A violent earthquake in Campania 38 years ago led to the birth of one of the area’s leading wine estates. Susan Hulme MW tastes Feudi's Taurasi from 1997 to 2008, and Carla Capalbo explores the history of this estate...
Susan Hulme MW tastes 12 vintages of Feudi di San Gregorio Taurasi:
Aglianico produces some of Italy’s best and most long-lived wines, with the capacity to age, in the best cases, for more than 50 years. It also has the capacity to reflect climatic variations and terroir. Some of the best examples are produced in the Avellino hills in Italy, labelled as Taurasi DOCG.
This tasting, at Feudi di San Gregorio’s headquarters in Campania in June 2017, illustrated not only vintage variations, but the work of two hugely influential winemaking consultants: Luigi Moio worked here between 1997 and 2001, and Renato Cotarella, his successor, until 2008.
Moio had a more traditional approach, aiming for elegance by concentrating on freshness and managing the alcohol. Cotarella’s wines, meanwhile, express more concentration, smoothness and beautifully-managed tannins.
Stylistically different, yes, but relatively fine points in this line up of 12 impressive wines covering the span of bot of their tenures at Feudi di San Gregorio.
It’s clear that both have made stunningly beautiful wines, but it is still the personality of Aglianico in its Taurasi heartland which asserts itself overall.
Scroll down to read Carla Capalbo’s account of the estate and its history, originally published by Decanter.com in 2015
Feudi di San Gregorio Taurasi 1997-2008:
Feudi at a glance
Location Sorbo Serpico, Avellino, Campania
Area under vine 300 hectares
Total production 3 million bottles
Altitude of vineyards 400m-700m
Main varieties Aglianico 35%, Greco 25%, Fiano 25%, Falanghina 15%
Single vineyards Vigneto dal Re – 4ha (Aglianico for Serpico), Piano di Montevergine – 4ha (Aglianico for Taurasi Riserva), Cutizzi – 8ha (Greco di Tufo), Pietracalda – 8ha (Fiano di Avellino), Serrocielo – 8ha (Falanghina)
Carla Capalbo reports:
In November 1980, the mountainous interior of the Campania region, east of Naples, was struck by one of Italy’s worst earthquakes of modern times, leaving almost 3,000 dead and 300,000 people homeless.
Villages and farms were destroyed around its epicentre in the province of Avellino known as Irpinia. For many Irpinians, this was the signal to abandon the poor, rural countryside and head for cities in the north. For others, it became a call to arms to rebuild and maintain the culture of this little-known but unique area.
Enzo Ercolino, a native of Avellino who had moved to Rome some years earlier, was one of them. ‘I spent my teenage years impatient to flee this backwater, but seeing it in ruins made me want to help rescue it,’ he said.
He moved back and in 1986 he and his brothers, Mario and Luciano, Enzo’s Irpinian wife, Mirella Capaldo, and one of her brothers, Mario, opened a wine estate – Feudi di San Gregorio – in the hills just above Atripalda. Their first slogan was Spirituale Vinum.
These were the post-earthquake reconstruction years and money was flooding into Irpinia from Rome and the European Union. A fund created for those aged under 40 with strong business plans helped raise some of the €4 million the group needed to get going. It soon had 30 hectares of vineyards and was launching its first wines, native whites as well as reds.
‘Looking back, it’s amazing how adventurous my aunt and uncles were for their time,’ says Antonio Capaldo, who now runs the estate today. ‘When Feudi started, it was one of only about 10 estates to bottle wines in Irpinia, a land that has a 2,000 year old tradition of producing red wines from our native Aglianico grape. So even its decision to produce modern-style whites was radical.’
The group was ahead of the curve. In 2003, Avellino became one of the first Italian provinces to attain three DOCG appellations, for the whites of Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, and the red Taurasi whose DOCG dates to 1993.
Irpinia is an undiscovered, untouristy part of the southern Italian Apennines, with a rural economy that still depends on chestnut harvests, timber, small farms, family businesses and scarce industry.
Like much of the south, it’s been hard hit by the recent economic crisis. Most families grow their own vegetables and make wine for home consumption from small plots. Wine is often still considered a food here.
The most important Irpinian winery before Feudi began its expansion was Mastroberardino, whose reputation was made in the post-war period. It set the standard for Avellino’s classic-style Taurasis.
Feudi’s ambitious vision differed from Mastroberardino’s and its other contemporaries’. Ercolino’s goal was to create a modern buzz around Campania’s wines and to become a standard-bearer for southern Italian wines, and he used the models of Tuscany, France and the New World to achieve it.
‘Feudi was stylish in everything it did, from its minimalist labels, designed by Massimo Vignelli, to its sleek marketing campaigns and barrique-aged wines made by Luigi Moio and then by Riccardo Cotarella,’ says local sommelier Jenny Auriemma.
By the end of the 1990s, iconic wines like the full-bodied Aglianico called Serpico, the pure Merlot Patrimo, and the late-harvest Greco called Privilegio were winning awards and featuring on wine lists in chic restaurants throughout Italy. ‘Feudi got people excited about Campanian wines and inspired many smaller estates,’ Auriemma says.
