapio’s Fiano di Avellino shows its true colors.

Saved from extinction

I got my first inkling of Fiano’s potential at a dinner party in New York back in the 1990s. Tagging along with my friend Nina, I found myself at a wine collector’s table in a loft overlooking City Hall. I don’t remember much about that dinner except for this: I tasted my very first Fiano di Avellino there. It was a rarity, a Colli di Lapio with 10 years of bottle age. Unlike most aged whites, this was daisy yellow. No amber tones, no whiff of oxidation. It smelled of ripe peaches, and the first sip suggested pineapple and apricot nectar. As the wine opened, lemon curd and white jasmine came through, followed by toasted hazelnut on the finish. It was full-bodied and creamy, yet maintained a bright acidity that preserved its freshness. That night I discovered what discerning collectors know: Fiano can age really well.

You won’t find that said of Greco di Tufo, which probably has the edge in popularity. While great with a plate of calamari, it’s considered more one-dimensional. “Greco is thin as a wine, without long aging potential,” says Luigi Maffini, a Fiano producer whose eponymous winery lies near Paestum, a sprawling Greek archaeological site on the Cilento coast, south of Amalfi. “Only producers who make Greco think it’s good. Everyone else considers Fiano to be the area’s great white.”

Like all the so-called archeological vines of Campania, Fiano barely escaped extinction. In the 1930s, the region was hit with phylloxera. That blight was followed by the devastation of World War II, which left Campania felix smoldering. During post-war recovery, the government encouraged farmers to plant prolific workhorse grapes like Malvasia and Trebbiano. Fiano, with its small berries and naturally low yields, was abandoned.

But one family persisted. Since 1878, the Mastroberardinos have focused on Campania’s indigenous varietals. Originally they grew them for locals. Later they found a market in the Italian immigrants who sailed to Argentina and America and pined for a taste of home. Post-war, when other farmers were ripping out native vines, Mastroberardino stood steadfast. They not only saved these grapes from extinction, they saved some growers as well. Being one of the largest producers around, Antonio Mastroberardino encouraged the best of his grape suppliers to start bottling under their own name.

One such family was that of Clelia Romana, who founded the Colli di Lapio winery up in the mountain district of Avellino. A boutique estate that makes 50,000 bottles (versus Mastroberardino’s 2.5 million), Colli di Lapio gained a reputation as one of the best Fiano di Avellino producers around; its 2008 was named White Wine of the Year by Gambero Rosso.

Growing up in the sixties, Romana remembers Fiano being vinified sweet. “When I was a child, they brought bottles out when there was a festa or a cake,” she reminisces. “There are still people who do it that way: small contadini who make it for their family’s use.”

Sweet fiano was an age-old tradition dating back to, well, the Romans. Pliny noted how bees (api) favored the wine made from vitus apianae, particularly when its natural sweetness was enhanced by partially drying the grapes. Scientists are fairly sure Pliny’s apianis was named after its place of origin: Appia in Pliny’s time, today called Lapio, located near Avellino. Whether fiano is a corruption of apianis and his vitus apianae is our Fiano is still a matter of debate.

But here’s what matters: These days Fiano is dry. And within that dry style, there’s lots of variety. Terroir plays a huge part, as do techniques in the field and cellar.

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Fiano’s new neighborhood

If you haven’t tried Fiano before, start with the Fiano di Avellino DOCG, coming from the grape’s birthplace. Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio are the largest producers and the easiest to find. Also look for Colli di Lapio, Terredora, and Pietracupa, all excellent boutique wineries.

But don’t stop there. Fiano has been expanding down the Cilento coast, where it’s called Fiano Paestum IGT. Being closer to the sea, the microclimate is warmer, so this Fiano tends to be rounder and more opulent while retaining its lovely minerality.

