Sunday, October 07, 2018

The Unbearable Lightness of Being… Fiano di Avellino

From the Native & Indigenous Italian Grapes Series

Vesuvius in Eruption by Joseph Mallord William Turner
In flyover country USA in the 1980’s, finding decent white wine from Italy was a gamble. As I’ve written countless times on this blog, the Italians were digging out from a devasting world war, and technology was creeping forward. There were more important things than making white wine palatable for Americans. I remember a Florentine trattoria owner once told me, “Americans, what do they know?” Along with that there was this affection for the older style of white wine – more robust, with all manner of flavors and sensations – from spritzy to roughly textured, from oxidized to “marsalato.” The older folks (typically, men) loved them and saw no reason to change to cleaner and leaner. Those wines would fit in well today in wine bars below 14th Street and in places like Williamsburg.

But a trip to Fort Worth, Texas changed all that for me.

I’d heard about this Italian chef who had a wine collection in his restaurant near the historic old Chisholm Trail in a strip mall. It was a little out of the way. In fact, when I first drove up, I had this sinking feeling in my stomach that, once again, I’d come so far for so little (I still get that sensation to this day in some accounts). Anyway, I was told the chef, Carlo, usually prepared a lunch for sales reps, and everyone brought their samples and dove in. It was an all afternoon affair.

Carlo was, and still is, a sweet guy. At the time he was married, and his wife watched over the place, making sure he didn’t drink up all the profits. When their relationship soured, I was told she reported all of us Italian and Italian-American reps to the FBI, claiming we belonged to the Mafia. Nothing came of it, but it brought us laughing to tears, years later, when we recounted those odd days. Descendants from bootleggers, yes! But organized in any way, no way! We were young and just wanted to sell wine to our friends. And along the way, try out some new stuff.

That was where Carlo came in. These (mainly) liquor companies would buy the odd Italian wine and get sideways with their inventories and would come to Carlo and make him a deal he couldn’t refuse. There was this especially distressed bit of wine from Campania, from Mastroberardino. Some of it was the 1971 Fiano di Avellino. And in 1984, a 13-year-old white wine from Italy wasn’t exactly rolling out of the distribs warehouses. So, Carlo bought it all for $2 or $3 a bottle. Along with that he got everything Mastroberardino had, from their Greco di Tufo to their Taurasi (1968, anyone?) for less than a song. And he put them in his temperature-controlled wine vault.

Fortunately, the 1971 Fiano hadn’t suffered. The wine wasn’t dark and brooding, nor was it heavy and maderized. It took on this golden hue, honey-like, which was very typical of Fiano. And it was a revelation.

I’ve most likely said it a time or two on this blog that my tastes in Italian white wine from Campania gravitate more towards Greco. I like the texture of the Greco, the brusque way it splashes onto my palate and gives me a ride. But I’ll not pooh-pooh Fiano, when there is a good example of one in front of me. And that day, it was like I’d been shown the best possible example of Fiano di Avellino available to us in America. Maybe the world?

Along with the golden hue, it had this delicate aroma of field honey, a creaminess and a light, light butteriness. Nothing heavy. No palate pressure. Just this silky, easy-going, but very serious, sensation. Wow! I had to know more.

So, when I went to Campania a few years later, my dear friend Filippo di Belardino arranged for me to visit the Mastroberardino winery in Atripalda.

The year was 1990 – Antonio Mastroberardino was still very much alive. He was so excited about his new project, Radici. Antonio was to me a man who was always looking to get to the most direct expression of wine from Campania. He was a radical in the truest sense of the word. And this project, which continues to this day, is imbued with that energy. More on that at the end of this post.

This day, though, in 1990, Antonio and his son Carlo hosted us. Antonio’s other son, Piero, was around, and still quite young. Today he runs the place.

There is something about the soul of a Southern Italian that many folks in the north of Italy cannot grasp. Southerners around the world are seen as these caricatures of Italian culture. But when one digs a little deeper, to the roots, one often finds great depth of intellect. Antonio Mastroberardino was such a gentleman, and his approach to Italian wine is documented heavily across the world of wine, and with no need to recast his heroic efforts on this post. But just to say that my visit with him, in even this initial visit to the winery, left me with the impression that a great revolution in winemaking in Southern Italy was underway. It would be years before the volcanic wines of Vesuvius and Etna would find their way into the hearts of American wine lovers. For folks like Chef Carlo, back in Ft. Worth, Texas, he’d still have time to fill his cellar with the ultimate close outs that Italian wines would often become in the early days. But at ground zero, in Atripalda, make no mistake about it – Antonio was leading a revolution and Taurasi, and even more passionately, Fiano di Avellino, were the banners he was raising as he made his way forward, storming the castle of convention.

Fiano, for me, is a mobius strip, for it offers me a window into the past, while looping me back to the future. It is undeniably one of the great white wines of the world. And as anyone who has studied wine history knows, the area that produced such a wine, 2500 years ago, was the center of the wine world, in much the same way the Bordeaux became in its heyday. Things happened and they happened in a historic way, in Campania. And Antonio Mastroberardino saw that invisible thread from the past to the future and elucidated it most intelligently and with a gentle ferocity. His son, Piero, when he talks, has that same wrinkle between his eyes above the bridge of his nose, that his father Antonio had when he spoke of things that stirred him deeply. The son understood the father and is working to carry on and forward to the next chapter.

Photo courtesy of Mastroberardino winery
In April while at Vinitaly, Ian D’Agata sent me a note: “Meet me at the Mastroberardino stand, they are previewing a new and exciting project centered around Fiano di Avellino.” When the master calls, one must follow. And so, I met Ian and his entourage at the Mastroberardino stand. Piero was there, showing the 2015 Stilema Fiano di Avellino.

This was one of the “full-circle” moments that can be a bit tricky within the confines of the time-space continuum. For I felt like I was traveling back and forward in time in the same moment. In reality I was here and it was now, as it always is, isn’t it? But wine takes one places, and this new project took me back to Fort Worth Texas, and my first time.

How much it says about a wine that even the last time one has it, it’s as if it were the first time? Must be love. And there is much to love about Fiano di Avellino.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

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