BHW Insights: How I Fell for the Wines of Campania, Southern Italy

Review of Viticoltori De Conciliis

Last year I tasted over 4,500 wines. I’ve been in the wine business for 16 years and in that time I’ve enjoyed epic wines, unicorn wines, even perfect wines. Others were perfect for the time and place. Yet rarely have there been wines that haunt me so much so that not even the passage of time mitigates the influence of these special vintages. The wines of Viticoltori De Conciliis from Paestum, Campania in southern Italy surely fit into this category (with flagship wine ‘Naima’ in particular drawing a line in the sand of my memory).

Wine and Music in Perfect Harmony

Founded in 1996 by three siblings, Bruno, Luigi and Paola, and Paola’s husband Giovanni Cuni,Viticoltori De Conciliis lies in Cilento, a poor, rural part of Campania, near the Greek ruins of Paestum. It’s roughly two hours south of tourist magnets Naples, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii.

Die-hard music fans, the siblings named their wines after jazz musicians and tunes:

  • Selim (Miles backwards re. Davis) is a sparkling fiano.
  • Bacioilcielo (translates as “Kiss the Sky” by Jimi Hendrix).
  • Perella (named after Ella Fitzgerald) is a fiano aged on the skins.
  • Ra (named after Sun Ra and the Egyptian sun god) is a passito of Aglianico.
  • Donnaluna was originally named “Donna Lee” after the tune by Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.
  • Naima(named after John Coltrane’s jazz standard in honor of his wife) is Bruno’s flagship wine.

 

Wines Both Deeply Expressive and Humble

I first tasted the wines around 2005 and was star struck from the onset. The flavors had a purity that was expressive, even if the wines weren’t squeaky clean. They screamed authenticity. They were iconoclast and singular, but still of humblecontadino birth.

How could I, a jazz lover, not appreciate a winery that’s so crazy about jazz it purportedly pipes it into the cellar so that the wines may be soothed by the sounds of John Coltrane and Miles Davis?

Southern Italian Wine: A Change in Fortunes

Ten years ago, many of the wines I tasted from southern Italy, in particular from Campania, suffered a variety of common flaws: heatstroke in the vineyard led to burnt, overripe flavors of baked fruit and dried prunes. Lacking modern winemaking hygiene standards, many of the winery products were inconsistent and/or flawed, with off-putting smells like nail polish and rubber. Many were simply flat, lacking a vibrant acidity.

One standard practice was to make backward (wine that isn’t fruit forward) Aglianico that wasn’t intended to be drunk for at least a decade because of the aggressively high tannins. In other words, the wines were inaccessible, shut down, or just so acidic that they weren’t terribly enjoyable.

The white wines were generally flabby or worse. Plus, there were a disproportionate number of wines that were corked (I know this because I was a distributor who had to deal with innumerable returns and credits for corked bottles!), likely the result of producers looking to save money by buying cheap corks. This sets the scene for when I first tasted De Conciliis.

Donnaluna and Naima: A Tale of Two Wines

I was familiar with well-regarded producers from Irpinia, including the Taurasi from Mastroberardino and Feudi San Gregorio. But these wines represented two extremes for Aglianico; the uber traditional and hard to approach, and the modern, clean examples of the grape. De Conciliis produces two versions: Donnaluna is a young Aglianico label that’s free of oak and bottled while still fresh and fruity. It’s truly a delight! No wonder this wine is popular in nearby Pompeii, the Greek ruins at Paestum, and along the Amalfi coast.

Naima, one the other hand, is aged five to six years in barrel, first in 500 liter neutral tonneaux and then in 3,000 liter botte grandi. The grapes are sourced from five different vineyards (all transitioning to organic and biodynamic viticulture) with a minimum age of 40 years, and fermentation is with native yeasts. Naima, like the song, is a meditative wine. The current release (2009) is nuanced with subtlety, but it exhibits a quiet power.

Naima is a wine of contrasts, yet it’s alluring and appealing. If your last trip to Italy captivated you in a way that you were reluctant to share the details with others after returning home for fear it would diminish the experience, Naima is like that. When I open a bottle of Naima, I want to nurse that wine and watch it unfold in the glass the way that Billy Holiday sings “Solitude”.

Humanity in a Bottle

Perhaps, this is where the emotional connection began. In 1996, I was a camp counselor at the Stanford Jazz Camp and I’d recently made the largest investment in music I’d ever made to buyJohn Coltrane, the Heavyweight Champion, The Complete Atlantic Recordings. “Naima” is a jazz standard that, when you really listen to it, will make you cry. Perhaps, the loss I felt after coming to know John Coltrane’s music and internalizing the loss of his premature death, I was comforted to know a winemaker from Campania was similarly moved to name his wine Naima.

Wines are like old friends. They conjure fond memories and bring a smile to your face. If you’re a jazz fan, you’ll appreciate the wines of De Conciliis. If you’ve been to the Amalfi Coast or you’re part of the Italian-American diaspora, or if you appreciate high quality wines that have helped shape and define a wine region, you’ll love these wines too.

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