A Serendipitous Discovery of an Ancient Wine – Part I

Anyone who has travelled by car or train through Italy knows how quickly the landscape varies as you make your way down the boot. Traveling southward on the Autostrada del Sole from Rome to Naples, you begin to notice how the verdant, dense mountain ranges of Lazio transform into mountain slopes resembling green ocean waves, crest and troughs alternate between thick woodlands and sparse-covered rocky soils. Fertile lands later spread forth vast and open from the base of these mountains. On clear days you can make out the looming giant, Vesuvius, in the distance growing every larger. This is the region of Campania, known by the ancients as Campania Felix, flourishing countryside.

Those mountain ranges remain impressed in my mind. When I was a child travelling to Italy to visit my dad’s hometown, those very mountains were like a lighthouse, signaling that we were nearing my family’s home in Caserta. Famished after hours of trans-Atlantic travel, then I could only imagine the heaping plates of pasta drowning in thick tomato sauce that I would soon be devouring. As I looked out the car window at the passing landscape I remained rather focused on this image, and who could blame me. My mind never wandered to what might lay on the other side of those mountains, to what surrounded them, to what history and gems had been born within them.

I remember attending my first Vinitaly a few months after moving to Italy. Being a first-timer I really had underestimated how massive of a wine event this was. After a few hours of exploring and tasting wine just in the Tuscany and Piedmont pavilions alone, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. Admittedly, I was also feeling a bit inadequate, like all those other attendees had some advanced skill set, monster palates, and deep knowledge that I clearly lacked. It was all pretty dizzying.

I spotted the Campania pavilion and headed over, hoping to find respite.  If not, then at least there was more wine and the comfort of being surrounded by familiar dialects and accents, something that felt akin to belonging. The pavilion had decidedly fewer producers at that time than some of the other larger wine-producing regions I had previously visited. Thus there were fewer people. Less chaotic energy and more breathing space. And more room to be attentive. Because wine tasting is just that, focused attention.

After a bit of searching I came across wines produced in Caserta, which is the area that felt nearest and dearest to me. I eyed the producers and stopped at one in particular, Regina Viarum. I’m not sure what made me stop there but after over a decade of working in this industry I’ve finally come to trust my intuition and allow it to guide me toward the more interesting wines. Perhaps it was the gentleness emanating from the woman who stood behind the stand, the way she invited me in with her welcoming smile, allowing me to drop the feelings of inadequacy and intimidation a novice carries. Or perhaps it was the fact that her wines were labeled Primitivo, a grape variety that I knew then to only grow in Puglia. I was intrigued. We introduced ourselves, and Elda proudly, and without pretentiousness, began recounting her stories.

Some years later, tasting through the Regina Viarum wines at the Maddalena family home

When most people think of Campania there minds immediately conjure up images of bustling Naples and the idyllic Amalfi coast. They don’t realize that about 40 miles north, nestled between the region of Lazio and the province of Naples, exists a land relatively undiscovered. The northwestern area of the Caserta province is marked by sweeping green foothills, Monte Massico, and the extinct volcano of Roccamonfina. Ager Falernus, as the ancient Romans referred to it, is a fertile, uncontaminated land with traditions and a strong rural culture dating back millennia. Viticulture and winemaking flourished here under the ancient Romans, who cultivated grapes destined specifically to become Falernum wine.

DOC wines of Campania

The origins are legendary. The myth tells that Bacchus, god of wine, appeared to an old and humble farmer, Falerno, disguised as a hungry and tired vagabond. Despite having very little himself, Falerno offered milk, honey, bread and fruit to the stranger. Bacchus, moved by the old man’s generosity, turned the milk into wine and Falerno, not being accustomed to drinking such things, fell quickly into a deep sleep. Upon his waking, the old farmer found the slopes of Monte Massico transformed into flourishing and lush vineyards as only the hand of a god could command. Few other wines can boast being born into existence by a godly being or praised by the eminent ancient poets and philosophers Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Martial and Pliny the Elder.

Regina Viarum vineyard at the foothills of Monte Massico

The ancient Romans were astute and visionary. They understood that the Ager Falernus was particularly suited for grape growing, with its well-ventilated mediterranean climate, luminous slopes and mix of volcanic, chalky limestone and clay soils. Falernum became the wine of kings, emperors, and patricians. It was the wine par excellence, the most expensive, highly sought-after and greatest of its time. Sold far and wide across the reaches of the Roman Empire, the wine was transported in terracotta amphoras meticulously labeled with the type, year of production, and area of origin. Records show that the wines from this area were divided based on elevation, those being Caucinum, from the highest elevation, Faustianum, from mid-elevation, and Falerno in the lower-lying areas, and further characterized by their organoleptic qualities of austerum (strong and not as sweet), dulce (sweet) and tenue (light). Today, it is still possible to see archeological remains dating back to 2 B.C. delimitating the specific area that was to produce this highly prized and praised wine, as well as the remains of ancient vineyard systems.

