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Producer Profile: Enzo Ercolino

Enzo Ercolino has made Feudi di San Gregorio a driving force in southern Italy. Carla Capalbo pays a visit to Campania...

Mention Enzo Ercolino to anyone in the Italian food and wine world, and they say: ‘Oh yes, Feudi di San Gregorio – from Campania.’ In recent years, I Feudi, as the winery is known locally, has played a decisive role in putting Campanian wines squarely on the Italian – and international – viticultural maps. Indeed, Feudi di San Gregorio is now the most powerful producer of quality wines in southern Italy; only Planeta in Sicily has anything like the clout.

‘I Feudi can be credited with being the first Campanian winery to market its wines as a Tuscan or French estate would,’ says Luciano Pignataro, Neapolitan wine critic and writer. ‘This was in the early 1990s. Up until then, Campanian wineries – with the exception of Mastroberardino – had not been able to assert themselves on the international scene. Partly because they didn’t have a modern image to project; and partly because, from the production point of view, they couldn’t guarantee consistent quality from year to year – especially not with large volumes of wines.’ I Feudi changed all that, and set a precedent for the multitude of smaller wineries now flourishing in Campania.

‘In Campania in the 1940s and 1950s, the first important viticultural step was taken by the Mastroberardino brothers, who commited themselves to their area’s indigenous grape varieties – especially Aglianico,’ explains Pignataro.

By the 1980s, a handful of pioneering small producers in Campania were making names for themselves with good wines. Then, in the early 1990s, I Feudi burst onto the scene. They did it in the wake of the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia, Campania, and in the aftermath of the bitter fraternal split that divided the Mastroberardinos. And they did it with award-winning white wines – of Greco and Fiano – as well as reds – in a territory famous for its reds for the last 2,000 years.

‘I Feudi was a breath of fresh air, and set an example which more conservative local growers and contadini followed,’ says Pignataro. ‘The Ercolinos have been accused of being arrogant and presumptuous – but they acted as a catalyst for the whole region: others soon started to emulate them and their style, with positive results.’

Style is important to Feudi di San Gregorio. On a crisp morning in early March, snow is dusting the Irpinian hills outside the brand-new winery. Enzo Ercolino is sitting at a sleek marble table designed by Eero Saarinen, in a red leather armchair, custom-made for I Feudi by Poltrona Frau. At 48, Enzo Ercolino ’s inquisitive mind, and mix of openness and boyish informality, offer a useful foil for his ability to make tough decisions when he needs to.

‘I like the fact that a series of great intelligences – as well as Italy’s finest craftsmen – have been brought together to construct this place,’ he says.

One of these craftsmen is Riccardo Cotarella, Italy’s top-flight oenologist. Cotarella was the first senior winemaker to recognise the value and variety of Campania’s large catalogue of native (and largely unknown) grape varieties, and helped shape the wines at many of Campania’s most celebrated estates: Fontana Galardi, Montevetrano and Villa Matilde among them. He has the unique ability to reinterpret these grape varieties, making exciting modern wines of them: decisive, clean, aromatic wines.

The chosen ones

‘Right from the beginning,’ says Enzo Ercolino , ‘our strength was that we knew we weren’t experts, so we looked for the best people to help us achieve the results we wanted.’ The estate’s first winemaker, native Campanian Luigi Moio, created wines from local varieties that are still talked about today. ‘When Cotarella came on board, Moio decided to move on to other projects,’ says Ercolino. ‘Cotarella immediately imposed strict changes in the vineyards and cellar.’ At that time I Feudi had 30ha (hectares); now it has 250ha between Campania and other regions of the south, 120 of which are planted to grapes. Yields were dramatically reduced. As for vinification, the new cellar’s 150m-long barricaia attests to the now widespread use of small French oak.

To have achieved all this in 10 years has taken dynamism, creative thinking – and big investments. Enzo, Mario and Luciano Ercolino, with Enzo’s wife, Mirella Capaldo, began the winery in 1986, under ‘law 44’, a European Community sponsorship programme created to stimulate young entrepreneurs in Italy’s underdeveloped south.

‘If it hadn’t been for the earthquake, I might never have come back to live in Irpinia,’ Ercolino admits. The 1980 earthquake in Irpinia was one of the most devastating ever to hit Italy, and flattened hundreds of villages in the poor, agricultural area.

‘Cataclysmic events put everything else into perspective,’ says Enzo Ercolino. ‘This terremoto lasted one minute, but it changed my world. Up until that moment I didn’t care that I was from Irpinia – if anything, all I dreamed about was getting out of here. There seemed to be nothing to hold me.’

The sight of the shattered territory made him realise he had something to contribute to his native land. Winemaking seemed a positive way forward.

‘Irpinia is a generous wine-producing area. But at the end of the 1980s the hard truth was that, with few exceptions, most of its wines couldn’t last more than a couple of years without turning to vinegar. So I thought I could see a space to grow into, which might help us become more credible as a territory.’

Feudi now produces 2.5 million bottles per year. Both whites – the fine Campanaro and Pietracalda Fianos – and reds – Serpico and Taurasi Selve di Luoti, Aglianico wines of extraordinary concentration and complexity, and Pàtrimo, from 20-year-old Merlot vines ‘discovered by chance’ in a local vineyard – have won top awards.

Only 10,000 bottles are produced of the ruby-red Pàtrimo, whose elegant balance is as notable in the berry-fruit and balsamic nose as it is in its rich, velvet consistency. Serpico is all that a modernist Aglianico-lover could dream for: after 14–18 months in barriques, the wine has an almost impenetrable concentration, and yet retains delicacy, with floral, red berry and balsamic notes vying with earth and wood tones.

Feudi’s whites reflect their volcanic soils. Fiano, which Ercolino calls ‘the great white Campanian varietal,’ gains finesse and elegance from its cool hilly position, but never loses the signature mineral quality which ash, lava and volcanic sand confer.

With huge new investments, the winery – now run by Enzo Ercolino (his brothers have parted ways with him this year), his wife and her brother, financier and management consultant Pellegrino Capaldo – seems unstoppable. And it has brought well-deserved praise to the area.

It has also brought culture. Ercolino has fulfilled his dream of creating a centre of oenogastronomic culture at Sorbo Serpico, the tiny village where I Feudi is located. The panoramic restaurant, Marennà, located at the new cellar, serves authentic Irpinian and Neapolitan dishes – such as the exceptional tomato and meat ragù that slow-simmers for 40 hours.

‘I’ve always believed you can read a person’s character by the way they cook, or a territory as it is reflected through its wines – just like a mirror,’ says Ercolino. ‘Native grapes are a great resource and, when worked with care, can express the way we really are.’

Carla Capalbo is a food and wine writer, specialising in Italy.

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