Let’s accept that with all its good, bad and gorgeous, Italy is not a normal place—more a carnival of contrasts.
The province and city of Caserta, north of Naples, are all that in the extreme.
Caserta is home to one of the most majestic royal palaces of Europe: the 18th-century Reggia di Caserta that housed the branch of the Bourbon dynasty that ruled Naples and Sicily. It is also, sadly, the headquarters of some clans within Italy’s oldest criminal organization, the Camorra. It has gorgeous rolling hills covered with nature preserves and farms, but also a shameful record of illegal waste-dumping scandals.
Alongside the history and conflict, Caserta offers some of Italy’s best buffalo mozzarella and pizza as well as some interesting and rare signature wines.
Caserta’s wines, like those in much of southern Italy, are undergoing a 21st-century renaissance led by some visionary producers who, in the 1990s, began projects to restore the area’s former viticultural luster. Among the most noteworthy is Fattoria Galardi and its flagship Terra di Lavoro, a blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso. (The 2017 vintage scored 92 points.)
Another pair of producers, Vestini Campagnano and Alois, both started by families who leveraged their success in other professions (law and high-end silk production, respectively), have worked with noted regional experts such as enology professor Luigi Moio to resurrect once noble but forgotten Caserta grapes. These include savory, minerally and citrusy Pallagrello Bianco and dark, spicy Pallagrello Rosso, along with the herbal, aromatic red variety Casavecchia.
All these wines are in comeback mode and worthy of attention. But the variety that drew me to the Caserta area late this past summer was Asprinio, which traditionally has been grown on monster vines—up to 40 feet tall—in 20 localities in the damp lowlands on both sides of the Caserta/Naples provincial border.
I had to see some of the vertical vineyards using the millennia-old training system, vite maritata (“wedded vine”), in which vines are allowed to climb into the branches of poplar trees for support. (The maritata system is also used in Umbria for Trebbiano Spoletino.)
Asprinio, especially in this system, produces a deliciously tart, usually sparkling, low-alcohol refresher (as low as 10.5 percent). I first sampled it in spring in a wine tasting on the other coast of Italy and was wowed by its classy, zingy lift. With some research, I learned Asprinio has moved generations of scribes.
The film director and writer Mario Soldati called Asprinio a “great little wine.” The legendary Italian food and wine writer Luigi Veronelli called it “elegant, cheerful and lively” and lamented that it wasn’t valued in the late 20th century. Nearly 200 years ago, French writer Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was quoted as saying Asprinio was the only wine to enjoy with pizza and spaghetti.
“My importer says it pairs perfectly with mozzarella,” says Luigi Barletta, 43, driving through the Caserta countryside. Barletta represents the second generation at Vestini Campagnano, which produces modest quantities of still and sparkling Asprinio from a maritata plot of about 5 acres, with help from consulting enologist Paolo Caciorgna. “But I say it’s perfect with mortadella,” he adds. “I drink a bottle myself.”
In the maritata system, cultivation is a craft in which specialized crews use their own personalized, carved-wood ladders with rung distances sized to their legs to allow two-handed work.
“The problem with Asprinio is that it is expensive to maintain and harvest. It’s dangerous work,” says Barletta. “But it fetches a small price.”
At one time, Asprinio was exported through northern Europe; then it became a base wine for commercial spumantes from northern Italy. Today, it’s bargain-priced in a lower tier of Italian white wines—without the international fame of, say, Prosecco, which it could certainly rival.
In the last 60 years, the regional acreage of vines cultivated in the maritata system has fallen from 40,000 to less than an estimated 500. I fear it’s worse than that. Some producers have taken to growing Asprinio with easier cordon training systems. Nowadays, a bottle of Asprinio—still or sparkling—is hard to find outside of the Naples area. But when you do, you won’t pay much—up to $15 for a sparkler or in the upper $20s for some still bottlings, or “natural,” “orange” or skin-contact versions. (Note to intrepid U.S. importers: Is there an opportunity here for more Asprinio? Please!)
I figured one American who could put Asprinio’s plight into perspective is Shelley Lindgren of San Francisco’s A16 restaurant, a destination for wines from southern Italy.
Lindgren calls Asprinio “a perfect aperitivo” and a “love” of hers, but adds, “It’s so hard to find. I fear it’s heading to extinction.”
Some of the most deliciously complex Asprinios I tasted recently came from winemaker Luca Paparelli, 43, who worked on Asprinio research for the pioneering, but now suspended, Tenuta Adolfo Spada. He has since developed his own line of spumantes from Campania varieties, including an Asprinio called “Funambolo” (tightrope walker).
Campania’s sparkling wines have yet to achieve renown, but their quality is being upped by Paparelli through the use of mature base wines, which are at least one year old before they undergo secondary fermentation in autoclaves (small, pressurized steel tanks).
“I wanted to start where others stopped,” he enthuses.
Caserta, like much of Italy, needs more innovators like Paparelli. When it comes to Asprinio, there’s a lot of open turf on which to run.