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Piedirosso has an incredible ability to deliver wines of place, with brilliant structure and a full, dynamic palate of flavors true to the grape. If you flip open the treasure that is Wine Grapes, turning to the page dedicated to Piedirosso, you'll see the authors' claim that it "can shine as a varietal" - meaning all on its own. It has some trademark characteristics: a dense purple color, aromas and flavors of deep fruit, like plum and cherry, dark stony minerality, accents of herbs and savory earth. Despite all of this, Piedirosso is often considered a mere blending grape, giving freshness and softness to a more tannic Aglianico. In many of the coastal Campanian regions, though, as well as the islands offshore, it shines.
Campi Flegrei is a supervolcano positioned on the northern shore of the Gulf of Naples. It isn't far at all from the famous city of the same name. This is Italy's third most populated metropolitan area, and currently, there seems to be a debate on whether Campi Flegrei, pocked with cones and craters, is due for its next big blast. It's in this land, full of ancient Roman legend, steaming hot springs, and difficult terrain, that Gerraro and Raffaele Moccia tend 15 to 200-year-old Pideirosso vines on the banks of the Agnano crater.
The Moccia's 2018 Agnanum Piedirosso Sabbia Vulcanica is a wine of beautiful and obvious volcanic influence. It has a deep purple core, with lighter red-violet edges. The nose displays aromas of dark peach and plum, cherries, and wild flowers. Flavors of those dark stone fruits are also on the palate, along with crushed graphite, fresh, healthy herbs, and an elegant, savory hint of balsamic. The wine has easy tannic structure. Lovely acidity leads the finish, and a lingering essence of dried cherries. A lot is packed into this bright and drinkable wine. I fell hard for Piedirosso after drinking it.
Ashy and sandy soils, with a subsoil of basalt, constitute the family's sloping vineyards. Perfect for gnarly, old Piedirosso vines. In fact, growers don't really have a choice between Piedirosso and
Aglianico here - the former just doesn't do as well in this type of earth. It is also true that the land itself is so difficult to farm, so incapable of hosting modern machinery and methods, that most people have given up growing any grapes at all on Agnano, since all grapes must be picked by hand. But the Moccias seem to enjoy the struggle. In the cellar, the wine ferments naturally, with propable maceration time between 7 to 10 days. Both fermentation and cellar aging happen in stainless steel.
They take pride in their resilience as winegrowers, their tagline being, "Questo è il mio vino!" All of their bottles in America have it clearly printed on the back label: "This is my wine!" And there is the feeling that, even if you purchase a Moccia wine, it's never really yours. It belongs forever to Gerraro, an old but determined man, and Raffaele, his strong and resourceful son. They're the ones who've put in the work. They're the ones who've stuck it out on Agnano.
As you travel east from Campi Flegrei, away from the Campanian coast, your chances of finding a single varietal expression of Piedirosso slims. This is Aglianico country. "The Barolo of the South," is a phrase that I've read over and over these past few weeks in articles about the bold Aglianico-based wines, especially of Taurasi and Taburno. Eric Asimov put it correctly, however, when he said, "aglianico can suffer when looked at through a nebbiolo lense rather than appreciated in its own right." Piedirosso, on the other hand, isn't expected to be anything but itself. You can really taste it. And for many of us, isn't that the point?
Sannio, in the region of Benevento, is more than an hour's drive northeast of Naples. Unlike the grape's sandy hometurf on the coast, here the soil is denser; rich with clay. It is typical for Piedirosso grown in Sannio to be used in blends. However, Imma and Fulvio Cautiero use a portion of theirs to create a single varietal expression. "Our Piedirosso is without blending, in purity, as are the ones in Naples," Imma wrote me in an email. There are obvious differences between the Cautiero and the coastal Agnanum, but the integral qualities of the grape, the one's that together sing the chorus of Piedirosso, are upfront and clear. It is remarkable, though, how well this grape carries along the terrior in which its grown.