Here you’ll find newer players who emerged in the 1990s. Maffini and De Conciliis are both boutique wineries (100,000 bottles) run by energetic men in their forties, whose families previously made wine in a small way. Luigi Maffini’s grandfather was a buffalo farmer (for mozzarella), while the DeConciliis family raised chickens. Both had vineyards, but Maffini’s father planted his “for fun,” while the DeConciliis parents made some vino sfuso for local trattorias and pizzerias, then sold the remaining grapes.

Times have changed. In a quest for quality, these winemakers are now experimenting with site, soil, and cellar techniques.

Luigi Maffini

Luigi Maffini

Maffini made his name with Kràtos, a pure Fiano from three vineyards around his family’s original property. This basic Fiano, fermented and held for six months in stainless steel, is delicious and laser-precise, with mango, kiwi, pineapple, and a refreshing acidity. But in 2002, Luigi bought land near the Greek temples of Paestum, and that’s what’s got him jazzed these days. The limestone-rich parcel, called Pietraincatenata or chained stone, is wedged high on a rocky slope facing the sea. “It’s a windy parcel, with good soil for wine,” says Maffini, who planted from scratch. He built a new house there too, transplanting his family—a display of confidence, if there ever was one.

All his vineyards are being converted to organic. But Maffini is showering extra TLC on his new Pietraincatenata cru, giving it partial fermentation in oak, then six to eight months of aging and batonage in new barrique. The result in a more intense, opulent Fiano. “I prefer this wine after four years,” he says, “when you start to get Riesling-like aromas.”

The three De Concillis siblings are also playing with variations on the theme of Fiano. This estate is known for a powerful Aglianico called Naima (and for its devotion to jazz; “Naima” was a John Coltrane ballad). But their experiments with Fiano are equally intriguing. They’re trying everything, including a sparkler—the region’s only one—from Aglianico/Fiano. On the day of our visit, Bruno De Conciliis poured a 2011 Fiano called Donnaluna that had 24 hours of carbonic maceration. “People in the south mistook this for premature oxidation, so we stopped making it,” says De Conciliis, with cheerful insouciance. The 2012 Donnaluna returned to being a textbook Fiano, with a wonderful salinity on the finish. They’ve also tried putting Fiano in a blend with Malvasia and Trebbiano, making a fragrant and lovely wine called Bacioilcielo (or “kiss the sky”; hello Jimi Hendrix) meant to be as “light as the clouds.”

Bruno De Conciliis

Bruno De Conciliis

There’s also weightier stuff coming from experiments with extended skin contact—normally a technique for making reds, not whites. Antece (“ancients” in dialect) macerates for 10 days on the skin and spends six months on the lees, or spent yeast. The cru Perella (a play on per Ella, or “for Ella” Fitzgerald) has a lighter dose: three days of skin contact. Both come from their oldest Fiano vineyard (which increases concentration) located on a cooler eastern slope (increasing acidity). The Perella is partially aged in acacia wood, adding roundness, but without the tannins of French oak. The winery describes this as “charismatic and haughty, like a Riesling.”

It’s no accident that the Riesling reference keeps popping up, this being the exemplar of age-worthy whites. Every Fiano winemaker I know advocates bottle age. “I think older vintages are stupendous,” says Clelia Romana. “I presented a tasting with Gambero Rosso in Rome: 1996 to 2006. The 1996 was absolutely fantastic, because of the high acidity. So in fact, one shouldn’t sell Fiano immediately.” But because of market demands and limited cellar space, her Fiano goes out the door eight months after harvest.

Would she ever consider holding back part of her production? “Magari—if only,” she replies. “I’d have the propensity to wait, but there’s not the culture. Definitely restaurants wouldn’t carry an older Fiano. Not because they wouldn’t want to, but it wouldn’t sell. Most consumers think all whites should be drunk young.”

So it’s up to us to do the aging. Take my advice: Buy a case. Drink some during the dog days of summer. Then forget about the rest for five years. Rediscover them years hence. Prepare a summer banquet. Uncork. Then relish the experience, toga and triclinium optional. 

Published in the June 2014 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.

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