Feudi’s expansion seemed unstoppable. In 2004 the beautiful modern cellar opened, with its panoramic top-floor restaurant, Marennà, under the tutelage of Michelin-starred chef, Heinz Beck. (It now has a star of its own, with chef Paolo Barrale). There were plans for a concert hall made from barriques, for rare-breed animals and a cultural centre.
The dynamic, larger-than-life Ercolino was the estate’s public face, but behind the scenes tensions were growing within the family. The winery was gobbling money: it now owned more than 250 hectares and investments had increased to €40 million.
By 2001, another of Mirella’s brothers, Pellegrino Capaldo, a professor of economics and financial consultant, had stepped in as a silent, majority partner. In 2003 Mario and Luciano Ercolino left, followed in 2006 by Enzo and Mirella. Capaldo has been the principal owner, with 93% of the company, since 2010.
Feudi’s current chapter began when Pellegrino’s son, Antonio, decided to run the company. ‘I’d done my PhD at the London School of Economics in Bangladeshi micro-finance and was working at McKinsey in Europe while these changes were happening at Feudi,’ the 37-year-old says. ‘I never imagined I’d head a winery, but I loved Irpinia and wine, and had become a sommelier.’ In 2009, a day after making partner at McKinsey, he quit and turned his attention to Feudi.
‘My uncle Enzo had initiated several exciting projects that he wasn’t able to finish and we’re continuing them,’ he says. The ‘we’ includes his CEO, Pierpaolo Sirch. Trained as an agronomist in his native Friuli, Sirch began working at Feudi in 2003 as a consultant under Ercolino. ‘Enzo’s strategy was always to bring in top talent, and he wanted Pierpaolo to oversee the viticulture here,’ says Capaldo
Embracing native grapes
Sirch’s back-to-the-land approach heralded a new direction for the estate’s catalogue of more than 20 wines. ‘Fashions were changing too, but I felt we’d lost the pleasure element in many wines by overusing barriques and over-extracting them,’ he says. ‘Some wines were criticised as too international. I also felt Aglianico could be different from the rustic, tannic and impenetrable wine it’s often described as. To me, it’s an elegant, sensual red.’
The estate’s 300ha of vineyards are made up of over 700 plots, with 200 more belonging to local families who sell their grapes to Feudi. Sirch has mapped each parcel and communicates with the farmers via texts and emails.
He gives the growers free pruning courses (he also runs a pruning consultancy with Marco Simonit) and has brought in several well-known oenologists to share their experiences with his team. These include Hans Terzer from Alto Adige and Georges Pauli of Château Gruaud-Larose in Bordeaux (Riccardo Cotarella left the estate in 2007). More recently, Bordeaux’s Denis Dubourdieu has been working with Sirch on the estate’s wines in Campania and beyond.
‘Our Magna Graecia project is in full swing,’ Capaldo explains. ‘We always intended to go beyond Campania to become the leading estate in southern Italy, and to represent the native grapes of its varied regions. The first estates in Basilicata and Puglia were bought by Enzo, and we’ve recently added a Sicilian winery to our portfolio.’
The estates make and bottle their own wines under Sirch’s guidance, and are distributed by Feudi’s network. They include Cefalicchio, a biodynamic estate in Puglia, Valenti on Mount Etna in Sicily, and Basilisco in Basilicata.
The other innovative project initiated by Ercolino was to make sparkling wines from native Irpinian grapes using the traditional method. Champagne producer Anselme Selosse was the first consultant for what has become the Dubl line, although he left in 2010.
‘We’re now producing 100,000 bottles of three types: Falanghina, an Aglianico rosato and the top-of-the-line Dubl+ of Greco that spends 24 months on the lees,’ Capaldo explains.
Dubl has its own distribution line and brand. ‘We’ve opened our first Dubl Bar inside Naples airport where international travellers can have a glass of bubbly and local speciality foods or gourmet panini designed by our chef. Our future is outside of Italy, and this is a fun way to get people excited about Campania’s great native grapes.’
Carla Capalbo is a food, wine and travel writer, and photographer, based in Italy
Feudi di San Gregorio: a timeline
1986 Feudi di San Gregorio is founded by the three Ercolino brothers and Mirella Capaldo; Luigi Moio was the first winemaker
1991 The estate’s first wine, Nobellum, is released
1997 First Tre Bicchieri award given to the Taurasi 1994
1998 First release of Serpico (1996 vintage)
1999 First vintage of Patrimo (released 2001)
2000 50ha of vineyards bought in at Manduria in Puglia, and 15ha in Vulture in Basilicata
2001 Pellegrino Capaldo acquires a majority share of the estate. Architect Massimo Vignelli designs iconic labels
2003 Riccardo Cotarella becomes consultant winemaker; Pierpaolo Sirch is consultant agronomist; Mario and Luciano Ercolino leave
2004 The new cellar and headquarters are finished; Marennà restaurant opens
2006 Enzo Ercolino and Mirella Capaldo leave the company; the sparkling wine, Dubl, is launched
2007 Cotarella leaves
2009 Antonio Capaldo takes over; Sirch becomes CEO
2010 Pellegrino Capaldo becomes sole proprietor; Basilisco estate in Basilicata bought
2013 Cellar built in Puglia for Ognissole estate; Cefalicchio estate acquired in Puglia
2014 Valenti estate on Sicily’s Etna signed up as part of Magna Graecia project. Denis Dubourdieu becomes consultant winemaker. Dubl Bar opens