Italy is privileged to have such rich history between its borders but to think that wine produced in this very area, known today as Falerno del Massico, is such an extraordinary blend of that history and winemaking culture. We know that then the ancient Romans were already training vines and had vineyard systems set-up according to their knowledge of viticulture at the time. We know that they were already focusing on vintages and labeling systems. And most importantly, we know that they were already working with the concept of terroir. In effect, the ancient area of Falerno del Massico in the province of Caserta might just be considered the first DOC wine ever.

What luck to have come across such a story at my first Vinitaly! Elda looked at me glowingly, despite having told the story an infinite amount of times. She placed a glass in front of me and I went right for the Regina Viarum Falerno del Massico DOC Zer05 Primitivo. I was expecting something resembling the Primitivo wines I had tasted in the past, full-fruit and little else. But here in this glass I found something different. There was fruit of course but more of an earthy element, minerality and structure, something similar to a Sangiovese perhaps. In the next wine, Regina Viarum Falerno del Massico DOC Vigna Barone Primitivo, all these elements were deepened, given that this wine is produced from vines over 70 years old. The aromas are bolder. The fruit is more concentrated, with balsamic and spiced notes coming through. I remember having a really good feeling about these wines. Elda was gracious. She put me at ease and most importantly made me feel like I could take my time, enjoy the wines and ask questions to my heart’s desire. If you’ve been to any large wine trade show, you know that this type of hospitality is not to be taken for granted.

Fast-forward a couple of years later and I was meeting my friend Nick Mucci, who just then was starting his wine import business, Mucci Imports, which he now successfully runs in Massachusetts. We had met and studied together at the University of Bologna and shared a common interest in small, family-run, off the beaten path wineries that predominantly worked with autochthonous grape varieties.  I was living in Italy and he was traveling up and down the boot with his now-wife, meeting producers and tasting wines. He graciously invited me along since we both were in the Campania region. As we excitedly talked about the new discoveries he made on this trip, he mentioned a wine from Campania that he had tasted at Vinitaly that blew him away. Instinctively I knew. It was Regina Viarum. We both nodded our heads with enthusiastic approval, not only about the wines but the family that produced them.

Cantina Regina Viarum

As we pulled up to Regina Viarum, at the foothills of the Monte Massico, I immediately recognized Elda and her welcoming, gracious smile. The entire Maddalena family, husband Pasquale and daughter Amalia who together with Elda have carried on the winemaking traditions of generations before them, exuded the same energy. It was like arriving for a visit with extended family.

We were taken through their two-hectare vineyard, which sits at the foothills of Monte Massico, where we were shown the 80-year old vines and organic farming techniques. Regina Viarum was the first producer of the 36 wineries in this little DOC to convert to organic farming, and one of only three wineries that produce the Falerno del Massico DOC exclusively with Primitivo. Others produce the wine with a blend of red grape varieties Aglianico and Piedirosso. We tasted current and upcoming vintages in their small cantina, located in the lower level of their home where they humbly produce 10,000 bottles per year.

Looking back on this visit, which took place some years ago, there are many things that I vividly remember. The passion of this family and their eagerness and enthusiasm as they spoke of their land and traditions. The way the spring sun shone so brilliantly, the way the green hues popped, and the wondrous natural ecosystem that buzzed and bloomed between the vines. But most of all I recall so vividly the connection, the warmth, and the spirit of that day, especially as we sat down to enjoy a special lunch prepared by Elda. And, as I had hoped and a tiny bit imagined, there was no shortage of heaping plates of pasta to accompany their exceptional Falerno del Massico wines.

Organic farming practices lead to unique micro-ecosystems between the vines at Regina Viarum

**Since this visit took place some years ago, I have planned to return to Regina Viarum as soon as the Italian government allows fuller movement between regions. A second post has also been planned, detailing Falerno del Massico DOC today, Regina Viarum wines and with updates on vineyard and winemaking practices. At this time, I have decided to focus on my ties to the area, historic background of the wine producing area, and the initial meeting.

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