Including the stunning Amalfi coast and Sorrento peninsula, Campania’s coastline offers wine lovers the chance to discover local vineyards and native grapes during a sunny and relaxed seaside holiday. Carla Capalbo shares her highlights...
It’s a brilliant summer’s day and I’m standing in the dappled shade of a giant arbour as intricate as a spider’s web. With gnarled branches that extend as far as the eye can see, this unique pergola has been created by ancient grapevines, some of which are more than 400 years old. They’re still producing abundantly today.
I’m 300m above the Mediterranean at Tramonti – the name means both ‘between the mountains’ and ‘sunsets’. It’s reached by winding roads that climb from the Amalfi Coast via Ravello or Maiori.
On the northern side of this pass, named the Valico di Chiunzi, is Mt Vesuvius. It’s mainland Europe’s only active volcano, and is happily now dormant.
‘This has always been an important area for wine production,’ explains Gaetano Bove, who runs the estate of Tenuta San Francesco, with its historic vineyard. ‘After all, Pompeii was the Las Vegas of ancient Rome, a holiday place where people only worked half-days and focused on sex, food and wine.
‘Tramonti’s wine supplied the local area and was also exported when Amalfi ruled the waves from the 9th to 11th centuries.’
There are geological reasons for this longevity. The Monti Lattari – or ‘milky mountains’ – were among the first to appear out of the Mediterranean, even before the volcanoes. Their soils include layers of pumice, the light volcanic rock that floats on water. ‘Pumice brings minerals to the roots of the vines and traps humidity that releases slowly during summer,’ Bove says.
The vineyards here are host to many rare native grape varieties that may give us an inkling of what these wines of the past were made of. They include whites such as Biancolella, Falanghina, Fenile, Fiano, Ginestra and Ripoli; and reds Aglianico, Piedirosso, Sciscinoso, Tintore and Tintora. The tenuta also offers visitors home-cooked meals and wine tastings in its cellars.
Beside the sea
The central coastal section of Campania that stretches from the Sorrento peninsula and Amalfi coast to the northern Cilento hills is now home to an exciting array of wines, with many new wineries launching in the wake of a handful of early pioneers. For the sake of this article it begins in the province of Naples, but the lion’s share is in the large province of Salerno. (There are coastal wines north of Naples too, but that’s for another time!)
The central coast divides naturally into two distinct zones. If the former is played out along the breathtaking but tortuous and rocky hills of the Monti Lattari, the second stretches south from the gentle slopes of the Monti Picentini, past the Greek temples of Paestum, to the soft hills of the Cilento, whose olive groves and vineyards could easily be mistaken for parts of Tuscany. The Bay of Salerno, with its imposing port-city, divides the two.
If the two areas are geologically diverse, so are their winemaking histories. Heroic viticulture has always been practised in steep terraced vineyards at Tramonti and elsewhere along the Amalfi coast, high above the panoramic road that so appeals to its millions of visitors. As elsewhere in Italy, every family had a few rows of vines among their fig trees and vegetables, but didn’t bottle their wine.
On the map
The award-winning Fiorduva – made by Marisa Cuomo from native white grapes and aged in barriques – changed all that, bringing international attention to the area and its potential. Giuseppe Apicella, the Reale family and Ettore Sammarco at Ravello were other early bottlers of the Costa d’Amalfi DOC. All continue to make fascinating wines and are well worth visiting.
I’m impressed too by some of the recent estates to open in the coastal heights. With fabulous views of Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, Abbazia di Crapolla is situated above the town of Vico Equense. ‘The first mentions of wines here are from 1520 when the monastery produced it,’ says Fulvio Alifano, who has tastefully restored the former Benedictine abbey’s grange for visitors, and makes wines from a late-ripening variety called Uva di Sabato, as well as newly planted Pinot Nero.
On the second, more easterly coast, the story is different. The Picentini and Cilento hills had no recognisable wine history of their own – even if many families produced a little wine for home consumption. If anything, vineyards there were used for cultivating the Barbera and Sangiovese that could be sold as bulk wine to northern regions seeking southern warmth to enrich their wines.
That lack of history has enabled a modern revolution, started successfully by Silvia Imparato at Montevetrano, who brought French sophistication to Campanian wines in the 1990s. Other pioneers of the area, such as Bruno de Concilliis and Luigi Maffini are still inspiring future generations.
‘There’s a nouvelle vague of Campanian wines being influenced by the sea,’ says Fortunato Sebastiano, a consultant winemaker from Campania who works throughout the region. ‘There’s a big difference between the coastal wines of the Cilento and those of the hinterland of Avellino province to its north, which boasts a long history of three important DOCG wines – Fiano, Greco di Tufo and Aglianico for Taurasi. If the Avellino wines have been restrained by their history, the Cilento’s have been freed by their lack of any. They are Italy’s New World.’
The climates of the two areas are also very different, from the cooler north to the hotter south.
Today’s adventurous wine lover can explore up-and-coming wineries working with biodynamics, clay amphorae and unusual rare native grapes such as Aglianicone and Santa Sofia.
Visiting wineries on these coasts is the perfect complement to a seaside holiday, so get your maps out and aim for the spring or autumn if you want to stay far from the madding crowds.
My perfect day in Coastal Campania
After breakfast in bed overlooking the sea at Hotel Raito, it’s a short drive to the Ceramica Artistica Solimene ceramics shop in Vietri sul Mare, to stock up on colourful, hand-painted plates. From there it’s less than an hour’s drive beyond Salerno to the more rural hinterland of the Monti Picentini. Here the organic winery Lunarossa has introduced traditional, locally produced clay pots known as quartare for some of its winemaking. Nearby Casa di Baal offers a more bucolic visit. Francesca Salerno and family are second-generation viticulturists working biodynamically in vineyard and farm.
Drive south down the flat Sele Valley to arrive in Capaccio before noon, so you can watch the mozzarella being pulled at Tenuta Vannulo, where the Palmieri family has long been in the vanguard. On its model organic farm the buffalo choose when to be milked and get their backs scratched. Don’t miss the buffalo-milk ice cream and brioches, or the dairy’s recently added restaurant. Walk off lunch with a stroll among the magnificent Greek temples of Paestum nearby – Goethe declared that it wasn’t worth going as far as Sicily for Greek temples after he saw these. A little further south, the Cilento hills rise along the coast. Near Agropoli, visit Casebianche, the organic winery of two architects, where three sparkling pétillant naturel wines are currently turning heads. The estate includes olive groves, white figs, wheat and citrus fruit – and it’s lovely to sample the wines in the homely atmosphere of the family’s dining room.
Drive back up the coast near Vietri sul Mare for dinner and a walk through the picture-postcard vineyards and pretty lemon groves of Le Vigne di Raito, where you can finish the day as you began, with a delicious meal overlooking the sea.
Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer. Her books include The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania. This guide first appeared in the February 2019 issue of Decanter.