*This article was shortlisted in the Jancis Robinson 2021 wine writing competition and appears on her site here.
The Amalfi Coast glistens as the Mediterranean mecca for those wanting to indulge their fantasies of la dolce vita. And rightly so. The enchanting beauty of this 50-kilometer stretch of jagged coastline in the Campania region of Italy is unmatched and begs to be experienced at least once in life.
But there is more to the Amalfi coast than meets the eye. Beyond the shimmering azure waves and pebbled beaches, past the vibrant terraced facades and the buzzing piazzas filled with spritz-sipping tourists, hides a land equally as magical. Leave the stunning seaside towns behind and follow the vertigo-inducing serpentine roads higher up just a few kilometers inland into the green heart of the Amalfi coast. With a quieter, slower energy, this verdant land between mountains feels soulful, untouched, and real.
Tucked away in the folds of the Monte Lattari on the Sorrentine peninsula, picturesque hamlets, lush olive and citrus groves, thick woods and flourishing vineyards lay cradled in the mountain valleys. Here in the village of Tramonti, 300 meters above the coast, life in many ways seems to have remained as it once was.
Authenticity reigns high in this paradise above the sea and Tramonti is home to genuine people and genuine wines. In this land, the winemaking is nothing short of heroic with terraced vineyards tightly gripping steep slopes that reach 600 meter elevations. Protected within these vineyards between mountain and sea are centuries-old ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines. Regal, with gnarly, entwined trunks, these are living, breathing monuments of nature.
The winemakers of Tramonti are stewards of these hundred-year old Tintore di Tramonti vines. Luigi Reale of Azienda Agricola Reale, located in the hamlet of Gete in Tramonti, cultivates his old vines with reverence, attention and intention. I first visited the Reale winery and met Luigi, or Gigi as he is affectionately known by all, in 2013 on a wine trip through the Amalfi coast with Nick Mucci of Mucci Imports, Reale’s importer in the northeast USA. Time may have now blurred some of the finer details but impressed in my mind remain Gigi’s warmth and enthusiasm and the absolute awe and respect I felt standing before these immense vines for the first time. When in their midst there is a presence, a quiet intensity, that emanates and persists. These vines have lived. They have stories to tell. History and life come up deep from their roots, flow into their massive, twisted trunks, pulse through their branches and spread out far into their tendrils and fruit. In the glass there is not only wine but centuries of time.
The jagged coastal cliffs and the looming active volcano, Vesuvius, have long sheltered these giants of the wine world from disease and danger. Time and the fact that this area remained largely isolated until the late 1800s, allowing the territory’s rich agricultural biodiversity and rural traditions to be preserved, contributed to these vines quietly thriving. Over the millennia, the historic eruptions of the Vesuvius covered the area in layers of volcanic ash and lapilli, a stony volcanic material, creating a fertile home for the vines and a hostile one for the phylloxera.
There are currently only four producers in Tramonti that bottle Tintore from old vines and Reale was the first to bottle the red grape as a single varietal with his Borgo di Gete label. With three hectares total of certified organic vineyards, which include other local red and white grape varieties, Reale produces around 1500 bottles of Borgo di Gete I.G.T. Colli di Salerno Rosso annually. Little more than this is produced by the other wineries, making Tintore a rare find outside of Campania.
Reale, like other producers here, uses the traditional pergola trellis system for his centuries-old Tintore vines. Some plants stand nearly six feet tall with trunk circumferences of nearly five feet. The branches form dense, leafy canopies extending forth far and wide almost as if wanting to reach beyond the mountains to the beckoning sea. The fruit hangs below in few concentrated bunches. It is a wonder of nature that these plants still bear fruit and what fruit it is! Grown exclusively in Tramonti, Tintore is an indigenous, highly-pigmented dark grape that results in an inky, intensely colored wine with exploding tannins and acidity. It shares many of the same characteristics as Aglianico and in fact was at one time thought to be the same variety, although this was later disproved.
Tintore, a vigorous, slow-ripening, late-harvest grape, expresses itself with earthy, dense dark fruit, ripened plums and dried cherries. The varied elevations, temperatures, slopes, and exposures create a myriad of microclimates within Tramonti that have ensured not just the survival but the health of these old vines. The Mediterranean Sea and mountain winds both keep this territory dry and cool, preventing fungus and mold. The great variations in temperature ensure a marked acidity and the bright, warm sun characteristic of the Italian south ensures full-ripening. Reale first produced Borgo di Gete in 2005 with the other producers bottling Tintore just a couple of years prior, so while Tintore’s real aging potential as a single-varietal wine has yet to be established, so far it has shown incredible longevity.
Thinking back to these vines I cannot help but wonder what the landscape of Italian wine would have been like had phylloxera not devastated many of the country’s vineyards at the turn of the century. Would the Italian countryside be filled with the same wild, towering, free-standing plants as these vineyards? Would vineyard practices have evolved to what they are today? There are very few parcels of land in Italy where vines still exist on ungrafted rootstock and centennial vines offer a peek into what might have been. The centuries-old Tintore vines at Reale are a testament to the enduring and immense power of nature when left largely untouched and only gently nurtured by humans. These vines and the wines produced from them are precious and must be protected. Knowing that such places and wines exist makes it more important than ever for wine enthusiasts to be discerning about what they drink, and to really understand and appreciate what is in their glass.
Luigi Reale and the winemakers of Tramonti have worked tirelessly hand-in-hand with Mother Nature to protect and preserve their rare, centuries-old, pre-phylloxera vines and will continue to do so with reverent intention for years to come. Meanwhile, time continues to wrap its hands tightly around their immense trunks and entangled branches, unaware that these vineyards become more majestic, more precious with each passing year.