The 2018 Cautiero Piedirosso is quite dark in color, going from a black core to purple-red edges. The nose is a pungent bowl of fresh dark berries, like blackberry and cherry. There are aromas of soft dark flowers, tilled garden soil, espresso, cocoa and earthy smoke. Classic Piedirosso plum sets the tone on the palate, with nuanced flavors of herbaceous cherry leaves and black tea. The wine is rich, with supple tannin and a full and heavy body. Substantial texture brightened by a mineral freshness and a cool lift of acidity. Drank so well after an hour open, and I'm sure it will only get better, more complex, after a couple years in the cellar.
"We are located on the west side of the Taburno Mountain," Fulvio wrote me," where viticulture develops among pastures, forests, olive and cherry trees." The Cautiero vines, planted in 2002, are farmed organically, and all the fruit is picked by hand. Natural fermentation of the Piedirosso begins with a pied de cuve after a soft pressing of the grapes. The wine is aged in old barriques for several months before release. "The Piedirosso is a soft red wine," Fulvio explained, "we suggest pairing with cod fish, pasta with sauce, and assorted white meat." In my opinion, the wine is definitely versatile enough to be paired with fish and chicken, but surely has the structure and density of flavors to go with more robust fare. Nonetheless, a fantastic, mountain-style Piedirosso.
Before I started writing this article, I reached out to a friend, an importer of Italian wine. "What do you think of Piedirosso?" I asked. He wrote back, "Love it. Especially when blended with Aglianico for structure." I should have been clearer. I wanted to know what he thought about it "in purity," as Imma from Cautiero has put it. I believe if he'd taste the two examples that we're offering today, he'd find that Piedirosso has wonderful structure, a freshness and drinkability- whether coming from the volcanic soils of the west, or the denser, clay-based soils to the east. Maybe it doesn't have the tannic grip of a grape stuck in a mouthfeel competition with Nebbiolo, but so what? That isn't what it does. It has great plummy fruit and zippy minerality. It has an expression that is unique. I love it for that, and I'm confident you all will too. Just let it be its beautiful, intriguing, delicious self.
Thanks to Maya and Kevin of Louis/Dressner for sharing Agnanum photos and details, and grazie to Imma and Fulvio for all the great information about their wonderful winery, Cautiero. David Hatzopoulos
Agnanum 2018 Campania Piedirosso Sabbia Vulcanica
Coming from Piedirosso vines that range 60 to 200 years of age. Take a glance at the Agnanum's label to see what this type of vine age looks like. Located in the Agnano crater in the region of Campi Flegrei, just outside of Naples. Almost all vineyard work is done by hand and no chemicals touch the grassy slopes. Soils are volcanic, consisting of ash, sand, and basalt. In the cellar, the wine is vinified naturally in steel. This is the first vintage of Agnanum that I've ever tasted. A bold, tasty bottle of Piedirosso. The wine is dark purple at the center, with lighter purple edges. On the nose, there are dark stone fruits, both plum and peach, juicy red cherries and blueberries, surrounded by fresh aromas of spring flowers. The palate is a mix of herbs, earth, and fruit. Graphite, plum, cherry, balsamic and rosemary. The finish has a long flavor of raisinated cherries. The structure is full, but the tannins are great, offering a slight chew around some bright acidity. Coastal Piedirosso, showing true influence of volcanic soils and seaside climate. This wine has spurred my current obsession with the grape. David Hatzopoulos
Cautiero 2017 Campania IGP Piedirosso
From Piedirosso vines planted in 2002 by the Cauterio family on the western side of the Taburno Mountains. Fruit is farmed organically, picked by hand, and fermented in the cellar with native yeasts. The wine is aged for many months in wood before release. This is a dark wine, purple-red edges and a black core. The nose is both flowery and earthy, with blackberry and cherry fruit. Complex aromas of spent coffee grounds, bitter dark cocoa, and smoke appear after half an hour open. The palate has full tannic structure, with strong, balanced acidity. There are flavors of dark plum, cherry leaves, milled dark cocoa and black tea. My first pure expression of Piedirosso from the inland of Campania. It shows the heaviness I'd expected, contrasting the brighter, more mineral character of coastal Piedirosso. Surely, this wine will age well over the next five years or so. Definitely approachable now, just benefits from a quick decant or a moment open. Drink at cellar temp. David Hatzopoulos